Sustainable Fashion: Fashion brands that are changing the world
Fashion. A capricious industry, valued at three trillion dollars worldwide. In Australia, we spend 21 billion dollars on retail sales a year (that’s almost $1000/person). Built on a standard of seasonal collections, and a society that values what’s new over what’s well-made, the runways are constantly changing with fickle trends blowing up for a few weeks before passing by into the forgotten. What’s trendy today may be unfashionable tomorrow. Clothes purchased for fashion trends are worn on average for five weeks before being pushed to the back of the closet and ultimately dumped onto a charity to sort through. Such a high volume of clothing is donated that only one-third can be stocked in Australian op shops and the rest is exported to poorer countries to be sold in their markets, used as rags or trashed because there simply aren’t enough people to buy our secondhand items. This leaves billions of dollars’ worth of textiles and clothing sitting in landfill, and most of it didn’t need to be made in the first place.
So, what are the key issues?
Pollution & Waste
Fashion is the second-most polluting industry on the planet, releasing immeasurable toxins into the waterways and air with the use of toxic bleaches and dyes. (NB: This is a separate point to carbon emissions.) Additionally, the pesticides used to grow the crops to make the clothes, plus the immense volume of water the industry guzzles, make it a dirty industry where supply cannot sustainably keep up with demand.
Somewhere around 116 million people are employed in fashion worldwide (calculated by these 2014 figures: fashionunited.com/global-fashion-industry-statistics). That’s approximately 16.5% of the entire world. How many of them do you think are earning a fair share of the $21bn? Three quarters of these employees, or most of the people responsible for production, live in developing countries without the wage standards or workers’ rights we enjoy in the developed countries, where we purchase the products. To enjoy the life of consumerism we lead, we depend on those in poorer countries to work harder for less money, to pass that discount onto us.
Depressing? At first. Until you realise there is already an undercurrent in the fashion industry. Tides are changing, and the sustainable movement is grabbing hold. There are already so many brands doing their part for the environment and employment standards, and so many organisations making noise to regulate the brands that aren’t. Brands that are environmentally and economically sustainable.
Additionally, consumers are switching on and taking more responsibility for their role along the chain. This awareness is manifesting through several actions: thrifting, choosing sustainable and certified products, boycotting known abusers, and overall cutting back on consumption.
What are some of the changes we can make to our consumption?
Thrifting means to buy your clothes second-hand. This act is so powerful. This completely removes demand on the fashion industry, by re-using existing textiles and making use of the primary resources already expended in their production. Australia now has a thriving vintage trade, an abundance of op shops even in the smallest towns, and even a strong buy and sell Facebook community where we can buy lightly used clothing at a discounted price. While thrifting can be limiting, especially if you have a specific personal style, practicing it whenever possible is one of the most socially responsible steps we can take as consumers. Choosing
Sustainable & Organic Fabrics
Our choice of fabrics can go a long way. Eco fabrics we can choose instead of plastic materials such as polyester include organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, linen (made from flax) and lyocell (made from wood pulp). The choice of fabric can be incredibly important. For example, cotton is one of the world’s biggest pollutants. Cotton is the most heavily treated fabric as harmful chemicals are used from the preparation of the seeds, every step along the process until the chemical processing of the final product. On the flipside, organic cotton is produced using traditional farming knowledge such as rotating crops, the physical removal of weeds rather than chemical sprays, and planting more attractive crops nearby to lure insects away. Organic cotton therefore is one of the most natural, chemical-free and eco-friendly fabrics we can use. The choice between standard cotton and organic certified cotton is clear, and it is as simple as making that distinction between the two. When shopping, it’s best to look for organic certification, or else companies can claim their product is organic even if only one part of their finished product really was produced organically.
Another important certification is Fairtrade. (Fairtrade as one word is the name of the corporation that provides global certification, fair trade as two words refers to the concept of “fair” trading regulations.) In AU & NZ we have the highest Fairtrade certification requirements requiring that a minimum price is pre-set, profits are paid directly to the supplier and not a middleman, as well as meeting social and environmental standards to avoid exploitation of the workers or the surrounding natural environment. A lack of Fairtrade certification does not mean that a brand doesn’t follow fair trade principles, but as it stands this certification is the only total promise of quality we currently have without doing strenuous research into each brand's production process. However, the more transparent companies are, the more we can confidently invest in their final products whether they have obtained official certification or not.
The fourth social movement I’ll note as influential in reforming the fashion industry is the rise of minimalism and the return to class and personal style, rather than fast fashion trends. While in my younger years I believed what was “cool” was never wearing the same outfit twice. Now at 25 I recognise that what is “cool” is investing in good-quality, timeless pieces that can be mixed and matched and worn repeatedly without losing their appeal. Clothes that are stylish on their own merit. Minimalism as a lifestyle basically rejects the habit of mindless consumption, where we pare down to only things that truly bring joy or are useful. This is a response to the failed social norm that taught us that shopping can bring happiness. As more young women switch onto what really makes life worth living, as the main fashion demographic we can cut back our spending and make big changes to the world’s poor and our shared environment.
Currently, there are three brands I am personally crushing on for their easy-to-wear designs and corporate transparency: Melbourne Apparel Co, Bon Label and Country Road.
Melbourne Apparel Co
Made right at home in Melbourne, MAC produce classic, minimalist designs you can mix-and-match and wear over and over to your heart’s content without getting bored. While much of the fabrics need to be imported due to lack of availability in Australia, for a label to be made and sold in the same city is huge and reduces the carbon footprint of each item. And despite the clothes being stitched locally with fair pay, the clothes are still completely affordable at $40 for a t-shirt or $90 for a pair of jeans!
Bon Label (which literally translates from French to Good Label) is an all-around ethical package, with the clothes again made right here in Aus. The clothing is minimalist and timeless chic. The brand uses organic certified fabrics and certified eco dyes, additionally avoiding the use of any animal products. While the prices are high ($90 for a white tee) you can purchase Bon knowing that no humans, animals or ecosystems were harmed for your look.
Country Road is a household name and potentially the only label of the three you’ve heard of. Country Road also produces timeless, minimalist designs that transcend passing fashion trends. While their standards may be marginally lower than smaller brands such as MAC and Bon, it’s important to commend such a large company for making efforts many of its competitors haven’t. They are well-known and available everywhere, so a great ethical option for women across Australia. Country Road produces their clothing in China, India, Vietnam, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia and Turkey with a commitment to paying a living wage and requirement that their primary suppliers enforce their code of conduct with any subcontractors. Additionally, accessible on their website is an extensive environmental policy. Note: Country Road do sell leather products and this is an area where they have room for growth and the ability to be an industry-leader by moving towards more ethical and sustainable materials.
Above I've touched on the primary issues involved in fashion, the changes in consumer habits that have the potential to change the world, and three of my most lusted-after brands that are embracing the #fashionrevolution and giving the people what they want. Do you have any fashion brands that you love for providing organic, vegan or fair trade alternatives to more common big name brands? Please leave a comment below so I can browse their store and give them a follow on Instagram!
If you found this post useful, don't forget to share to your social media platform of choice via the share buttons below.