April 21 2020 – Gergana Damyanova
Hi there! It's great to have you on the blog.
This is an exhaustive (and lengthy!) post on sustainable fashion. We'll cover in detail what the main environmental and ethical issues in the industry are, why it is important to address them and what consumers and brands can do to change the status quo. It should take you about 10 minutes to read through. If you're looking for something shorter and sweeter, head over to Sustainable Fashion: A Beginner's Guide for a summary.
If you are here for the real deal though, let's crack on.
Let me start by saying that we have built blonde gone rogue on the below information. Both me and my co-founder, Denitsa, took the biggest leaps of our lives, turned our careers at 180 degrees and decided to build a fashion brand that lets a fundamentally beautiful industry be actually beautiful - beginning to end.
How big fashion really is?
Fashion ranks as one of the world's biggest industries with total sales of £1.1 trillion in 2019. It might a bit difficult to instantly think how many zeros a trillion has, so here's an illustration - if everyone on this planet, all 7.8 billion of us, spend £141 on clothes last year, then the result would be £1.1 trillion.
There are approximately 50 million workers involved in creating all these clothes. The equivalent of this will be that everyone in California - US's biggest state, to be working in the apparel industry.
It's fair to say that fashion is massive - there's a lot of sales to be made and a lot of people are involved. As it happens with many industries, once these two factors are present, things might start getting ugly. But how ugly exactly?
The biggest issues in the fashion industry
Credit: Fashion Revolution - Students at SoFa Design Institute, Philippines
The issues in the fashion industry can be split in two main categories - ethical and environmental. I'll use sustainable fashion as the solution to both these issues as I firmly believe that nature and humans need to be treated the same way - kindly and fairly. There's no point making organic cotton tees when not paying a living wage, is there?
Let's first focus on the ethical side of things. A lot has been written in the past 10 years about working conditions and fair pay. A lot of companies have been called out as ruthless rule-breakers - H&M, Gap and Uniqlo to name a few.
Unfortunately, when it comes to workers' salaries, there isn't one number to track, there isn't one country to look into and try to fix the problem. The gaps are big and widespread. As an example, the Fair Labour Association reported in 2018 that the average garment worker in Bangladesh would need an 80% pay raise even to begin earning the most conservative living pay the report cited. It has been continuously reported that in Bangladesh workers who demand salary increases are laid off. Similar situations occur in other developing countries but as well much closer to home - even in the UK. This report by the House of Commons outlines the issues discovered in the UK clothing industry.
Let's think about it in numbers. As a society, we have gotten used to cheap clothes we can quickly dispose of and switch to something new and also cheap.
A basic H&M tee costs £3.99. Great price, it costs me the same as a pint, I can order a bunch! But let's dive what this price means. £3.99. VAT in the UK is 20% which means that H&M needs to pay 80p out of the £3.99 to the UK tax authories. That leaves us with £3.19. H&M reported gross profit margins of 53% in 2019 - this is their sales minus the production cost of the garment. So, on average the profit on this tee was £1.70 and there's £1.49 left for the cost to make this product. Out of this amount, the fabric was purchased, so the fabric factory probably made some profit before paying employees and other suppliers; the garment was produced - again factory making some profit before paying employees; and last, the tee was packed and shipped from Bangladesh to the UK. Let's not forget - again companies are making profit before paying employees. Now, after everyone's gotten their share of this tiny pie, is it really hard to believe that the factory workers are not paid living wages?
This article might be getting a little bit heavy to read, I know. But let me go through the environmental side of things and then we'll get into action mode and how we can all contribute to improving the situation.
There are five categories that we have found the most important and most concerning when it comes to the environmental impact of the industry:
A single tee consumes 2,500 leters of water to be made. A pair of jeans consumers 9,000 leters - the same amount a person drinks in 12 years! With water being one of our most precious resources, these quantities are vast. How does this happen? The truth is that cotton is a very, very thirsty crop. It requires a lot of water to grow. And then the dyeing process requires more water on top of that, which leads us to:
As much as 20% of water pollution comes from textile treatment and dyeing. This makes the textile industry the second largest polluter of clean water globally. However, the industry does not only impact water. Soil is another victim due to the usage of:
Unfortunately, fashion has been ambitiously competing with agriculture when it comes using pesticides. More pesticides are used in the production of cotton than any other crop. These chemical products are not only poisonous to the soil on which cotton is grown, rendering it useless for growing other cops, but to the field workers as well.
Air pollution is another element to be touched by the industry. Synthetic fibres like polyester make for 60% of world's fibre demand. In their production nutrious oxide is released in the air - a gas which is 300 times more damaging than CO2.
Last but not least, after all the resources that have gone in the production of clothes, on average we tend to dispose of them really quickly! The average garment is worn only 7 times! This results in that globally, the equivalent of one garbage truck of clothes is thrown away every second. In the UK alone, 1 million tonnes of textiles are sent to landfills each year.
Ouch! Tough statistics, aren't they? All this triggers us to ask how can we change the status quo, doesn't it?
How can brands contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry?
Well.. brands can change everything. Three years of running a sustainable fashion brand has taught me that there's always a way, and there's always a sustainable, cost-efficient way. The harder the obstacle - the more creative the solution!
Here are the practices that we have adopted - they are not the end but are definitely a strong beginning.
Deadstock or end-of-roll materials are production leftovers that are usually thrown away. Maybe you're thinking about offcuts? Hell no! Whole roles of perfectly good, very often high-quality materials get tossed because there was extra fabric sent to the factory, just in case any errors. These are our favourite materials to use because all the hard work and resources that went into producing the fabric won't go to waste.
A sustainable alternative to end-of-roll materials is using fabrics that are kind to nature. Our favourites are organic and recycled cotton, linen and cupro. These fabrics use considerably less resources to be made, making them a preferred choice for sustainable brands.
Quality must always be top priority. Our mantra is - buy less, buy better, wear longer. The ultimate sustainable product is the one that has the highest quality. Clothes that last for years eliminate the constant cycle of production and disposal that is so damaging to the environment.
Transparency is key! We encourage you to ask your favourite brands all the questions you can think of! The more transparent a brand is, the easier you can verify that they have truly sustainable and ethical practices.
An example of what to demand could be a solution like The Blonde Chain - our supply chain transparency tool. Still in beta version, The Blonde Chain is not only meant to show you who made your clothes but to show you as well what a truly transparent company is. We have done this as a challenge to the whole fashion industry to step up and provide such a level of visibility.
How can customers drive change in the fashion industry?
Individual consumers like you and I have a ton of power to change what is happening in fashion right now as well. Where companies won't step up, we can push them to do so. With so many countries and jurisdictions being involved, very little can be done through regulation. However - every single person votes with the money he or she spends. A purchase from a transparent, sustainable brand is a vote for the company's ethos. A purchase from a fast fashion company is a vote in support of their practices, too.
The truth is that if half of us say no to questionable, non-transparent practices, all companies will have to turn and change what they have been doing. But we need to demand real change, not just marketing campaigns blasting 'sustainable'. We have to be able to go deep and ask the right questions and that's not easy but it has as well never been easier.
Talk with your favourite brands on Twitter or Instagram - ask them about the practices you want to know more - they will reply! For the first time in history, we have a handy, quick, open channel of communication with every single of the brands we buy from. We can use it to learn more about them, check whether they are who we think they are. Furthermore - we can reward the really sustainable and transparent ones with giving them a shout-out and promoting them to our friends.
Here are a few questions that I always have for brands, probably helpful to get you started:
• Where do you get your supplies from?
Brands that can name their sources are usually much more likely to be operating ethical and sustainable companies.
• Where do you produce?
Brands producing close to their headquarters and to the communities of their customers are much more likely to be paying living wages and offering good workplace conditions.
• How can I learn more about the sustainability level of your operations?
At this moment practically every brand has a sustainability page on their website. The level of detail on this page will tell you a lot about whether they are just trying to check a box or whether they are being sincere about running an ethical, sustainable brand. Be on the lookout for stock images and big statements without details to back them up.
How to recognise the real sustainable brands from the sham ones?
Ask. Simply ask. Every single sustainable brands founder I know will pour an avalanche of information about sustainability on you. And they will show you so much passion - they will talk about the practices they hate, about the companies that make them angry, about sustainable fabrics they are excited about. It'll be a long conversation! That's how you recognise the real ones - because sustainable fashion is their passion and life mission.
An alternative approach is to consult one of the organisations that focus on vetting fashion brands. Here are two of my favourite:
• Good on You - the folks from Good on You use only publicly available information to rank the sustainable operations of thousands of brands. It's an excellent spot to start if you are looking to discover new brands.
• Fashion Revolution - every year Fashion Revolution publishes the Fashion Transparency Index - a truly comprehensive study of how many well-known big brands are doing on their journey to sustainability.
On the impact of COVID-19
The current crisis triggered by the coronavirus outbreak unfortunately won't help the cause of workers and the environment. With now shrunk fashion industry, there will be less work for more employees (many of whom have been laid off and are looking for new employment), bringing wages further down. It is likely as well that sustainable agendas get left behind with focus on maintaining profitability and surviving the recession. So now, more than ever, we should show that we care. Many companies will be restructuring their operations to adapt to a new reality, let's show them that sustainability is still on the top of our minds!
PS. For a more detailed analysis on the impact of COVID-19 on the fashion industry, check out our blog article What does the pandemic mean for sustainable fashion?.
I'd love to hear your thoughts, comments and questions in the section below. Let's have a conversation!
Tagged: sustainable practices