"The global fashion industry is opaque, exploitative and environmentally damaging"

"The global fashion industry is opaque, exploitative and environmentally damaging"
By Maria Stambler
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Day 2 of Global Sustainable Fashion Week with Carry Somers


On the second day, the conference moved to the Budapest Chamber of Conference and focused mainly on leadership and social responsibility, equal opportunities and transparency in sustainable fashion, circular fashion, zero waste and environmental impacts. Carry Sommers, founder of Fashion Revolution, began the day with some important thoughts on transparency being the first step towards transforming the fashion industry. April 24 marks the 6thanniversary of the tragedy at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, the deadliest garment industry disaster in history, which was inevitable due to the lengthening of the supply chain.

“There is a better way to run a fashion brand. The global fashion industry is opaque, exploitative and environmentally damaging. It desperately needs a revolutionary change because so much remains hidden in the production chain and that is when exploitation thrives and tragedies like Rana Plaza happen. So we need to speak and up ask ‘who made my clothes?’. Transparent disclosure makes it easier for all stakeholders to see what’s gone wrong, who’s responsible and how we can fix it. Transparency is a means to change but not the end game. Ultimately, Fashion Revolution believes that the fashion industry needs a radical paradigm shift: the way we produce and consume needs to change,” Carry remarked.

For this reason, Fashion Revolution introduced its very own “Transparency Index”, which reviews and ranks 150 of the biggest global fashion and apparel brands and retailers according to how much information they disclose about their suppliers, supply chain policies and practices, and social and environmental impact. Last year, the average score for all 150 brands and retailers was 21% out of 250 possible points, proving that there is still a lot of work to be done.

But it’s not all doom and gloom: 37% of the 150 brands in the Fashion Transparency Index 2018 are publishing supplier lists — at least at the first tier where clothes are typically cut, sewn and assembled. This is an increase from last year in which 32% of the 100 fashion brands we reviewed were publishing a supplier list and in 2016 just five out of 40 companies.

“We are beginning to see a sort of competition between brands to get a better score on our index. For example, we’ve had calls from Burberry asking how Hermes received a better score and what they can do to catch up. In the EU, more and more consumers are becoming worried whether their money is supporting human rights and environmental abuses. That’s why brands are starting social media campaigns to increase transparency and show their customers who made their clothes. We’ve got a long journey ahead of us towards a totally different fashion industry but initiatives like these show that we’re slowly getting onto the right path,” Carry concluded.

Unfortunately, sometimes it does take a tragic event like Rana Plaza to awaken the industry to bad practices. Mostafiz Uddin, one of the key players of the Bangladesh textile industry and the founder of the Fashionology Summit and Sustainable Apparel Forum, believes that this tragedy gave his country the much-needed push to become more sustainable and pay greater attention to workers’ rights.

“In my own factory we now have a round the clock hotline that workers can call if they feel that conditions are not safe or they are not being treated fairly. Now, the world's top 3 green factories are in Bangladesh (and 7 out of top 10 are there too). I am by no means saying that the situation is perfect but, I believe, since Rana Plaza my country has made great progress in ensuring workers a safe working environment and making our factories more green” Mostafiz explained.

Another key issue raised was that of toxins in the clothes that we wear. Jeff Garner dedicated his talk to the relationship between the increased use of synthetics in fabrics and a rise in serious illnesses such as breast cancer.

“In its current form the fashion industry is a toxic industry. Big brands don’t want consumers to know what’s inside their product. The problem is that this cannot be proven since everyone’s bodies are different, and there are too many variables. This is why I’m working with the United Nations to conduct fashion shows that bring attention to the problem of toxic materials in our clothing,” Jeff said.

Apart from consumer education about issues like waste, transparency and toxins in the fashion industry, technology also plays an important role in solving problems related to sustainability. Edwina Huang of Vivify Textiles told attendees about the progress her company is making and the technologies it’s using to reduce waste, water consumption and chemical use in the fashion industry. In addition to working with industry partners and leaders in research of top renewable textiles technology and transforming them into processes and methods to reduce, reuse, recycle existing waste (e.g. fabric waste or PET waste) into textiles, Edwina talked of the potential of block chain for sustainable fashion.

“When we collect textile waste from consumers, block chain sits right in between because it gives trust and transparency without being owned by any specific brands and organizations. We want to use this tech to promote good production processes. Several layers of suppliers and our current system don’t give us information about all supply tiers and so looking to the future, tracing the supply chain through block chain will support traceability and accountability. Ultimately, it will lead to a supply chain that embraces good practices,” Edwina clarified.

Circular economy was another buzzword that came up during the conference. Luca Olivini of Milan-based C.L.A.S.S. Eco Hub explained that, in fact, it’s not just a buzzword but something that is a legitimate economic concept and not just a bit of “greenwashing”. Because we are moving towards this type of economy, the job of a designer in the fashion world also needs to evolve.

“The role of the designer is changing: they are no longer just selecting the fabric and making designs but need to know every step of production, including disposal. Smart innovation speaks to the new generation of consumers and enables the circular economy because, according to studies, millennial shoppers are willing to pay more for a sustainable product. But, at the same time, only about one quarter of millennial shoppers in the EU actually believe that the product is sustainable."

"Luckily, there are more and more start-ups like Re.Verso that are evolving the supply chain and re-engineering materials such as wool, cashmere and camel. They gather pre-consumer leftovers, virgin material, and are mechanically recycling and re-spinning it and the end result is a higher quality fiber with less impact on the environment – a real life example of the circular economy. Brands like Gucci are getting on board and the results are really promising,” Luca explained.

Designers Katherine Soucie (Canada) and Dr. Jocelyne H-C Chen (Taiwan) finished the conference by demonstrating that you can make truly beautiful garments from waste and that in theory circular economy can really work.

“I work with textile waste and the discarded to transform waste, utilize obsolete clothing and textile machinery and incorporate traditional artisanal techniques in response to the society we live in. Given the environmental challenges and the fashion industry’s role in it, developing a tool kit on how to use post-consumer textile waste is important both for professionals and average, non-industry people,” Katherina said.

“I’ve been researching how to extend the life cycle of pieces of clothing without compromising the aesthetic value for almost three decades. Because I am professor at a fashion school, I realize that it is not immediately obvious just how much you can do with a few extra scraps of fabric so education is really key here and that’s why I feel so fulfilled doing what I do,” Dr. Jocelyne commented.

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