Published 03 May 2017
In recent years, much more awareness has surrounded the flaws in the fast fashion industry, from child labour to intellectual property theft. However, in comparison with oil and agriculture, there is relatively little focus on the impact of the textile industry on the environment and oceans, despite it being the third most polluting industry worldwide.
This June, the United Nations is holding their first Oceans Conference in New York. We hope to see them address the environmental impacts of the fashion industry as a significant issue, and attract more international attention and regulation. In the meantime, Kirsten Lee and Liberty Lawson talk about the connection between ethical fashion and the ocean, and how we can educate the next generation of designers to take responsibility for their products.
Textile production relies on astronomical amounts of fresh water.
Growing cotton, dying and rinsing fabrics, leather production, creating synthetic fabrics, the worn effects on denim – to make just one cotton t-shirt, it takes 2720 litres of fresh water. Once used, this water is sent, untreated or partially treated, back into our waterways. They say you can tell what colour will be in fashion by the hue of the rivers in China, running through the textile provinces. Environmental protection laws are often left unenforced, and companies will go to great lengths to hide what they are releasing through intricate underground pipelines. Cotton, and many other irrigated crop-grown textile fibres require high quantities of pesticides, and these chemicals run off into waterways too. Many main water bodies in China, Mexico, Indonesia, Bangladesh and India are poisoned, dead, or badly polluted by the textile industry. And, of course, these toxins are carried out into the oceans. Even clothes we already own are leaking synthetic microfibres into waterways and damaging ecosystems.
Most of the factories are in developing countries, but pollution in the ocean affects every corner of the globe.
We can’t just blame corrupt governments or lack of environmental regulation – it is the colossal overconsumption of Western countries that is driving the demand. Brands needs to take responsibility to ensure the factories they use are operating at a certain standard. Some companies have created in-house positions where an individual or team, working on-site, monitor the environmental impact and regularly survey the garment workers for any issues, and advocate on their behalf. Companies can also gain ethical clothing certification or apply for Fair Trade labelling.
The real power is in the hand (and wallet) of the consumer.
Consumers hold the real power, because brands bow to the consumer dollar, and more people are demanding transparency from their brands. We need to show more support to brands who are clearly making the biggest efforts and outcomes, rather than just superficially ‘greenwashing’. As Vivienne Westwood said, “Buy less, Choose well, Make it last. Quality, not quantity. Everybody’s’ buying far too many clothes”.
Just writing to companies or tagging them on social media has already made a huge impact. Fashion Revolution runs a campaign asking consumers to ask brands on social media #whomademyclothes? This has already made a huge impact. It was inspired by the horrific collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013, which killed 1500 people and seriously injuring hundreds more. This had not been the first (or the last) horrific accident in a garment factory, as there is a long and bloody history of shoddy factories with perilous working conditions, but it has been the largest, and was a huge wake-up call. The first year of Fashion Revolution ‘Day’ was held one year later to raise awareness about the impact of the global fashion industry and to campaign for more ethical fashion. Now Fashion Revolution runs for the entire month of April, and over 98 countries participate! Australia / New Zealand has its own committee, led by the amazing Melinda Tually.
And what about the role of the designers? Are these issues regularly addressed in the curriculum at most fashion education institutions? Kirsten attended a private fashion college in 2000, then TAFE and university. “To be honest, I didn’t even know that these were issues!” she says. “By the time I’d completed these qualifications I still had absolutely no awareness of the social or environmental implications of my profession as a designer, or of the fashion industry.”
There are currently only a few institutions that formally teach ethical or sustainable fashion design. Designers can make a huge difference from inside the industry. Over 80% of the social and environmental impact of a garment is determined in the design phase. It should be major responsibility of the education system to ensure students are educated about the impact of their decisions, and the myriad creative approaches to minimising harm and creating positive change.
The current top sustainable fashion courses worldwide are represented by ten major institutions, which are all overseas. These degrees are all underpinned by teachings of sustainability and ethics. So far, Australia has one core fashion sustainability subject, at Queensland University of Technology. Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology has been completely committed to holding ethical fashion festivals, projects and events throughout the year, like the Slow Fashion Lab later this year. University of Technology Sydney has some important sustainability skills taught throughout the course, most of the staff are fashion designers and textile artists involving a high level of ethics and sustainability in their own practice, which translates through their teaching. Both RMIT and UTS have student ambassadors for Fashion Revolution and hold events for it every year. UTS is also about to include a core Sustainability subject in its masters program. Great things are happening, and it’s our hope that ethics and sustainability will be the foundation of all fashion courses!
Kirsten Lee lectures in Fashion at UTS, and guest lectures in Ethical Fashion. She is a Committee Member for Fashion Revolution AUS NZ and in the midst of conducting her thesis research in Ethical Fashion Education. She has worked as a textile and fashion designer in the Fashion Industry for many years for both large scale and small labels.
Liberty Lawson is completing a PhD exploring coral reefs and conservation politics at the University of Sydney. She is an Ocean Ambassador for Positive Change For Marine Life and is the director of Holographia, a journal and publishing collective that straddles the intersection of art, philosophy and science.