Sustainable fashion entered Millennials’ conversation almost four years ago when 1,135 factory workers were killed and thousands injured in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It is said to be the deadliest garment-factory accident in history.
The building, at the time, was a known risk–so much so that the workers were evacuated the day before, following complaints. They were then forced back to work the next day under heavy threats of not being paid their month’s wage if they did not return. With that single act, the unscrupulous hand of Death had signed the fates of those whose only fault was being born poor.
There was one photo that ignited Millennials’ pursuit for more sustainable fashion. It featured a man whose arms were wrapped around a woman’s contorted body. The couple would eternally be locked in their fatal embrace–their identities forever untraceable in a society that deemed their lives not important enough.
When asked about the photo, its photographer Taslima Akhter said, “The lower parts of their bodies were buried under the concrete. The blood from the eyes of the man ran like a tear. When I saw the couple, I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I knew them — they felt very close to me. I looked at who they were in their last moments as they stood together and tried to save each other — to save their beloved lives.”
She continued, “Every time I look back to this photo, I feel uncomfortable — it haunts me. It’s as if they are saying to me, we are not a number — not only cheap labor and cheap lives. We are human beings like you. Our life is precious like yours, and our dreams are precious too.”
Unfortunately, occurrences like this are not that uncommon. Most of the world’s clothes are mass-produced in Asia so that the poorest are exploited by the richest. Because of this, a domino effect was sparked with Millennials speaking out more and more about the importance of sustainable fashion.
What is sustainable fashion?
In general, sustainable fashion could be described as any fashion–be it clothes, jewelry, shoes or handbags, which has been manufactured and distributed sustainably, that is, with little negative impact on environmental and socio-economic issues.
Ways to support sustainable fashion
Many companies still exploit the loopholes for cheap labor. Akhter highlighted the grim reality of this practice.
“Most Bangladeshis, either from the working class or simple countryside peasants, live an unimaginably inhuman life. These workers who died were forced to work in despicable conditions with wages as low as $37 per month. Can, then, a poor laborer, for whom merely existence is a struggle, dictate terms?
How can you expect workers to produce quality products without paying them enough or protecting their lives? Would you not expect the fear of an unknown disaster playing somewhere in the back of their minds?”
She recounted an incident of a woman who died due to extreme exhaustion and being over-worked.
“I know for sure that many women workers suffer from urinary tract infections because they are not allowed to go to the toilet frequently. So they drink as little water as they can while working on their shifts and end up with medical complications, which they cannot afford to treat. Postpartum complications and the lack of childcare facilities for women workers added to their woes.
To add insult to injury, if one complains too much, he is thrown out unceremoniously, pushing him back to the jaws of poverty and starvation. Money meets muscle power and goons are set on those who dared to complain in the first place.”
A number of organizations are proactive with trying to ensure that these workers are treated fairly and ethically. There is a global movement to secure better working conditions and pay for workers like these from poorer countries. It means they will earn enough to buy food for their family, pay the bills and go to work knowing that their lives are not at risk.
Clothes that are handmade or customized generally are made with a higher quality. Because of this, they have a tendency to last longer.
Millennials relate to the agony of purchasing clothes from cheap high street labels, only to discover that the dress or shirt is useless after just a few washes.
According to The Atlantic, Americans now buy five times as much clothing as they did in 1980 and approximately 10.5 million tons of clothes go into landfills each year, which means textiles carry one of the worst recycling rates of any reusable material. Furthermore, 700 gallons of water is needed to produce one cotton T-shirt.
Upcycling decreases these wastes by re-using garments in the manufacture of new garments. For the environmentally friendly, there are hoards of DIY videos that are becoming more popular with tips on how to upcycle a dated pair of jeans or t-shirt. Fashionistas are often seen using colorful embellishments or taking a pair of scissors to old clothing and re-inventing the item with a completely new look. The added benefit of doing this means having a garment that becomes exclusively unique to the person who is wearing it.
Every garment has a tag, which is normally stitched on the inside that details where it was manufactured. Specifying the country in which it is made, as a whole, acts as a good marker about the regulations, safety procedures and pay structure, which governed the production line.
Many more people are getting into the habit of checking the labels to ensure that the clothes they may be purchasing were not made in sweatshops.
Keeping it green
The garment industry has a huge impact on global warming, and Forbes reported some astounding facts:
- Nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used each year to make the world’s polyester fiber, which is now the most commonly used fiber in our clothing. But it takes more than 200 years to decompose.
- Americans throw away about 70 lbs of clothing per person every year.
- Fast fashion garments, which we wear less than 5 times and keep for 35 days, produce over 400% more carbon emissions per item per year than garments worn 50 times and kept for a full year.
- Cheap synthetic fibers also emit gases like N2O, which is 300 times more damaging than CO2.
- Over 70 million trees are logged every year and turned into fabrics like rayon, viscose, modal and lyocell.
- Cotton is the world’s single largest pesticide-consuming crop, using 24% of all insecticides and 11% of all pesticides globally, adversely affecting soil and water.
- Plastic microfibers shed from our synthetic clothing into the water supply account for 85% of the human-made material found along ocean shores, threatening marine wildlife and ending up in our food supply.
- The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter of fresh water resources on the planet.
- A quarter of the chemicals produced in the world is used in textiles.
More companies are working hard to combat this problem by endeavoring to keep everything as “green” as possible from the beginning of the production line until the end. Every aspect is carefully monitored from the workers employed, to the material used, to how the garments are made. These manufacturers pay careful attention to ensure they promote sustainable fashion at every step.
There are more companies that are creating outlets for consumers to have more opportunities to access sustainable fashion. Customers are able to simply hire or rent the item they wish to use, before returning it in the allocated time frame.
There is the age-old saying that old fashion always comes back into style again. In more recent times, it became fashionable for Millennials to go hunting at their local second-hand shop or flea market to grab some bargains for the latest style (which may, in fact, be an old style). Vintage has transformed itself into the new chic when it comes to sustainable fashion.
Furthermore, it is a firm favorite with the fashion-conscious when acquiring some looks that could not have been sourced otherwise, and also at a fraction of the price. This helps to replace the ideology that it is not possible to acquire quality products at a low price.
By being trendy through necessity, frugal fashionistas are able to leverage the items in their wardrobe and the value of what can be created from those items.
Another way that Millennials make use of second-hand clothes is by doing a doing a clothes swap.
Some people arrange “clothes swapping parties” and bring old clothes that they no longer want. They exchange them for the old clothes that their friends brought to the party. These events often coincide with certain seasons such as summer or spring.
There is, however, an even bigger fashion phenomenon giving way to more options of finding second-hand clothing online. Consumers from all over are logging into specialist sites where they can simply “swap” or “trade” their clothes with other people. In theory, it is the same concept as the “clothes swapping parties”–without needing to leave one’s house.
Consumers can list their old clothes that they wish to get rid of, as well as browse the site’s catalog for second-hand clothes. This enables people to better pinpoint the sort of fashion they are looking for like if they want designer clothes or vintage fashion. It makes it easier to shop for pre-owned fashion without having to scour through several second-hand shops to find something suitable.
Trading fashion in this way permits many to declutter their wardrobe and acquire new clothes. Furthermore, there are several companies that allow their customers to return clothes often to keep trading, which means in essence, people can keep changing their style frequently but at a mere fraction of the price.
The future of sustainable fashion
Following the Dhaka tragedy, campaigners demanded that the clothing manufacturers involved agree to minimum wages for the workers who were grossly underpaid, along with implementing stricter safety measures.
One such online campaign led by Avaaz received over one million signatures, which led to H&M signing new safety agreements and re-evaluating some of their procedures when it comes to promoting better work ethics. And more than a handful of upcoming startups are leveraging technology to save fashion industry.
Catastrophes such as these serve as a poignant reminder that governments and the hideous face of capitalism continue to fail with socio-economic and environmental issues. Yet these events also inspire people to demand a better system that will have a more positive impact in the world. In doing so, change often can become inevitable.
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* Article originally featured in SilkRoll