Agenda for 2016: Save the whales, eat healthy, fight for women’s rights, save the Great Barrier Reef, adopt an animal, volunteer for the less fortunate, save the trees and the forests, help the baby pandas, save water AND... somehow manage to keep job, have a social life and shave legs in between all that.

Feel overwhelmed sometimes by all the causes we’re meant be contributing to and fighting for these days? Can’t figure out where in your day you’re going to manage to think about something other than the pile of work on your desk? Or maybe you’re sitting at your desk daydreaming about how you can make a positive change to your life and the planet amidst all these environmental initiative talks going on after the Paris summit?

Fashion isn’t necessarily the first word you think of when you hear environmentally friendly and ethical right? You might not be surprised to find out that the fashion industry is in fact the second ‘dirtiest’ industry in the world following oil. For many of us, fashion is something we love. Some people live and breath it, can’t get enough, and others, nonchalant and couldn’t care less about it, but either way, we all wear clothes (unless you’re reading this from a nudist beach in Barbados in which case I say congrats to you- living the dream). Living in a city at the doorstep to the world’s most prominent manufacturing country, it’s important to think about the impacts our favourite brands have on the environment and society and talk about how we as consumers, whether as regular shopaholics or the casual buyer, can reduce these impacts through our consumer behaviour.

In line with Hong Kong’s Zero Waste Week and the Rug Lane Vintage and Secondhand Markets this weekend, we are chiming in on the discussion about sustainable fashion and why there are so many benefits to being more sustainable and ethically conscious when on your next shopping spree, because whoever says you can’t look good, feel good AND do good for the environment and society is wrong.

What is the definition of “Sustainability” and what does it mean in terms of fashion?

Sustainability could easily be the most overused word of the decade. So underrated, yet too often dropped into branding to fill a quota of keywords, the term sustainable has in some ways become redundant in this day and age. However don’t tune out yet.

At university the words Triple Bottom Line were ingrained in my brain more than anything else. The basic definition of a triple bottom line is balancing social, environmental and economic use and impact. I didn’t study fashion but this framework can really apply to any industry. It’s a great benchmark to evaluate and assess a company or brand. The definition of sustainability differs greatly between retail companies as each has a different benchmark to classify a product as sustainable. Ideally, sustainability should be optimizing the company triple bottom line.

Another approach to sustainability that is filtering through the industry now is the Circular Economy concept.

What is a Circular Economy?

A Circular Economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy which follows the principle of make, use, dispose. A Circular Economy instead focuses on a cradle to cradle concept, keeping resources in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.

Circular Economy explained by Ellen McCarthur Faoundation

What is the difference between Sustainable and Ethical and how do I know what to care about?

This is probably the hardest part as a consumer to overcome; the struggle with your love of fashion and desire to be both environmentally and socially conscious.

On a human level, garments are often manufactured in developing countries due to the cheaper labour costs in those countries. This often means that there are lack of sufficient labour laws and systems in place to ensure that workers are paid fairly and work in safe conditions. In terms of the environment, consumption of clothing has a huge impact on the waste generated, pollution levels and strain on natural resources.

Ideally we as consumers and brands should be caring about both these things but that's not always the case.

What is “Fast Fashion”?

The term “fast fashion” really came into play in the mid 2000s and is based on the idea of fashion brands taking trends straight from the catwalk to manufacturing for the masses quickly. With brands like Zara, H&M, Topshop, Cotton On, Mango and Forever 21 taking over the way we shop, our focus as consumers switched from money conscious driven to mass product driven where, as consumers, we can buy high end fashion trends now more cheaply and regularly. This whole movement however has lead to overconsumption and overproduction of items that has impacts on our natural resources, textile materials, energy, water, pollution levels and not to mention the working standards for garment makers.

So what is actually wrong with overconsumption and overproduction and why should you care?

Put simply, the more consumed, the more manufactured, the more waste and pollution produced.

With an increase in spending as consumers, we have driven manufacturing rates up exponentially over the last 10 -15 years. In 2014 in the UK, households spent approximately £57.2 billion total on clothing across the country (WRAP, 2015). According to a report released by Green Peace, in Hong Kong in the same year, the average spend per person per year was HK$9,420 (equal to approximately $219hkd billion per year). As a result of these high consumption and manufacturing rates, the fast fashion trend has caused an increase in textile waste, pollution levels and energy and water consumption.

Fast Facts:

Textile Waste:

  • According to Forbes Magazine, more than 150 billion garments are produced annually, enough to provide 20 new garments to every person on the planet, every year.

  • In 2014 alone, 293 tonnes per day of textiles was sent to landfill in Hong Kong (EPD, 2014), the equivalent of 97 average size cars.

Natural Resources:

  • Cotton is the world’s single largest pesticide-consuming crop, using 24% of all insecticides and 11% of all pesticides globally, adversely affecting soil and water. (Forbes, 2015)

  • According to WWF, it can take up to 2,700 litres to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt. The Better Cotton Initiative by WWF is trying to minimise this environmental impact by educating farmers on reducing water and pesticide use.

  • In terms of water consumption, 2 billion pairs of jeans are produced every year, and a typical pair takes 7,000 litres of water to produce. For a T-shirt and a pair of jeans then, that’s the amount of water an average person drinks over the course of 900 days (Green Peace, 2016)

  • Textile bleaching and dyeing treatment uses 1.7 million tonnes of various chemicals, not to mention the hazardous chemicals like PFCs that leave a permanent impact on our environment (Green Peace, 2016). Many of these chemicals can be toxic to aquatic environment and may pass up through the food chain to humans.

  • Some 17% to 20% of industrial water pollution is from textile dyeing and treatment. (China Water Risk, 2011)

  • Fashion and textile industries are the highest energy users globally.

Brands manufacturing mass products quickly are not necessarily thinking about where their materials are sourced from, the lifestyle of their workers, the consumption of water and energy used to make their products and the pollution and waste produced from manufacturing. The focus of most of these large companies is to keep costs down and make money fast. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s bad to shop at fast fashion outlets with a high turnover focus, I’m are merely trying to help you become aware of the impact every shirt we buy from these kind of companies has on the way we live. Changing consumer behaviour is one of the most vital steps in the process of reducing waste and strain on natural resources .

How can fashion companies reduce their environmental and social impact?

Brands can reduce their negative impact on the environment and society through a number of steps. Firstly through their manufacturing procedures and locations, their choice of material and sourcing, and the work systems they have in place to protect and care for their employees. Recycling is one way to help the environment but fashion brands can do more and strive to encompass the concept of a circular economy and create a more sustainable system whereby the production, use and reproduction of their garment should be a main focus.

There are a number of technologies that have been introduced over recent years with the aim of reducing the environmental impact. Some examples include:

  • AirDye are water-free printers that it claims can save up to 95% of the water, 86% of the energy and 84% of the greenhouse gases used in conventional print and dye methods.

  • Anke Domaske, a German microbiology-student-turned-designer created a way to use milk in an "Eco Milk Fiber" called QMilch.

  • Sports clothing company Virus has taken to using recycled coffee beans for their Stay Warm line of cold-weather performance apparel.

  • Suzanne Lee, fashion designer and TED Senior Fellow, has been making fabric and vegetable leather out fermented kombucha tea

  • Digital printing

  • With digital printing, prints are directly applied to fabrics with printers, reducing water usage by 95 percent, energy reduction of 75 percent, and minimizing textile waste. This technique has been used by designers like Mary Katrantzou, Alexander McQueen and Basso & Brooke.

  • Recycled synthetics, made with everything from plastic bags to beer bottles continue to make a splash. In much the same way that other materials and bamboo are transformed into thread, the upcycled synthetics are broken down into a fine particulate, melted, and extruded into fiber.

  • The I Am Not A Virgin jeans use a mix of 25 percent bottle fiber and 75 percent cotton, the resulting material is soft to the hand, yet is durable and performs as denim should.

  • Material scientists at Hong Kong’s flagship textile research institute and City University have been able to find a way to convert food waste into polylactic acid, which can then be spun into fibres for use in textiles.

  • Novozymes has been working on creating water savings in textile processing and its global marketing director Peter Faaborg, says that enzymatic textile processing can save up to 25% of the water traditionally used in cotton textile manufacturing.

None of these methods are standard practice however and currently only offer a slight glimpse into the hope of having a more positive effect on the environment. Without having a greater understanding of the multifaceted effects the fashion industry has on the environment and more push for innovative technologies to become the norm, change wont occur and we won’t see reductions in the impact.

Keep and Eye out for Part 2 coming soon!

Rug Lane supports sustainable fashion and shopping and aims to promote ways to reuse, rewear, reduce and recycle in Hong Kong. Come join us at the upcoming Rug Lane Vintage and Secondhand Clothing Market on November 12 at Ethos Gallery in Kennedy Town where you can sell and purchase secondhand clothing and accessories. Details can be found here. You can also pledge your ZERO WASTE WEEK goals on the Zero Waste Week website.

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