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Sustainability

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I’ve studied and worked in the fashion industry for years. Yet it was only a few years ago when I started delving into the topic of sustainable fashion, that I really began to uncover how the industry uses (or abuses) water.

It was disappointing and frustrating (to say the least) to learn that the daily act of getting dressed in the morning, or putting on a load of washing was contributing to the destruction of our waterways. This was something I never really used to consider, and I know I am not the only one. But it was something that hit ‘close to home’.

I grew up on the east coast of Australia, so I was fortunate enough to live only a short walk or drive away from a beach or waterfront, and I never had to worry about access to clean, drinkable water. However, I also grew up with an awareness of the scarcity of water, particularly the precarious relationship Australia has with it. I saw firsthand the devastating effects of droughts and floods, and I became conditioned to shorter showers as water restrictions were the norm.

So, after learning that our clothing habits were having such a devastating impact on this precious resource, it was comforting to learn that even as citizens there are changes we can make –  and now – that will bring about change.

But knowledge is power. Therefore we need to educate ourselves about the “bigger picture”, and only then can we positively inform how we think about and engage with fashion.

We are all part of the fashion supply chain, and it is important to remember that while our individual actions may seem insignificant, they are still needed in order to bring about change.

Water

Why is water so important?

Firstly, water is a basic human right. Yet according to the United Nations, 2.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and 4.2 billion people lack safely managed sanitation. The impact of this type of water stress is devastating, with people being forced to drink from contaminated sources, increasing the risk of infection and disease, and resulting in unnecessary death.

Secondly, oceans. Covering 3/4 of our planet, oceans not only provide us with food, energy and water, but they absorb 30% of the carbon dioxide that we produce, mitigating the effects of climate change.

This brings me to my third point, climate change. We should all be aware by now that the world is facing a climate crisis. In the context of the world’s water sources, if temperatures continue to rise, this puts us at risk of rising sea levels, greater flooding and droughts, increased water scarcity, pollution – the list goes on. This will gravely impact people’s quality of life, and potentially result in the displacement of large populations from land that is no longer habitable.

Given all of this, you would think water would be a pretty high priority for the fashion industry. But, unfortunately it often isn’t.

Water + Fashion

We all need water. We all wear clothes. These are basic human needs (thank you Maslow). Yet in the race for faster, trendier, and cheaper fashion, consideration for our waterways and oceans usually comes runner up. We see this at every step of the process.

Water Consumption:

The fashion industry relies heavily on water, with the growing and production of fibres being the greatest consumer.  You only have to go so far as cotton for an example.

It takes as much as 20,000 liters of water to produce a single kilo of cotton, or approximately 2,700 litres to make 1 cotton t-shirt. Now consider multiplying that by the 21% share of the global fibre use for apparel and textiles that cotton controls (cotton is second most used apparel fibre). 

In addition to this, it is worth acknowledging that 57% of the world’s cotton production occurs in areas that are already under high or extreme water stress, with only 30% coming from rain-fed farming. 

The Aral Sea (or sadly, what is left of it) in central Asia, which was once the world’s fourth largest lake, is a devastating reminder of the effects of water stress on land, biodiversity, and communities.

Water Pollution:

You may have read that in some places you can tell the colour trend for the season from the colour of the rivers. You might have thought this was a myth or exaggeration, but there is some element of truth to this (check out the documentary River Blue).

This is not surprising when run off from wet processing (for example, dyeing, printing) is often left to pollute waterways, and eventually enter our oceans. This is not only harmful to marine life, but also to the health of those who work in the industry and those who live nearby.

The Citarum River in Indonesia is a clear example of the devastating effects of water pollution from the fashion and textiles industry. Every day the river is used as a dumping ground for industrial waste, domestic rubbish, and chemical fertilisers, by the factories and properties lining its borders. There is no proper waste management system, and little or no regulation. However, residents remain reliant on the polluted water for drinking, bathing, crop irrigation and washing clothes.

Microplastics:

If you take a look down at what you are wearing, it’s likely that something you are wearing contains a synthetic fibre. 65% of our clothing is made from these synthetic fibres, the most common being polyester. This is bad news when it comes to our oceans.

Have you heard of micro-plastics? Well synthetic textiles are contributing to 35% of global micro-plastic pollution. 

In the same way that threads come away from our clothing, leaving lint in our dryers, synthetic clothing sheds synthetic fibres (or plastic) during both the wash and wear phases. However, unlike our dryer lint, these fibres are so small, no ordinary washing machine filter is able to catch them. Neither are wastewater plants, so they head straight out to rivers, lakes and oceans, and are ingested by marine life (and if we eat seafood, possibly us).

Water + Fashion + You and I

As we have discovered, everything on our planet is connected. But the idea of being able to make a positive difference may seem overwhelming. We are all part of the fashion supply chain, and it is important to remember that while our individual actions may seem insignificant, they are still needed in order to bring about change.

Here are some impactful changes we can introduce now to the we way we think and engage with our clothing that will go a long way in reducing our impact.

  • Undoubtedly, the most powerful thing we can do is work on the relationship we have with the clothes already hanging in our wardrobes. The most sustainable item after all, is the one we already own. We have the collective potential to slow things right down if we just remember why we loved them in the first place, what memories we share or new ones we can forge, or how we can accessories or try new outfit combinations (who knows what we can come up with).
  • If and when we do go shopping, we must consider what’s on the inside. When it come to fibres knowing which are best, and which ones to choose can be tough. Synthetic fibres (including those that are recycled) shed microfibres, and some natural fibres consume tons of water (literally). Therefore, try choosing organic, or lower water consuming fibres such as linen (my personal favourite), as they work with nature, rather than against it.
  • We can work on our laundering skills. Firstly, we do it too often (a simple spot clean will often do). We should also try opting for a lower temperature, shorter cycle, and maybe even investing in a mesh laundry bag (Guppyfriend).
  • We can use our voices (spoken or written). If something doesn’t align with our values, why not question it and demand answers. If we are finding it hard to recycle our unwanted clothing and textiles in our area, contact the local council. Or if we are unable to find out about a brands supply chain, write an email to a brand, or jump on social media.

As environmental concern reaches new heights, sustainable fashion is gaining traction, populating online, high-street and runway collections alike. But the psychology behind a consumer’s choice to buy Green may not be as altruistic as it appears. Do we really buy sustainable fashion for the sake of the environment, or are ‘conscious’ purchases for our own conscious benefit?

The fashion industry is distressingly damaging to our environment. It accounted for 2-10% of the EU’s environmental impact, 79 billion cubic metres of water, 1,715 million tons of CO2 emissions and 92 million tons of waste in 2015 (source). Once discarded, more than 50% of all clothing was found to end up in landfills or incinerators, and of the clothes collected in, less than 1% of the materials were recycled back into new clothes. Last year alone Burberry burnt £28.6 million of unsold clothing and cosmetics (source). As information around Fashion’s impact becomes more readily accessible and transparent, it comes to no surprise that calls for sustainable and environmentally conscious fashion production have emerged. However, the motivations behind choosing sustainable fashion aren’t cut and dry. There are a number of social and individual factors that drive environmentally conscious behaviour, and they do not always place the environment as the sole beneficiary.  Is it the environment, or actually personal gain, which motivates the purchasing of sustainable fashion?

Sustainable fashion is more than just charity shop bargain hunting. It has evolved to focus on the ecological impact of the fashion industry as a whole; promoting the reuse of materials, creating timeless designs over on-trend items, reducing chemical waste and promoting the wellbeing of employees at all stages of production. Unfortunately, due care in a product’s life-cycle comes at a higher premium, which is placed upon the consumers. 

Reason 1: Selflessness

While benefiting the environment, choosing to buy ‘conscious’ collections (see H&M) comes at a financial cost. Our awareness and contentedness of this follows the environmental concern perspective (Bamberg 2003) where people engage with green behaviours because they inherently care about the wellbeing of the planet above their individual gain. An equivalent piece of clothing may exist for a lower price (visit Primark if you require an eye-opener) but deciding to purchase items from more responsible beginnings demonstrates a genuine desire to benefit the environment over personal and financial gain. 

Reason 2: Popularity

So far so selfless. But beyond inherent environmental concern, forwarding green issues and buying sustainable fashion signals to other people that one is prosocial. One can gain a reputation for being environmentally conscious and concerned about the betterment of the whole, and as such appear more cooperative, helpful and more valuable to a social group. 

Reason 3: Power

Popularity begets power. Prosocial individuals, like those who actively support sustainability ‘are desirable to have in positions of power’ and therefore ‘prosocial behaviour may be a viable strategy for attaining status’ (Griskevicius et al, 2010). Self-sacrifice and deferring one’s individual benefit for a collective benefit has been shown to increase the self-sacrificer’s status within a group of strangers (Hardy & Van Vugt, 2006). For those genuinely interested in conserving the environment, such a reputation is merely a bonus. However, for individuals more interested in status, environmentally conscious behaviour could act as a tactic to elevate their social standing. The extent to which someone actually lives sustainably may be capped at what is merely observed by the social group; the value and reputation of being prosocial hinges upon the perception of others, not on what one does away from the public eye. An individual may wax lyrical about only wearing repurposed cotton clothing, but still put their food waste in their recycling bin. 

Reason 4: Moral Identity

However can morality exist independently of ourselves, of our own benefit? It can be widely agreed that buying sustainable clothing is seen as the morally ‘right’ thing to do for the environment. But moral behaviour hinges upon a moral identity : our position on various moral scales concerning a number of ethical issues, including sustainability and conservation. In a meta-analysis, it was found that ‘moral identity strengthens individuals’ readiness to engage in prosocial and ethical behaviour’ (Hertz & Krettenauer, 2016). A strong moral identity can result in a more environmentally conscious and active individual. For shoppers with a firm moral identity or a pervasive consideration of the environment, the question ‘am I a moral person?’ may do more to inform their sustainable fashion decisions than ‘how much does it cost?’. Researchers found that individuals are more likely to experience emotions of guilt and shame when they do not act in accordance to their moral identity. And with growing concern for the environment and the increasing transparency of the fashion industry’s production practices, guilt and shame are accompanying our consumption decisions more and more. Environmentally conscious consumers may therefore act in a way that supports their perceived morality, by buying sustainable fashion, just to avoid costly emotions; nobody wants to cry over a pair of rip-off Gucci pumps, afterall. Although benefiting the environment, confirming our beliefs on who we consider ourselves to be and avoiding guilt are still acts of self-interest and personal gain. 

Reason 5: It’s Fashionable

For those whom sustainability isn’t a chief pillar of their moral identity, choosing sustainable clothing can be an inherently selfish act. Buying slow fashion can serve a moral imperative: it supports a more responsible clothing industry, one that does not depend upon speed and constantly changing styles to fuel the market. Slow fashion also offers items with a longer life, of greater value relative to other consumables, and a virtue of remaining ‘in fashion’ beyond trends and seasons . They are investment pieces with tangible pay-offs for the individual alone.

Reason 6: You’re just a good person Goddammit

It is key to recognise that the opportunity to choose sustainable fashion is a privilege for those who can financially afford it. The recent criticism of the Extinction Rebellion to ‘check its privilege’ highlights this principle. One may be environmentally conscious, with a strong moral identity and deep sense of obligation to environmental activism, but financially unable to take a day off work to protest. Yet, for those with less who still commit to sustainable consumption, activism and to embodying the change they want to see, can we plausibly consider them selfish? The constant hold financial strain has over our fiscal and notably our mental health (Selenko & Batinic, 2011; Sweet et al, 2013) may dwarf the benefits of identity validation and status of the economically disenfranchised. And yet there are still those who shoulder these economic and psychological pressures, for the sake of the environment. 

Sustainable fashion can even come at a social cost as well. Fast fashion can enable a sense of belonging within a fashion zeitgeist and wider society, particularly for those with fewer economic freedoms. The opportunity to buy into the demanding global fashion arena, to express oneself and feel a sense of belonging in our cultural climate may be a currency that some people are unwilling to lose. So given not only the costs of sustainable fashion, but the benefits of fast fashion which are passed up, it’s obvious that self-interest cannot be the only motivation for green behaviour.

Indeed, it is clear that the motivations to buy sustainable fashion are not always clear, a melting pot of each individual’s ‘moral’ self and the personal costs and benefits. Ultimately personal gain underpins many of the drivers of green behaviour, but sustainable fashion is not mainstream nor cheap enough to come without financial or mental cost. It is unreasonable to suggest that swerving the easy, cheap, behemoth fast-fashion movement – forgoing the additional disposable income and the ranging social and psychological benefits – is a selfish act. Without an inherent desire to benefit the environment, sustainable fashion wouldn’t be a consideration.