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Sustainability and environmentalism a necessary next step for the fashion industry

By Lisa Belmonte

Green shirts hanging on wooden hangers
Photo: Keagan Henman/Unsplash

In the world of fashion, trends come and go with every new runway show and fashion week around the globe. In recent years, however, a trend that doesn’t seem to be going out of style any time soon is sustainability and environmentalism.

Due to the extended reach of the fashion industry, it has almost become necessary for new fashion brands to promote environmentally friendly practices and sustainability in order to sustain themselves for years to come.

“[The fashion industry] is one of the world’s largest polluting industries, and it crosses over so many other sectors,” said Kelly Drennan, founding executive director of the non-profit organization Fashion Takes Action.

According to an investigation by CBC Marketplace, the average Canadian purchases 70 new articles of clothing a year. This contributes the 12 million tons of textile waste that is sent to North American landfills every year.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency states that landfills in the U.S. were the cause of almost 82 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the waste management sector in 2016.

“You can't get it all unless you're a brand new company, and if you're a brand new company you're smart to start to think about your supply chain and who you’re sourcing from from day one. If you do it backwards it's almost impossible,” said Winnie Leung, professor in the school of fashion at George Brown College.

Brands like Montreal-based Matt & Nat and London-based Ninety Percent have gotten it right from the beginning. Building sustainability and environmentalism into the backbone of the company gives these brands an edge over legacy fashion houses that would otherwise have to change their supply system from the ground up to become sustainable.

These brands also offer consumers the unique experience of choosing where their money goes. Matt & Nat’s Hope Initiative and Ninety Percent’s entire collection give customers the choice to decide which charity a share of profits go to, which is a rarity in the industry.

But it’s not enough to only start with sustainability and giving back. It’s something you need to work at continually.

“Brands need to continuously think about how to reduce waste and the use of materials that are going to be used one time [...] and find ways they could be reused and recycled,” said Shafiq Hassan, founder of Ninety Percent.

Ninety Percent’s brand philosophy is empowerment from every angle like having a minimal impact on the environment to caring for garment workers to having products that last.

Not only does the fashion industry impact the environment through waste in landfills but also through the amount of water that is used to produce new garments (over 2000 litres for one t-shirt) and how much energy is used by the industry (one trillion kilowatt-hours every year), as reported by Waste Reduction Week Canada.

“We want our products to be cherished, have a long life, be handed down, recycled and upcycled,” said Hassan.

Achieving this isn’t a simple matter. There is a common perception that where you choose to spend your money makes a difference for the environment.

Although that might be true with brands like Matt & Nat and Ninety Percent, which give back some of their profits to charities and make sustainable products, it’s harder for consumers to effect a change the fashion industry overnight.

“We're still at a point where it's a privilege to have the luxury of making a choice because of socioeconomic status,” said Leung. “Sustainable clothing does cost more.”

Although the fashion industry isn’t yet in a position to make sustainable products cheaper, Leung said that brand advocacy is still important.

“The more people that understand [sustainability], the more companies will start sourcing [sustainably],” she said.

Drennan said she believes that asking questions and demanding transparency from brands is another way consumers can be the driving force of change.

Ninety Percent is based on transparency from the supply chain down to the profits, said Hassan.

“[Fashion] is a global industry whose supply chain is vast. Millions of people in developing countries make our clothes. Our planet is in crisis mode and climate change is real. So this industry has the greatest potential to make improvements. We simply don’t have a choice,” said Drennan.

A paradigm shift in the industry is possible, especially for new brands that strive for full sustainability and well established brands that have shifted from the traditional mould.

But questions still remain.

“Is it enough to just be sustainable? Or do we need to take it one step further and find ways to actually regenerate the damage that this industry has caused? If we don’t quickly embrace sustainable business practices, then future generations will be devastatingly impacted,” said Drennan.

So, is it enough?

While no brand is perfect, supporting the ones that make the effort to use sustainable materials, ethically produce garments and give back to causes that help the planet and its people gives a clear sign that this is the direction the fashion industry needs to be heading in.


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