Manufacture is the root of sustainability in fashion

Bridging the gap between sustainable and stylish, Jessica Carvalho explores the correlation between brands’ manufacturing processes and how eco-friendly they are, tapping into the “greenwashing” epidemic in the fashion industry.

If fashion is the fire that burns brightest, manufacture is the fuel that keeps it going. It is no secret that both of these industries go hand in hand to provide us with perhaps one of the most phenomenal and personalized forms of communication, working harmoniously to keep their gears turning even in times where everything else has slowed to a halt. Lockdown has propelled a boom in e-commerce as it becomes the hobby of choice for the many currently living a rather digitized life; though that does not mean that some negative effects haven’t been felt across the industry, with several businesses seeing their fate hanging in the balance even after a year the initial restrictions were implemented. 

However, in an era where fashion has perhaps been the only sector of the economy to somewhat persevere, it begs the question of whether the very garments we so eagerly seek fall in harmony with the sustainable morals we’ve come to know and adapt into our daily lives. It is time to take a good look at where our clothes originate from and how they are being brought from sketchbook to shelf. 

For brands and manufacturers alike, the first order of business when it comes to sustainability is to seek fabric alternatives. Cotton, synthetics and animal derivatives are becoming out of fashion and the spotlight is shifting to their sustainable counterparts. For example, it is estimated that making a single cotton t-shirt requires over three thousand liters of water; to put the statistic into perspective, a regular household’s daily water usage averages at two hundred liters. 

Water usage in clothing manufacture is becoming one of the most quickly developing sustainability issues, the fashion industry falling third only to oil and paper in terms of largest water usage (Common Objective, 2018). This is where sustainable fabrics can be used to their full advantage; fibers such as organic cotton, recycled polyester, recycled nylon and bio-synthetics are rising in popularity among manufacturers and designers as they allow for garments to take shape in materials which not only look good but also do good. A recent example of this is Prada’s Re-Nylon collection, wherein the previously virgin nylon bags were remade using regenerated nylon, the brand going as far as pledging to concert all of its regular nylon the eco-friendly alternative currently in use by 2021.

Though undoubtedly a good start, sustainability in manufacture transcends the material used. Production is arguably the most fundamental part of the manufacturing process, and it requires reformation across the industry. Some of the steps that could be adopted are the use of 100% “pure” materials to assist with recycling, incorporating natural dyes or the use of mixed materials to increase quality and durability.  

Some manufacturers who truly wish to up their sustainability game even adopt closed-loop systems. Brands actively encourage these items to be in circulation for as long as possible, which also taps into upcycling and DIY, both popular practices nowadays.

Although often slandered due to being associated with fast fashion and harmful manufacture, H&M is making noble moves in the ongoing sustainability campaign by integrating a closed-loop system that encourages manufacturers and customers to play their part. The fashion conglomerate has launched an in-store recycling system wherein customers can drop off their unwanted clothes and receive a voucher in return. Clothes collected via the campaign are recycled and used for the manufacture of H&M garments.

Although there is a wildfire of hope steadily burning through the industry as more manufacturers adopt sustainable practices, the living and breathing element of clothing manufacture is often forgotten. All the items we wear were put together by a pair of hands, and now more than ever, worker’s rights must be at the forefront of sustainability pledges.

Online-only brands seem to be the worst at ensuring their workers’ rights are being kept in mind, coupling the use of harmful materials with poor labour conditions. These include dangerous working environments, unfair wages, and even forced labour. On a worldwide scale, the likelihood of unethical manufacture skyrockets, as sweatshops and child labour are added to the picture. 

COVID-19 also shed light on the wage issue: several brands were exposed for not paying their workers throughout the pandemic, even when they were working. The outrage sparked the #PayUp campaign on Twitter, which applied pressure on brands to pay their workers fairly and on time. 

One organization is serving as a voice for those being treated unfairly – the Clean Clothes campaign aims to ‘improve (working) conditions’ in the industry, providing an informative website where people can educate themselves on what is and isn’t ethical manufacture, living wages, and what customers can do to trigger change.

Several brands have ignited a spark and vowed to not only manufacture sustainability but also ethically. Amidst these genuine promises were some that fell short, and hence originated the term ‘greenwashing’. This word was first coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in the tail end of the ‘80s, used to describe marketing tactics that make a brand appear more eco-friendly (or ‘greener’) than they actually are. The damaging effects of this are pretty obvious, but effectively conning customers into buying from a brand that goes directly against all the stand for is very harmful to the campaign for sustainability. It has dulled the impact of social pressure that usually drives brands and manufacturers to do better. It isn’t anything new by all means, but it is steadily on the rise and many brands have been singled out for untrue sustainability pledges.

It would be naïve to say that greenwashing will fade. It seems rather unlikely: as more customers begin to value sustainability and are far sharper at telling true green apart from the grey, manufacturers and brands will get more creative.

However, there is a silver lining in the clouds of deception. Some manufacturers may decide to truly reform themselves and become eco-friendlier along the way, and people may begin to turn to sustainable brand voluntarily; either way, this fire isn’t quite done burning yet, and it will be going for some time.

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