March 27, 2015
by Lisa Bonanate
Few people think about how green their wardrobe is, unless they’re pondering what color to wear. But the apparel industry has an environmental impact that warrants deeper consumer attention. In the U.S. alone, the industry generates an estimated 14.3 million tons of textile waste every year. Toxic chemicals used in manufacturing impact the environment and the health of workers exposed to them. How can the industry move towards sustainability and what can consumers do to drive that change?
This month’s GreenHome NYC forum explored the subject of eco and ethical fashion through a panel discussion with several innovators in the field of sustainable apparel. The panel featured Kate Black, founder and Editor-in-Chief of Magnifeco, the digital source for eco-fashion and sustainable living, Melissa Cantor, Co-Founder & Editor of Ethica, an online ethical and sustainable fashion boutique, and Francisca Pineda, an award-winning fashion designer and creative director of BHAVA, a cruelty-free footwear and accessory brand.
According to the panelists, sustainability in the fashion industry has evolved in recent years. In the beginning, everyone was interested in being “dark green”, wanting everything to be 100% sustainable. Now the focus is on what issues are important to individual designers and businesses. In a sense, the industry has “grown up”. Rather than jumping on the newest green trends before they’re proven, there’s a greater understanding that even the most promising innovations need time and research to evolve.
As the panelists discussed the challenges of transitioning to sustainable fashion, several themes emerged. One is availability of materials. Fashion is a personal statement – consumers won’t buy unattractive products simply because they’re sustainable. So sourcing textiles that are attractive, durable and as eco-friendly as possible is one of the biggest challenges for designers. Another is consumer demand for low prices. As manufacturers scale up in volume, they often begin sacrificing certain aspects of sustainability to keep their price point low. And this leads to the overriding challenge facing sustainable fashion. The fast fashion business model brings the latest trendy styles to consumers at warp speed and very low prices. That’s great for selling high volume, but the concept itself is unsustainable. Fast fashion has created a disposable mindset that programs consumers to over consume.
So what is the best way to drive change at a global level? For manufacturers, it means using innovation for good. Practicing cradle to cradle design guarantees that a product has biodegradability built in to the end of its life cycle. For consumers, it means a change in mindset – spending more to buy fewer, high quality garments and caring for clothes so they last longer. And finally, better labeling systems can expose greenwashing and help point consumers in the right direction.
The current state of sustainable labels and certification was the topic of an informative presentation that followed the panel discussion. Presented by A Clean Future think tank, this was the second installment in A Clean Future’s three-pronged research study aimed at assessing the current state of communication efforts about sustainable fashion.
There are currently 25 labeling initiatives in the fashion industry, but although the number has increased there has been no standardization. As a result, consumers are often confused about how to make the best choices. When evaluating certifications, there are several key questions to consider.
Is the certification 1st party or 3rd party? Consumers rely more on third party certifications established by governments or NGOs, believing they have more credibility. But first party certification may reflect more of the overall sustainability mindset of the company’s business model.
What aspect of the life cycle is reflected in the certification? Full life cycle analysis provides the most comprehensive information, but is expensive and usually absent in third party certifications. Most existing labels are skewed towards the early part of the life cycle, focusing on materials and production rather than distribution or disposal. Although extraction and production has a big impact on the environment, from the fast fashion perspective, distribution and disposal also has a huge impact.
Does the label focus on a single issue or a comprehensive overview of several issues? A single issue goes deeper into various aspects of one topic, but a comprehensive certification takes a broader look at several issues and allows for better comparison across brands.
It’s clear that no single answer has emerged in the labeling movement. But education about labels and the wider issues of sustainable fashion will allow consumers to use their purchasing power to drive lasting change.