Clothing isn’t just a way to cover our bodies, it’s become a statement of individuality and style and the fashion industry is doing a roaring trade.
According to Fashionunited, an independent industry network and statistical platform, the fashion industry is now one of the biggest industries in the world worth some $3 trillion and growing. It’s also responsible for contributing a whopping two per cent to global GDP.
With such a massive global footprint, fashion is literally everywhere, especially fast fashion. Heading down to the local mall means you can shop at any number of a dozen fast fashion retailers.
“Fast fashion is fashion that moves really quickly from catwalk to consumer to garbage,” said Alejandra Echeverri, a researcher from The University of British Columbia. “So, there are certain brands that have to change their entire inventory every two weeks at their stores.”
The clothing is on trend and cheap, but there is an unseen price tag beyond the rack.
Human and environmental toll
“Workers are working in really poor conditions making as little as 12 to 18 cents per hour… Fast fashion is a major concern environmentally and socially,” said Echeverri.
The industry was forced to confront poor working conditions in 2013 when the Rana Plaza, a factory complex in Bangladesh, collapsed killing more than a thousand workers.
But fast fashion is also taking an alarming toll on the environment.
The industry uses an estimated 98 million tonnes of non-renewable resources per year and, according to the United Nations, it’s the second largest user of water in the world. The industry is also responsible for 20 per cent of the world’s wastewater. On top of this, the fast fashion industry emits more greenhouse gases than international air travel and shipping traffic per year combined.
“One thing that sets the fashion industry out is that it’s incredibly complex,” said David Santill from Greenpeace. “It’s spread worldwide, it’s often supported by factory operations in countries with relatively limited pollution controls.”
Fashion industry cleaning up its act
The industry is trying to clean itself up and that might be because of consumers who are now starting to demand more from the industry.
Annie Zhu is a Toronto resident with her own lifestyle blog called Terumah. She’s noticed a trend in that more and more of her readers want to know about sustainable fashion options.
“I find that the posts on ethical fashion are consistently the most popular because I do think that people are interested and are becoming more and more interested. Especially in the last year or so and they’re really looking for this information,” said Zhu.
Retailers are now starting to shift their operations to more environmentally friendly, ethical models.
That’s also meant the market has opened up to make room for new retailers with a different philosophy.
Frank and Oak is a prime example. The Canadian-born retailer offers customers all over the world more sustainable and ethical fashion. They’ve built the brand on a philosophy they call ‘good living.’
“From my perspective, when people buy things they’re also voting,” said Ethan Song the Co-founder and CEO of Frank and Oak. “So, it was very important for us to make sure that the values that the brand embodies, whether it’s respecting the environment or promoting inclusion were part of the product that we create and part of the experience.”
The company also recognizes the impact that the fashion industry has on the environment and works hard to ensure they are limiting the footprint on the environment and working with ethical manufacturers.
“We work with international organizations to create new standards for our manufacturers but, obviously, you know, we make choices in our own supply chain to work with the right manufacturers and encourage the right behaviours,” said Song.
Now some of the biggest fast fashion brands are starting to change their approach too.
Companies like H&M now offer recycling programs for old clothing and are moving to more sustainable production models.
“There are now a number of retailers that are beginning to look at this as being an issue that is their responsibility, beginning to change the way in which they are sourcing clothing,” said Santill. “And, actually, there are companies that are going much more progressively to make sure their producers, their manufacturers do not use a whole series of harmful chemicals in their production processes so that they can sell confidently to their consumers.”
As more and more consumers demand their clothing be both ethically sourced and sustainably made, the fashion industry is starting to change for the better.