The fashion industry is a web of complex global markets currently valued at $3 trillion that employs somewhere around sixty million people worldwide and is estimated to be one of the most labor-intensive industries on the planet. Over the past couple of decades, the industry has evolved into a highly fragmented sector with complicated supply chains and completely unstandardized production practices, which vary by factory and by country. The most significant facet of the fashion trade is the clothing and textile industry. The current total value of the clothing and textiles trade is estimated at $726 billion and a staggering 150 billion new garments are created a year.
Trade liberalization in this particular industry only began after the revocation of the Multifibre Arrangement (“MFA”) in 2005. As a result, textile and clothing production has shifted dramatically to the lowestcost option: developing countries, which produce almost three-quarters of the world’s apparel exports. While fashion undeniably sustains the global economy, its unsustainable production methods come at high environmental and human costs—costs that society can no longer afford to overlook or conceal. As an industry built on constant, cyclic change and dependenton societal fluctuations of what it means to be stylish, the fashion industry is a key player in the vicious cycle of waste and resource depletion.
The fashion industry is reputedly the second-largest polluter in the world, next only to the oil industry. All products that are manufactured have some kind of adverse environmental effects associated with their creation, but the effects of clothing and textile production in particular are severe. Apparel production is an extremely complicated process that spans a variety of stages, encompassing fiber cultivation, textile and fabric production, processing, garment creation, consumer usage, and eventual disposal. The clothing supply chain requires utilizing many natural resources, chemical processes, and enormous amounts of energy to create and transport the garments ultimately purchased in the retail store. For example, more than a half-trillion gallons of freshwater are used annually to dye textiles. Five percent of global greenhouse gases are emitted by this industry, which is almost the equivalent of the emissions of the entire aviation sector. As the demand for clothing only increases with time, these impacts will be amplified. But the environmental effects do not end there. While much of the more recent focus has been on the impacts of manufacturing alone, consumer usage (dry cleaning, washing, drying, and ironing) has been found to have the most negative environmental impacts. Moreover, enormous amounts of apparel waste caused by overproduction and overconsumption pose significant waste management and disposal problems. As more attention is drawn to the havoc wreaked by this industry, the general consensus is simple: more care needs to be taken to safeguard the future of our planet. The most important question is—how should this goal be achieved? To many, the answer comes in the form of somewhat of an enigma—the concept of sustainable fashion. Sustainable development was defined by the United Nations in its 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. . . . [It] is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development; and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations."
It is largely agreed that implementing “sustainability” itself as a goal is not “a single-frame approach.” Thus, there is not a standardized definition of “sustainable fashion” to apply to the fashion industry as a whole, which creates confusion among industry members and consumers alike. But in a general sense, sustainable fashion is a combination of transparency, stewardship, responsible production and consumption, industry innovation, and mindfulness. It is a mantra that applies to all stakeholders— fashion companies, factories, policymakers, consumers—to dispense with the “take, make, waste” mentality that currently pervades production and consumption models and instead, collaborate to engage in behavior that changes the status quo. Such collaboration is dependent on the understanding that we are all stakeholders in the venture that is our global future.
The current “sustainability pulse” of the fashion industry is only thirty-two out of one hundred, according to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit’s 2017 report Pulse of the Fashion Industry. Created by the Boston Consulting Group and Global Fashion Agenda, the report highlights the major shortfalls of the industry by compiling data to express the urgency of addressing the industry’s environmental, social, and ethical impacts. The 2017 Pulse report makes a stark plea. It encourages all stakeholders that the time is now to develop effective solutions for the present and for the future. As one participant of the project noted, “[s]ustainability is no longer optional [sic] it is a must.”31 To preserve the health of our world, society cannot allow this industry to continue “business as usual.” The sustainability “pulse” is unfortunately one of the few standardized methods in existence to quantify the actual environmental disruption caused by the fashion industry. This lack of data and transparency, coupled with the rise of ethical consumption and a demand among consumers for information, has exposed the fashion industry’s dire need for supply chain reform.
In the past decade, many stakeholders—actors from within the industry, non-governmental organizations, consumers, and governments— have come together to reconceptualize the inner workings of an industry that shows no signs of slowing down. It is projected that by 2030, 8.5 billion people will require clothing. Yet, it is still challenging to calculate an accurate representation of the true environmental footprint of apparel and textile production when supply chains are globalized, decentralized, and inconsistently regulated. Therefore, as the demand for clothing only increases with time, the future of our planet is dependent on fashioning an effective framework for clothing production that addresses social and environmental costs while also satisfying our thirst for style. Such a framework would rely on: (1) adopting a holistic approach to the clothing industry—one that considers the entire life cycle of an article of clothing—to measure the true environmental effects of textile production and implement solutions; (2) employing best design practices to minimize waste, use resources efficiently, and generate more value in our clothing; and (3) changing social norms relating to the consumer’s role in the proliferation of waste and pollution as well as the consumer’s ability to affect industry-wide change. Ultimately, prodding in the form of direct regulation may be needed if self-regulation and supervision within the industry cannot adequately address the imminent threats to our planet.
In this Note, I first offer key descriptions of the environmental impacts of each stage in the life cycle of clothing, the evolution of the sustainable fashion movement, and existing models of production. Next, I argue that applying life-cycle analysis as a standardized industry practice is one of the most efficient ways to measure the environmental impacts of the clothing and textile industry in the aggregate. Furthermore, it is through a combination of design, innovation, and changing consumer norms that the negative impacts of the industry can be curtailed. Lastly, it is entirely possible that official regulations will be necessary to stem environmental disruption if the wider fashion industry cannot do so through self-regulation and self-imposed standards. Sustainability should be more than just a consumer-friendly catchphrase employed to generate revenue. Sustainability should be a mantra embraced by the behemoth itself to combat the very real environmental threats that overproduction, overconsumption, and overall excess unnecessarily impose.