The controversy surrounding Beyoncé’s fashion label, Ivy Park, is back in the news, trending globally in social media. After the story flared in 2016 that Sri Lankan women, responsible for cutting and sewing Beyoncé’s Ivy Park garments, were poorly paid and horribly treated, it has quieted in the mainstream news cycle.
The problem behind such business practices didn’t disappear, however, which is why the cry over social media — heard loudly this month throughout South and Southeast Asia — is starting to reverberate again in the United States. Advocates took to Twitter in the last few weeks to let the world know, again, that little has been done to lift up the women of Sri Lanka.
In almost every other major fashion brand’s case there is evidence that the industry standard is to treat everything as disposable: the women making the garments are disposable, the garments are designed to be disposable, and the environment is disposable.
The industry spends $500 billion annually on marketing to ensure consumers support this disposable culture. As a result, most clothes are worn, on average, only seven times before they’re discarded, forcing an astonishing 150 billion new clothing items to be made annually. Clothes have become like plastic bottles or plastic bags. Used, then tossed. They are no longer owned, they are consumed.
That’s the modus operandi in the industry. Clothing companies in the rich world conveniently outsourced the work (and the carbon footprint) to places with low labor standards and low environmental regulations. This is utterly unsustainable.
Getting clothing to be cheap enough for the fashion industry’s disposable model has required massive amounts of cheap material and cheap labor — both of which came with devastatingly high and unaccounted-for costs.
First, the push for low prices led to cheap material; polyester is the worst. It’s a plastic made from fossil fuels and found in 50 percent of all clothing.
It’s enormously energy intensive and doesn’t biodegrade, making for a catastrophic carbon and environmental footprint. In outsourcing production, a process greased by decades of free trade deals, we simultaneously outsourced pollution to countries with even dirtier power grids, using the cheapest, dirtiest form of power: coal. Putting up solar panels on our homes does little good if we are filling the closets of those homes with fashions made from coal-based power.
In fact, when we speak of gas-guzzling cars, we should also talk of gas-guzzling clothes, because that’s the level of fossil fuel use we’re talking about. We’ve now moved from natural fibers to predominantly synthetics (made from oil) and we’re shipping clothes further, adding millions of miles to the total fashion carbon footprint.
This carbon footprint adds up. A total of 8 percent of the world’s total carbon footprint now comes from the apparel industry, and apparel is the second largest polluter of fresh water globally (we already know how water-intensive a simple cotton T-shirt is — using thousands of gallons of precious potable water).
And when we wash those oil-based polyester clothes, those plastic fibers are ending up in our rivers, lakes and oceans. At this rate, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. These are devastating stats, and we’re wearing them on our sleeves.
Second, the push for low prices also led to cheap labor. The apparel industry’s race for the cheapest inputs relied on laborers at the very lowest end of the wage spectrum in countries with few protections for workers. Low wages, forced labor, unhealthy and dangerous working conditions, and child labor are now rampant throughout apparel supply chains. Today, it is an industry found to be one of the biggest supporters of modern slavery across the globe, impacting women and girls, in particular.
Apparel’s impact is ever apparent to anyone laboring in the factories or cleaning up the filthy byproduct. And while the apparel industry may be the largest employer of women globally, less than 2 percent of these women are actually receiving a living wage. Any fashionista who cares about gender equality, should be equally mindful of their gender footprint. To ignore any of this is to remain regressively retro.
All of this is adding up to a massive impact, and because it’s entirely consumer driven, it’s one we control. Thankfully, we do have a consumer base that is hungry for change, and they don’t want what they wear to worsen the planet or people’s lives.
Citizen consumers ultimately sit in the driver’s seat when purchasing goods. Let’s make empowerment mean something and buy brands that celebrate every woman, from those dying the textiles and assembling the clothes to those wearing them. If companies won’t switch, then it’s time for consumers to quit them.
If we want to fix fashion in time, before we’ve wrecked the planet and people beyond repair, it’s time we start wearing a different world and it’s time for celebrities to start following suit.
Michael Shank is communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. Maxine Bédat, who co-founded the sustainable apparel company Zady and is a leader in sustainability within the industry, also contributed to this article.