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Can the Fashion Industry Ever Become Sustainable?

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

The Fashion industry is the second biggest polluter in the world, just behind the oil industry

Can the Fashion Industry Ever Become Sustainable?

The Fashion industry is the second biggest polluter in the world, just behind the oil industry

By Lisa Finetti, Francesca Catalano, Marco Colucci, Kesara Gjini, Michela Russo, Dario Zamagna

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), every year, the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic metres of water—enough to meet the needs of five million people –and discharges into the ocean around half a million tons of microfiber, which is the equivalent of 3 million barrels of oil. Additionally, their research shows that contribution of the fashion industry to air pollution is bigger than that of air and sea transport combined.

The dominant production model in the industry is fast fashion. It allows mainstream consumers to purchase trendy clothing at affordable prices, so as to encourage them to buy continuously. UNCTAD, for example, estimates that clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014. Several studies have shown how this model has had a negative impact on the economy, society and the environment.

What is the environmental cost of fashion?

To answer this question, we chose Italy, one of the most representative countries in the world when it comes to fashion, and we did research to see if it is possible to develop a different production model.

For the Italian economy, fashion is fundamental. It represents a symbol of “Made in Italy” at an international level, together with gastronomy, art and history, able to generate investment and tourism. The numbers are quite clear: 200 thousand companies and an annual turnover of almost 100 billion euros. Based on the analyses carried out by the Study Centre of Confindustria Moda in 2018 and in the first three months of 2019, every year, the textile, fashion and accessories sector produces a turnover of 95.5 billion euros, while export is worth around 64 billion euros.

The fashion industry is second only to the mechanical one, in terms of revenues, and it is an important voice of Italian exports worldwide. The symbol of this system is Milan, the economic and financial capital of the country and one of the world capitals in this sector. Milan, where the fashion and ready-to-wear season was born in the 1980s, is home to several great designers such as Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani, who have contributed to the city's international reputation. It is no coincidence that Fashion Week, which is held twice a year in Milan, is now a milestone in the international calendar of this sector.

A key role in determining the production model has been played by several multinationals which, aiming only at profit and increasingly lower labour costs, have gradually relocated factories in developing countries where human rights are often violated, and pollution laws are easily deceived.

Fast fashion, synonymous with mass-produced clothes made with low quality materials, translates into an ever-active supply chain, an army of women and children working in poor conditions, a large amount of waste, clothes that are rarely worn and moreover difficult to dispose of.

The Catalyst

In this context, Italian fashion, at least a part of it, has been committed to the research of eco-friendly materials, the introduction of non-polluting processing methods and therefore to the reduction of its environmental impact.

In 2013 a very serious accident in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, brought to the attention of the world public opinion, the condition of textile workers in the global south. These countries are used as a production base by western brands because of very low labour costs and very flexible, if not absent, factory safety legislation.

On April 24th, 2013, the Rana Plaza, a large building on the outskirts of Dhaka that housed several textile factories, collapsed on itself, killing more than 1130 people. The structural problems of the building were known. However, the people in this building kept on manufacturing clothing for many of the biggest global fashion brands.

“We need to know who makes our clothes, the supply chain requires transparency and therefore, also openness, honesty, communication and responsibility,“ explains Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution.

Fashion Revolution is a not-for-profit global movement with teams in over 90 countries around the world, born right after the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh to ask the fashion industry for a real revolution that will transform it into a more ethical and sustainable sector. Since that tragedy the organization has grown steadily.

On April 24th of each year, Fashion Revolution organizes a week dedicated to providing information on sustainable fashion issues. De Castro says, “Our goal is to talk about the fashion’s impact on people and the environment. Our idea is to re-establish the ties that were broken and build a relationship between the customers who buy and the people who make clothes, shoes, accessories and jewelry“.

The goal of projects like this is to make consumers more aware of their purchasing choices. Choosing what we buy can create the world we want. Each one of us has the power to change things for the better and every moment is good to start doing so. Awareness-raising must also involve multinationals, focused only on profit and disinterested in the environment, human rights and workers' conditions. De Castro urges, “We must encourage all the people who want to work in this industry to find more eco-friendly solutions we can really urge the big ones, those who have the economic power, to do as much as possible”.

The commitment required by Fashion Revolution is to make the steps of the supply chain transparent and to respect ethical and sustainability standards. De Castro explains, “At the beginning, our goal was transparency, making sure that brands published the complete and detailed origin of their products but our intention has always been to make the movement a 360-degree campaign with a vision of both the social and environmental impact.”

Since 2016, the Fashion Revolution initiative has given birth to the Fashion Revolution Week, at the center of which is the #whomademyclothes campaign. The goal of this campaign is to post on social media a photo of the clothes you own and tag their brand with the hashtag #whomademyclothes and the producers will be able to respond #Imadeyourclothes so as to give a face to those who have worked on that specific piece of clothing.

The initiative is based on one of the key concepts of critical consumption: teaching every single consumer that when they choose how to spend their money more consciously, they exercise a very important power. Somehow, we are all responsible for the production chain behind the clothes we buy.

The purchase is just the latest click in a process involving thousands of people, mainly the invisible workforce behind clothes we wear. It is the system, made up of continuous fashion shows and advertising campaigns that present the purchase of the latest product as something essential, that has made fashion the second most polluting industry in the world, responsible for 20% of water waste and 10% of CO2 emissions.

Transparency, promoted by projects such as Fashion Revolution, will be even more indispensable after the health emergency of recent months, which has shown the many weakness of a system largely based on the ephemeral and the need to ask what is strictly necessary and what is not.

A new way of producing textile

An example of a different approach to the fashion market, based on innovation and sustainability, is that of Orange Fiber. The company was born in 2017 from the idea of two young Sicilian women living in Milan: to create a textile fiber from the scraps of oranges.

“There were many difficulties,” says Enrica Arena, co-founder of Orange Fiber, “especially because of the need to find resources very quickly. In Italy, support for startups is still a bit slow and this clashes with the rapid times of a company”.

“The process we have developed to extract a cellulose from citrus fruits, uses the skins and all that is left after the industrial juice of citrus fruits, and creates tissue,” Arena explains. 60% of an orange is not useful for consumption, so tonnes of waste material is extracted from a cellulose for the textile industry. The materials come from an organic matrix and after a chemical process and the transformation into fiber or yarn or bow is switched to weaving.

These two women have managed to integrate in the modern era part of the production chain very important for Italy since the days of the IANS (Italian-American Navigation Society), the race to produce rayon of the twenties and the “autarchic fabrics” born between the two World War. The Italian excellence in the production of artificial fibers, obtained from the transformation of natural raw materials of organic origin, is linked to the need born during that period not to import anything from abroad. Orange Fiber, in chronological order, is the result 2.0. The first pilot plant for the extraction of cellulose from citrus fruits dates back to 2015. The end result is a particularly soft fabric, somewhat comparable to silk. Orange Fiber’s customers include big brands, such as Ferragamo, demonstrating that it is possible to combine high fashion, innovation and sustainability.

Information can also play a key role in the process of change. Properly informing and receiving accurate information are essential processes for creating awareness among consumers. In Italy, an example of this comes from Il Vestito Verde. Born in 2017, initially as a Facebook group, Il Vestito Verde is a digital project dedicated to the conscious consumption of sustainable fashion garments, conceived by Francesca Boni, who is now only 21 years old.

The philosophy is simple: you can buy fashionable garments while respecting the workers and the environment.

“The producers and merchants who follow this approach, explains Francesca Boni, “ and respect their employees, guarantee them a fair salary, use sustainable materials, have a short supply chain and use limited transport, enter our map”.

On the Il Vestito Verde website, you can select different filters and find the nearest store to home, the most convenient product, the style and brand that best represent the tastes of those who want to make a purchase. The basic goal is to overcome the idea of fashion as something exclusive and instead turn it into a concept, an idea, a practice accessible to all.

There is a fundamental step if we talk about sustainable fashion, the choice of materials. Recycling and the use of waste fabrics, specifically those that have failed with some imperfections, is also crucial in this area.

Quincy Torino was born in 1998 in the capital of Piedmont, in northern Italy, towards the border with France. Today, its headquarters are in Rho, on the outskirts of Milan, where garments and accessories are produced from scrap materials.

“The selection of materials, says Angelo Di Placido of Quincy Torino, “starts from the recovery of what companies set aside. We aim to dispose of everything that the big brands put a side and therefore, the market would not use. Before you produce new things, you have to use the existing ones.”

The use of what the market would simply eliminate adds a uniqueness to the products, uniqueness that mass production would never have been able to give. The remnant becomes somehow synonymous with exclusivity, the kind that big brands seek to make their creation competitive and unique.

Because Quincy Torino recycles and upcycles fabric, the company has not been in trouble even in recent months, characterized by the coronavirus pandemic and the substantial blockade global economic system. In fact, as Angelo Di Placido explains, “the continuity that we have managed to have is linked to long-term choices, made with thinking about what will come.”

Many are now convinced that the fashion world must undergo a process of change that protects people and the environment. Consumers are increasingly aware and are no longer content with clothes that are just beautiful to wear, they want to know where they come from and want to make sure they are produced sustainably. One of the keys could be this: citizens, therefore consumers, aware and well-informed.

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