Introducing 'Fashion Conscience': Refinery29's Week-Long Focus On Sustainable Fashion

It shouldn’t take the deaths of 1,129 people to make you stop and think about the value of your clothes and, more importantly, the value of the lives of the people making your clothes. Four years ago today, a factory in Bangladesh collapsed due to inadequate building infrastructure, killing over 1,000 men, women and children, and injuring approximately 2,500 people, predominantly garment workers.
Despite garnering international attention and momentary outrage, four years on, not enough has changed in the substandard working conditions for garment workers around the world, nor has our insatiable appetite for fast fashion abated. Cheap, disposable clothing is more popular than ever in the West, with little thought of the immediate repercussions of overconsumption on the environment and countless human lives.
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Research published in November 2016 by Greenpeace Germany revealed just how rapidly the fast fashion industry is growing: Clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, with the average person buying 60% more items of clothing each year and keeping them for about half as long as 15 years ago, producing unfathomable quantities of textile waste. The chemicals from textile factories pollute rivers and oceans; these factories also require high levels of energy use while pesticides from cotton-growing contaminate agricultural land. According to Greenpeace, one of fast fashion’s worst culprits is the increasing use of synthetic fibres, particularly polyester, which creates nearly three times more CO2 in its lifecycle than cotton. Found in 60% of clothing, polyester can take decades to degrade, also polluting marine environments with plastic microfibres.
And what about the women, men and oftentimes children making our clothes? The garment industry is, and always has been, one of the most female-dominated fields in the world. According to Fashion Revolution, today, more than 70% of garment workers in China are women, in Bangladesh the number rises to 85%, and in Cambodia it is as high as 90%. Despite making products for some of the most profitable global companies, these workers are labouring in unacceptable conditions for poverty wages and undertaking an excessive amount of overtime. Fashion Revolution's research reveals that in Bangladesh (the second largest exporter of clothes in the world), the minimum wage for garment workers is 5,300 taka (£45) per month, which is nowhere near the 8,900 taka (£75) that is needed to cover a worker’s basic needs, and even further from a living wage. Many garment workers take on between 60 and 140 hours of overtime per week and it is common that they do not receive the overtime pay. Health and safety are frequently neglected, breaks from work are often not permitted, and abuse is rife.
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Armed with this knowledge, how can we still shop so voraciously for clothes we don’t need? As a fashion editor it might sound ironic, insincere and sanctimonious for me to urge readers to shop less, or more responsibly. But as a fashion editor I also feel it is my responsibility to educate people on the true cost of fashion, particularly fast fashion. I have spoken previously of my real loathing of shopping, not simply because I find the crowded stores of Oxford Street unbearable and the thudding music blasted out on the shop floor insufferable. But also because, for the past 10 years or so, the notion of cheap clothing and the consequences of buying it and endorsing its production has not appealed to me, and often appalled me. When it comes to a decision between buying lots of poorly made clothes that I quite like, or investing in an item that has been beautifully crafted in an ethical environment, which I can wear for the rest of my life and potentially pass down to my future daughter, the choice is indisputable.
Yes, baby steps are being made towards more ethical practices in fashion, but by a small minority of brands and companies. A fortnight ago, it was announced that WWF in Finland, an arm of the world’s biggest conservation organisation, is partnering with a London-based online fashion community, AwayToMars, to produce what it claims will be the world’s first 100% sustainable clothing range. Retail heavyweights including Selfridges and Harrods will stock the range in the UK, but WWF has bigger plans to make this a global project, with the aim of proving to the fashion industry that it is possible to create clothes without any damaging effects on the environment.
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It is frustrating that sustainable fashion isn't already a priority for the most influential people in the industry, from CEOs of massive corporations to designers and the press. It is easy to turn a blind eye to the damage we are causing and, generally, public perception is still that sustainable clothing is uncool, hippyish, overpriced and yet to follow catwalk trends.
Over the course of the next seven days, with a week of themed content focusing on sustainability, I want to make readers aware of the catastrophic impact fast fashion is having on our world and its future. I want to make readers aware of the alternatives, which will not only make you prouder of your wardrobe but, more significantly, better the lives of other women and protect the planet we are on course to destroying.
Thankfully, public figures such as Emma Watson and Livia Firth (who we interview later in the week) have raised awareness of the immense advantages of sustainable fashion and proven that it can be just as directional and aesthetically pleasing as more mainstream options. But this week I also want to celebrate others behind the scenes, working to challenge the industry and change public perception. I hope you enjoy the varied content around the ethics of clothing and sustainable fashion, and I hope you pause before your next online or real life checkout and think about the chain leading back from the contents at the bottom of your basket.
Like this? Check in to Fashion Conscience throughout this week for exclusive interviews, features, photoshoots and more.
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