The fashion industry contributes unequivocally to the climate crisis. Perhaps, if you are a regular Remake reader, you might already know that the fashion industry accounts for 2-8% of greenhouse gas emissions. Which places it, according to most sources, as the third largest polluter global industry. But that pollution and exploitation isn’t shared globally. Largely, the most affected by this pollution, and in turn climate change, are those that live in the global south.

 

 



 

 

The fashion industry has made some big promises to clean up their act and has enacted solutions due to the International Accord and The Garment Workers Protection Act. But this is not an industry that will and has not self-governed, with these initiatives only coming about because of public pressure and the organization of garment workers, activists and policy makers. Time and time again, the fashion industry has made it painfully obvious that it will not act in the best interest of the individuals that make, sell or even purchase their clothing. This neglect often goes hand in hand with its shortcomings on its climate solution promises. Because really, it is all connected and we cannot separate one from the other. We cannot talk about sustainability in the fashion industry without also talking about ethics.

In Remake’s recently released 2024 Fashion Accountability Report it states: “for broader, systemic change to actually occur, large and influential brands and retailers need to support legislation and binding agreements that hold fashion companies themselves mutually accountable for the human rights and environmental impacts along their supply chains.”

The fashion industry accounts for 2-8% of greenhouse gas emissions

Because of this reckless abandon in the endless pursuit of profit over people and planet, the fashion industry has contributed to climate change and climate disasters on a massive scale. While there are many small fashion brands founded on sustainability and ethics, overwhelmingly, big corporations are polluting the planet through exploitation, overproduction and their continued centering and use of harmful materials and fossil fuels. In short, big brands are headed in the wrong direction when it comes to their lofty goals. That is why supporting expanded legislation directed at holding the fashion industry accountable, with bills like the FABRIC Act, is paramount.

 

The fashion industry is complex, so the conversation around the solutions need to be just as nuanced. So perhaps in order to understand potential solutions, let’s discuss the lifecycle of a garment to shine a light on how our clothing is made and where changes can be implemented.

 

The Lifecycle of a {fast fashion} Garment

As consumers, many of us don’t know the real cost of our garments. The glimpse into the garment production process can be eye opening and necessary. As conscious consumers we often ask how are our clothes made, but does one really know what that $20 t-shirt actually costs?

 

1. Sourcing Materials – the Fibersfrom the fields, or in many cases with fast fashion, petroleum plants

 

Natural Fibers

Cotton, Linen, Hemp – Unless it is sustainably produced and ethically sourced, not only is there no guarantee that the individuals harvesting the crops are making a livable wage, they are being exposed to dangerous chemicals by tending to the crops. Additionally, there are no laws in the states that protect farmworkers. Not to mention the global south where much of these crops are harvested, as countries such as India being the largest producers of cotton.

 

Wool, Cashmere, Silk, Angora, Mohair – Similar to natural crop fibers, animal derived fibers can come with a levy of exploitation as well. In this case, however, not only are the individuals that shear the animals often subject to exploitation, cruelty and objectivity, the animals are as well.

 

Synthetic Fibers

Polyester, Nylon, Acrylic, Aramid, Elastane – While the types of synthetic fibers are vast, each fiber has a fossil fuel base that sheds microplastics when washed. So, not only is it harmful to extract the needed materials to construct these plastic derived fibers, once constructed, their care leads to water pollution and their degradation contributes to groundwater contamination.

 

Brands like Shein, Zara and H&M use synthetic fibers in a majority of their garments, with many of their clothing being made up of 100% polyester. This is so concerning to climate activists due to an estimated 700,000 synthetic fibers and microplastics being released into our water supply during an average wash cycle.

 

2. Turning the Fiber into Fabric, Turning the Fabric into Clothing

 

Fibers are Cleaned, Spun into Yarn and Woven into Fabric Most natural fibers need to be cleaned, or carded, before they are spun into yarn. The spinning of yarn is the process of twisting fibers together into a continuous thread.

 

Yarn, Fiber or Fabric is Dyed – Synthetic fibers are harder to dye than natural fibers, which means hotter water temps (read, more energy used) and more caustic dyes needed. Oftentimes, fabrics or yarns need to be treated, with bleach or other chemicals, in order to prepare them for the final dye bath of the desired color.

“There’s a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers.” said Fashion Designer Orsola de Castrocan in the documentary RiverBlue.

This seemingly benign step in the production process is the most environmentally taxing and pollutive of the entire supply chain because it uses the most chemicals and requires massive amounts of energy. Driven by the disposable and ‘never enough’ narrative of the fast fashion brands, and the west’s inability to be content with what they have, allows many apparel factories in the global south to pump their chemical waste into rivers and streams only to poison the people and wildlife that rely on it, often with little to no consequence.

700,000 synthetic fibers and microplastics being released into our water supply.

What’s more is that, according to firsthand accounts and cited in journalist Alden Wicker’s book “To Dye For,” many factory workers live onsite and spend their days at dye houses with little to no protection from the noxious fumes causing concerning and lasting health risks.

 

Finishing and Treating of Garments – Unlike food, cleaning and beauty products, clothing doesn’t come with an ingredient list. Often, when clothing is “finished” it is treated with chemicals such as, stain resistant, anit-fungals, flame retardants, waterproofing and other chemical cocktails that consumers are vastly unaware of, and brands aren’t required to disclose.

 

Garment Manufacturing – In the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy, this is often the step that draws the most attention as it is done almost entirely by human hands. The steps in the manufacturing process span from cutting the fabric to the desired patterns, assembly and sewing, to buttonholing and embellishments. It is important to note that a majority of manufacturing in the fashion industry is done by women in the global south.

 

*It is important to note that these steps aren’t always linear and typically happen in various countries.*

 

3. Getting the Goods to the Consumer and Where They End Up

Distribution – This piece is the most straightforward in the entire process, the finished product is shipped, again, largely from the global south to the global north, to a retail store or a warehouse / shipment fulfillment facility. What isn’t as straightforward is the return process.

 

What Happens to Those Returns? – Most consumers are not aware of the environmental cost of returns, why would they be? Brands don’t readily tell their consumers that it is cheaper for them to toss, trash or burn your unflawed, unworn return than to restock it. And it isn’t only that, it is estimated that, in the US alone, the carbon cost of returns is the equivalent to the emissions of three million cars. 

“There’s a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers.” – Fashion Designer Orsola de Castrocan in the documentary RiverBlue.

Where Our Clothing Ends Up – After all that, after the exhaustive process that each and every garment has to go through to get to the global north, these garments find their way back to the global south. Our discarded clothing creates waste colonialism and ends up in places like Ghana, in the Kantamanto Market or in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Promising Solution

When looking to decarbonize the fashion industry, we are centering the complete phasing out of fossil fuels and the elimination of carbon dioxide emissions.

Improving commercial practices is a key part of the conversation. It is the brands that set their contracts with suppliers. It is the brands that make demands and decide the value of the people that are making their clothing. Instead of canceling orders and not paying for wages owed, if both parties are given equal footing they could move together towards collective improvement. Factories don’t have the money to upgrade their facilities, but brands do. And these companies should be paying directly into decarbonization efforts like solar panels, insulation, air conditioning and infrastructure that is built to withstand increases in heat or precipitation.

 

The Importance of Circular Solutions and Nuanced Conversation

There is no room for skepticism in the climate crisis conversation. Yes, at times it does look grim, but as long as we are still here, as long as there are still change makers like you, dear reader, we can speak truth to power.

It is a common argument that climate change has been around for millennia. And yes, that statement is true. But it is not natural to find inorganic matter–read plastic–in our blood stream. It is not natural to experience this much change in our climate in such a condensed time frame. Most scientists can trace this accelerated degradation of resources to the industrial revolution. And it is naive, at best, to believe that the way we produce and consume doesn’t affect our mother Earth. It is detrimental to believe that our way of life doesn’t have an affect on this living breathing entity known as our world. Our planet is not some dead rock to be conquered, it is very much alive.

But it is also detrimental to believe that we cannot change the trajectory of that outcome.

 

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