By Graham Duggan  

“Fast fashion” has taken the clothing industry by storm. Retailers like H&M and Zara churn out affordable versions of the latest fashions from the runway to the store shelf, and we’re pressured to keep up with the trends.

And while there is an increased awareness of poor labour conditions in some of these fast fashion factories, we’re still not talking seriously about how the industry is harming our planet. Fashion is thought to be one of the worst-polluting industries in the world, falling among the ranks of oil and coal.

Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, a documentary from The Passionate Eye, highlights the environmental impact of what we wear. Host Stacey Dooley travels to Kazakhstan to examine how growing cotton has literally dried up the Aral Sea and visits Indonesia, where textile factories pump out toxic chemicals into what’s been called the world’s most polluted river.

“We are producing over 100 billion new garments from new fibres every single year,” says Lucy Siegle, a journalist investigating fashion’s growing environmental footprint. “And the planet cannot sustain that.”

Although we don’t grow cotton (one of the world’s thirstiest crops) in Canada, nor are we home to the world’s most toxic textile factories, we’re still contributors to the global problem through how much we buy and throw away. 

In 2007, Kelly Drennan founded Fashion Takes Action, the only non-profit organization in Canada focused on promoting sustainability in the fashion industry and among consumers. “We started as a fundraiser event to demonstrate the potential that sustainable fabrics can be used in high-end fashion, but we quickly realized that an organization was needed to promote the sustainable fashion movement.”

Working toward sustainable manufacturing

Some of the biggest brand names in fast fashion have received criticism for their lack of sustainability, but Drennan notes there is work being done behind the scenes.

After the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, it became apparent that companies (including Joe Fresh) had no idea how bad things were that factory where their garments were being made. “In the aftermath, there was a sudden rush to better understand their supply chains, and more pressure is being put on
fashion brands to be more transparent,” says Drennan.

“It might seem like there isn’t a lot of movement by big brands toward sustainability, but that’s because many of them are still trying to figure out how to trace their supply chains,” she says. “They can’t be transparent and ‘show’ us what they’re doing if they don’t first know themselves.”

Today, brands are developing new technologies. Blockchain and RFID (radio frequency identification) tagging systems could be used track materials through a brand’s supply chain so garments can be traced from field to shelf, but these systems are still a work in progress. 

Responsible brands and manufacturers are looking to other textiles which are more environmentally friendly than cotton. “We’re heading toward a global fibre gap, where the demand for fibres — especially cotton — in textiles will be too great. Hemp is an attractive alternative as it’s a renewable resource, requires very few pesticides and does not shed microfibres like synthetics do and is much more efficient to grow than cotton.”

In Canada, each household throws away 46kg of clothing per year, with around 8-12 per cent of municipal landfills made up of textiles.
Landfills are overflowing with our fashion waste

We’ve become addicted to low-cost, disposable fashion. Compared to two decades ago, we purchase 400 per cent more clothing per year. And eventually, much of that fast fashion ends up in the trash.

In Canada, each household throws away 46 kilograms of textiles per year on average, making up around eight to 12 per cent of municipal landfills. “Unfortunately, fast fashion is not going away, and if we continue to consume as much clothing as we do today, that means we’ll continue to have fashion waste,” says Drennan.

The Ontario Textile Conversion Collaborative is finding ways to combat waste by creating new uses for old clothing. “We can’t keep sending bales of unwanted clothing to developing countries,” says Drennan, “so we’re consulting with a number of manufacturing sectors like the automotive, carpeting, paper, insulation and building sectors to better understand these potential end markets for discarded textiles.”

Some of the biggest brands have launched campaigns in an attempt to address textile waste, and while the issue can’t be fixed overnight, steps are being made. “Perfection doesn’t exist,” says Drennan, “but progress does!” 

Her advice? Donate everything — even those old pairs of underwear and socks can be passed on at thrift stores and donation bins. Even though they won’t be resold, like 60 to 70 per cent of donations, they can be diverted to other industries that might use the fibres for other purposes such as insulation, padding and stuffing. So next time you’re clearing out your closet, donate it all!

We need to shop a lot less

Getting ahead of the waste problem involves changing consumer behaviour, and more responsible consumerism is exactly what inspired writer and illustrator Sarah Lazarovic. After finding herself buying too many fashion items on impulse, only to be worn once or twice, Lazarovic decided to take a year-long shopping sabbatical.

Getting in the way of impulse buys was key to her success. “Stopping to think ‘Do I really need this?’ was the first step to reducing my purchases,” says Lazarovic. “My method was then to paint, instead of purchase, the items that caught my eye.”

Lazarovic published her images in a book called A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy. Some of her designs have reached a large audience, like “The Buyerarchy of Needs,” which has been translated into multiple languages. Today, she continues to advocate for changing our consumption behaviour.

The Buyerarchy of Needs

 

Her advice to change shopping habits? “Be methodical about it,” she says. “Take a photo; write it down; say to yourself, ‘It’s an irrational purchase.’ Take a day, a week or more, and research the item. If you still want it after that time, then, by all means, go for it. But you’ve deferred that impulse, more often than not, you won’t be as interested after a period of time.”

Try not to get sucked in by the “limited-time offer” or the literal ticking clock on some online sales. And when it comes to physical retailers, there’s an even simpler solution, says Lazarovic: “Don’t go into the store! Don’t even look!”

Clothing manufacturers are starting to focus on sustainability

Some forward-thinking, and even high fashion companies are getting creative about sustainability. Ann Taylor is developing a clothing rental program, instilling the sense of a sharing economy, while Eileen Fisher is introducing a take-back initiative, cleaning and reselling used clothing at a reduced rate.

Even some of fast fashion’s biggest culprits are making headway. H&M, for instance, has  created the Global Change Award through the non-profit H&M Foundation, investing in startups that aim to innovate and make the entire fashion industry more sustainable. 

“There will be a huge shift, and we’re just beginning to see the dawn of this change,” says Drennan. “Those brands that don’t get on board with sustainability are going to be left in the dust.”

Watch Fashion’s Dirty Secrets on The Passionate Eye.