Around 20 percent of the world’s wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions can be attributed to the global fashion industry alone, says the UN. Most of that is down to fast fashion – and some are trying to change the way the industry operates.
Over the past decade, Argentina has been plagued by extreme weather, including severe droughts and flooding, events which have only been accelerated and made worse by the climate crisis facing the planet. But though most people are pointing fingers at the energy industry and deforestation as the main culprits behind this phenomenon, there is another sector of the economy that is having a huge environmental impact: the fashion industry.
According to data from the United Nations Environment Programme, published in November 2018, 20 percent of the world’s wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions can be attributed to the global fashion industry alone.
The impact is mostly down to socalled ‘fast fashion.’ According to Paula Aguirre, the Argentina country coordinator at Fashion Revolution, a UK-based NGO dedicated to calling for greater transparency in the clothing industry, fast fashion (or rapid fashion) is one of the most polluting industries on the planet.
So what exactly is fast fashion? Aguirre defines it as the intensive production, use and discarding of retail clothing, which is a cyclical process that has only shortened overtime. In this respect, with their constant need to be on top of new trends and turn over new business, a few prominent retailers have been pinpointed as the worst culprits, names such as Zara, H&M, and Topshop.
Although Zara is the only one of the three that has stores located in Argentina (a H&M outlet store recently opened in Luján, but under the name ‘Luxury Outlet’), Aguirre says Fashion Revolution has taken note of Argentina’s contribution to the fast fashion industry. But she emphasises this is a global problem.
“ I think it’s not just Argentina’s task, it’s the whole world,” Aguirre told the Times. “Fashion Revolution has offices in more than 60 countries and in all of them we work to raise awareness about the need for these changes, because they depend not only on one region but on all the inhabitants with which we are part of the same and unique planet.”
It’s not only pollution, however, where fast fashion has a negative impact. It also crosses ethical lines in terms of its treatment towards those who make the clothes as well. Seeking to underline just how extreme of an impact it can have, Aguirre described the fast fashion industry as a form of modern-day slavery which contributes to both increased rates of inequality and gender-based violence.
Aguirre’s statements can be backed up by the traditional absence of strong labour regulations in the countries where many fast fashion goods are produced. It’s a risk that disproportionately affects women too, who make up 80 percent of the industry’s workers.
It’s issues like these that inspired the founders of Fashion Revolution to create the organisation in the first place, Aguirre explained.
HOLDING BRANDS ACCOUNTABLE
Fashion Revolution was born in response to the infamous collapse of the Rana Plaza commercial building in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013. A total of 1,138 garment industry workers were killed, with a further 2,500 injured.
Today, the most crucial and unique aspect of Fashion Revolution’s work is its ability to hold key retailers accountable for their impact on the environment and the lives of the people that they rely on to make their products.
“Change is important for both Argentines and the rest of the world, as we are all part of this flawed system and we all have a liability quota,” urges Aguirre.
Since 2017, Fashion Revolution has published a Fashion Transparency Index, which looks at 200 of the world’s most notable brands and retailers and scores them based on their perceived level of transparency, taking into consideration a number of key issues.
Although large in scope, a few of these key issues include looking into a brand’s social and environmental policies, checking whether or not they publish a list of suppliers, and seeing how the brand approaches issues like gender equality. In the organisation’s most recent publication, The Fashion Transparency Index of 2019, some of the highest-scoring brands that they analyzed were Adidas, Reebok, and Patagonia.
Despite none of these brands having received a score higher than 70 percent, Aguirre still sees progress, noting that this is the first year that any brand had received a score of over 60 percent.
“What is surprising is to see that year by year the industry is more committed to the traceability and sustainability of its processes and, although the road is long, the indicators are evidence that the responsibility and impact of their actions is a fact that they can no longer evade,” she said.
AWARENESS – AND CHANGE
However, the negative impacts of the fast fashion industry and the changes that need to be made in response aren’t necessarily the responsibilities of fast fashion brands alone. Rather, as consumers , individuals can work to make a difference as well.
For example, with such a high amount of people’s old clothing heading to landfills every day, the easiest fix to this problem is to shop less, buying less from fast fashion brands. This means going to thrift stores or purchasing clothing from sustainable and ethical brands instead.
In Buenos Aires in particular, there are a few sustainable and ethical brands that have been highlighted by the media in recent years, including Tienda Raíz Arte y Diseño Sustentable Cúbreme, and Luma Baez.
It’s not always so simple, however. And for some shoppers, especially in challenging economic circumstances, it all comes down to price. Due to their structure and global reach, fast fashion brands are often able to offer goods at lower prices to consumers, ones which have adopted the newest styles and trends. Sustainable brands tend to be pricier, because they don’t take all of the ethical short-cuts that fast fashion brands tend to profit from.
Taking these complexities into consideration, organisations like Fashion Revolution are seeking to focus on educating the community on the dangers and harms associated with the textile industry, in hopes that the little steps that people choose to take in response will make a difference.
Falling on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy, this year Fashion Revolution organised an educational Fashion Revolution Week (FRW) that ran from April 22 to April 28. There were talks, workshops, performances, street protests, and documentary screenings, Aguirre explained.
“We are proud that Argentina has stood out during FRW globally, thanks precisely to the sum of many people who from their individual motivation voluntarily gathered forces and collaboratively achieved one of the largest campaigns in our country since the movement’s existence,” says Aguirre.
In addition to such events, the organisation’s website also also offers list of resources available to the public, including a free guidebook called How to Be a Fashion Revolutionary, as well as links to further reading material.
“In terms of fashion, [it’s about] stopping to think before buying a new product, about the impact it generates, to exchanging with others what we already have and do not use, to repairing, reusing and reducing as much as possible the consumption of goods that are not basic needs,” Aguirre said passionately.
“These are just a few examples. But if done on a massively scale, it is proven that we would significantly reduce our carbon footprint and from there, the destruction of the Earth.”