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Crimes of Fashion

January 02, 2020
topic:Sustainable Consumption
tags:#fahion, #sustainability, #sustainable fashion
located:France, Germany, China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam
by:Ari Libsker
The fashion industry built a trillion-dollar market on the exploitation of cheap labour, unprecedented pollution through the manufacture and marketing of inferior clothing, forcing consumers to buy and re-buy in a dazzling rhythm. A new book by fashion-culture journalist and author Dana Thomas reveals the numbers behind one of the dirtiest industries in the world and how it succeeds washing itself clean.

Most chances are you’re wearing jeans while reading these words. Half the population of the world does so every day. Jeans’ statistics are insane: 6 billion pairs are manufactured yearly (while in the whole world there are 7.5 billion people), jeans, you could say, are the uniform of humanity.   

The jeans fabric was born in France and Italy during the 17 century. Primarily the fabric was coloured with indigo produced from Nil plants imported from India. But in the beginning of the 20-century, German chemists had developed a method to create synthetic indigo using chemicals as Sodium hydroxide, Potassium hydroxide and more. The tough competition in the field made synthetic Indigo a standard, and nowhere in the world is flooded with it as Xintang, in South China's Guangdong province, known as the "Blue Jeans Capital of the World". More than 200,000 people in 3,000 factories in Xintang produce 800,000 pairs of jeans a day, 5 percent of the global production.

Saying synthetic Indigo is flooding the city is not a metaphor: the colours are pouring into a river flowing into the Dong, a tributary of the Pearl River, one of the largest rivers in China. Consequences for the river are devastating: it has become a sewage canal, tainted blue which is even caught through satellite photography. A Greenpeace examination shows the Dong’s water is filled with heavy metals, such as lead, copper and cadmium (found exceeding national "soil environmental quality standards" by 128 levels), as well as high levels of PH (11.95) and other metals. Fish do not live in the river estuary anymore.

Some of the pairs are taken from China to the largest city in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, where, after being washed with stones, they get a worn-out look. One kilo of jeans, about three pairs, requires 20 litres of water, also coloured blue. More chemicals used to hasten the wearing out process are also eventually poured into the rivers-system, which nourishes the drinking water in the Dong’s delta.

In the past, you would get the worn-out look after five years of wearing. The accelerated process takes about seven hours, but also shortens the fabric’s life. “In the past you used to wear a pair of jeans for five years until you got that look, and could keep wearing it for five years after,” explains fashion journalist Dana Thomas to Calcalist.

Today in the U.S. people wear an item for an average of seven times before it is thrown out - which isn’t surprising, given its poor quality. Despite the low prices, we buy clothes that are essentially fake.” And all that, as Thomas’s new book Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes explains, comes at a huge environmental price.

Thomas is one of the most valued writers of the fashion world. She started her career in the Washington Post, and since has been writing regularly to Vogue, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, Financial Times and other leading journals. She won many prizes for her writing including the decoration of the Order of Arts and Letters, given to her by the French minister of culture. She has already published two best sellers on the subject: Deluxe (2007) which exposes how a few large companies took control over the elite fashion houses, and Gods and Kings (2015), dealing with the rise and fall of Alexander Mcqueen and John Galliano. 

The highly praised Fashionopolis, is an incisive indictment against the fashion industry and its part in the responsibility for the climate crisis. Thomas claims that if the industry will not come back to its senses and change its conduct, the situation will lead to an inevitable ecological collapse and bring the widening of economic gaps to unprecedented levels.

The pace: an item every five days 

The trigger to write Fashionopolis, Thomas reveals, was the collapse of the textile factory “Rana Plaza” in Daka, the capital of Bangladesh, in April 2013. Approximately 1,000 people had died in the disaster, most of them textile workers working in sweatshops located in an international fashion company’s structure. But after the disaster, not one of these companies took even partial responsibility for it. 

“This disaster clarified one of the things that bothered me in the fashion industry,” says Thomas, “a handful of people in the industry get richer and richer (five of the 41 richest people in the world are owners of major fashion groups), while the vast majority of the sector’s workers are paid less than a living-wage, even in the third world. These people work under the conditions of slavery. I don’t buy the excuse that the industry creates jobs in places where there is hunger, it’s simply untrue. 

“I felt like I could write the story of the industry and the destruction it creates - the fact that it essentially perpetuates the inequality and global poverty rates, while simultaneously generates terrible pollution. We need to talk about these things because we all need to put on clothes every morning. The focus on fashion is in fact a prism through which we can discuss globalisation: I could write a book about almost any other topic related to industry and business. As a matter of fact, when people ask what the book is about, I say ‘about humankind on earth’.” 

The main cause for exploitation and contamination characterising the field, Thomas explains, is over consumption in large scales.  Each person in the world acquires, on average, about 68 fashion items a year. According to “Pulse of the fashion industry”, an annual report produced by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) firm and Global fashion agenda (a body following the environmental damages of the fashion industry), by 2030, world population will grow to 8.5 billion and GDP per capita will grow by 2 percent in developing countries, and by 4 percent in developed countries. In parallel, the quantity of consumed clothes in the world will jump by 60 percent, from 64 million to 102 million tons a year. 

Already, the current damages of large-scale production of clothing are destructive and irreversible. According to Kate Fletcher, a research fellow from the University of the Arts London, 27 million tons of cotton are produced in the world yearly, requiring 2.5 percent of the cultivated land, 13 percent of insecticides consumption and enormous amounts of water (1,540 litres for a kilo of cotton), crude oil and whitening chemicals including sodium chloride, sodium chloride and hydrogen peroxide. The whitening also damages the cotton fibres, causing accelerated erosion of the fabric and clothes made from it, which, in turn, accelerates the consumption pace. 

The most popular source for the industry, other than cotton are synthetic fibres, such as polyester, present today in 60 percent of clothes: these are produced from crude oil in a process releasing huge amounts of polluters. These fibres are non-perishable and will pollute the environment for hundreds of years.

According to data by the World Bank, the clothing industry is responsible for 20 percent of  global water pollution and 10 percent of emissions of nitrogen dioxide; one kilo of clothes produces 28 kilos of greenhouse gas, and a quarter of the chemicals produced in the world are meant for the textile industry. “The fashion industry,” Thomas emphasises, “is responsible for carbon emissions in larger scales than the air and sea transportation industries combined.” 

Thomas refuses to mention names of specific companies (“due to my work in journalism,” she reasons, implying, perhaps, to the strength of fashion publishers), but the names can be fished from other sources. The aforementioned BCG report, which was published in May this year during the Copenhagen summit for sustainable fashion, reminds that three groups - British Primark, Swedish H&M and Spanish Zara, hold together about 43 percent of the world market. Report writers estimate if these groups will implement an environmental policy, they will manage to reduce the pollution scale they cause by 30 percent.

Another report, the Dirty Fashion Report, is published annually by the Changing Markets foundation, a Dutch organisation acting on behalf of sustainability in consumption markets. The 2018 report discovered that H&M, Zara and Marks and Spencer acquire viscose from polluting factories in Asia. Viscose is presented as a product with environmental values, but, as the report reveals, a line of dangerous chemicals are used in its production. 

The Model: wear and dump

An understanding of the model of Fast Fashion motivating the field completes the picture of the damages. Under this model, fashion manufacturers produce collections at a dazzling pace, moving them to the selling points in high speed, and using high-tech to recognise when they have outgrown themselves and have to be replaced. At the same time, a deliberate decrease of the production quality shortens the clothes’ life, forcing consumers to buy more and more. This way, an average American bought in 2018 five times more clothes than they bought in 1980.

It was Amancio Ortega, the owner of Zara, whose fortune amounts to 70 billion dollars, Thomas explains, who refined this model, becoming one of the six richest men in the world. Ortega founded Zara in Spain, but was a pioneer in importing the production out of it, first to Morocco and then to other developing countries. He was also a pioneer in creating a network, including the whole supply chain (design, production and selling), which  allowed him huge flexibility: if a collection’s sales do not live up to expectations, Zara will replace it within a week with another one that is designed to match what goes on in the market. And since production costs are so low, the failed collection can be thrown to the trash at a very low cost.

The outcome is that in the last twenty years, the amount of clothes we throw away has multiplied by seven. Every year, two million tons of fashion items are being thrown away worldly, most of them transferred to Africa. “The rationale is that it’s a poor continent, and we are coming to help it,” Thomas explains. But the Kenyans pay a heavy price, both because the importation flood demolishes the local textile industry and since most of the clothes transported to the country remain unused and are eventually thrown out. “Even though they buy the jeans for cheap, in 2018 the Kenyans considered halting the purchasing of the clothes, but the U.S. threatened with boycotts, and Kenya reversed its position and went back to being the West’s dumpster.”  

The damage inflicted on local industries is particularly severe since the growth of the sector had turned it to a leading source of employment: every sixth person in the world is employed in the clothing industry. Most employees in the field are women, and 20 percent are children.  “In the past year we were exposed in Turkey to sweatshops of Syrian refugees’ children. In Sri Lanka I met an employee who took a loan from the company she works for to take care of her teeth, and when she could not repay the loan she had to work in prostitution. The sewing workshop she works for makes clothes for a line of renowned brands.”         

The key: pricier clothing

Breaking the vicious circle, claims Thomas, requires a new model. In her book, she examines a line of brands and designers working to change the trend by going back to traditional crafts, technologies such as 3D printing, clean jeans manipulation, smart production, hyper localism, recycling fabrics and growing materials in labs.  Among others, she conducts a fascinating interview with elite designer Stella McCartney, who turned her renowned brand sustainable. In order to stop the damage, she concludes, the fashion industry must return to a local production and raise prices.

Doesn’t it remind you of Donald Trump’s discourse? After all he wants to raise taxes and to “bring America back to its glory” by way of local production.

That’s a totally different thing. Trump is pushing to bring people back a hundred years. He wants to return people like coal miners back to their old jobs, but you can’t turn reality backwards. My vision is the opposite: I propose to take the old textile factories that sit empty, infuse them with new technology, and train people who will work in computer rooms.

This will not supply employment to many people  

You’re right. But at least out of 3,000 unemployed people who used to work in fashion I will employ 300. That’s something. 

Can the sustainable solutions you’re offering be widely implemented? 

Stella McCartney proved that there is a business incentive and profit in the transition to a cleaner society. We need to understand that pollution and garbage cost money, and somebody will have to pay for them. You can also save on raw materials. At the end of the day, if you think about it in the right way, you could also make a profit.

Most of your solutions would raise the price of clothing. That will hurt the poor, who will be unable to buy clothes. 

Clothes must become more expensive. Today we pay for them the same price people paid a hundred years ago: the price of housing has increased, the price of food has increased, only the price of clothing went down. And the reason it is so cheap is that 98 percent of workers in the sector are not being paid enough to feed their families, while we buy clothes, wear them for a moment, and then throw them away. If we respected these workers we would’ve paid them a fair wage, and then the price of clothes would have been higher, which would have made us appreciate the items more. Today you pay ten dollars for a piece of clothing at Zara, and it doesn’t pay off to send it to dry cleaning. You simply throw it out and buy a new one. 

A system that enables a handful of people, such as Ortega, to become exceptionally rich while people in Bangladesh die of starvation and disasters so that this master will make more money is a distorted system. So, yes, the price of clothes needs to go up.   

How will you make it happen?

By creating awareness. This is why I wrote the book. Lots of people who read it told me they didn’t know that this is how things were being run. You can make quality tags for clothes that will report on companies that exploit workers and use poisonous chemicals. If people look at a shirt and say ‘I refuse to buy it because it causes great damage’ we will be able to change things.

Article written by:
Ari Libsker
France Germany China India Pakistan Vietnam
Embed from Getty Images
The fashion industry built a trillion-dollar market on the exploitation of cheap labour, unprecedented pollution through the manufacture and marketing of inferior clothing
Embed from Getty Images
Half the population of the world does so every day. Jeans’ statistics are insane: 6 billion pairs are manufactured yearly.
Embed from Getty Images
According to data by the World Bank, the clothing industry is responsible for 20 percent of global water pollution.
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