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Fashion industry

Fashion Revolution Week 2021: COVID-19, climate and a trillion dollar industry

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Tracey Creed

Published April 19 2021

On April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which housed five garment factories collapsed, killing 1,134 workers and injuring over 2,500 more — exploitation of cheap labour, modern slavery, and extreme poverty remain an economic reality. Founded by British fashion activists Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro, Fashion Revolution Week has become one of the strongest voices in the movement for ethical fashion.

For those seeking to learn more, check for events in your area, stream The True Cost. Visit Fashion Revolution Week online where you can access resources to inspire informed action and engage in impactful dialogue with campaigns, amplifying unheard voices throughout supply chains about what needs to change. Like the problems, solutions lie at the intersection of industries and of cultures.

This evening we will attend ZERO% in partnership with NZ Viva, presented by Kowtow, where founder and creative director Gosia Piatek will lead a panel discussion towards a plastic-free, zero waste and carbon-positive future.⁠ It’s a part of Fashion Revolution Week, which coincides with the commemoration of the Rana Plaza collapse and Earth Day, April 22nd.

Everything is interconnected.

COVID-19 is related to climate issues, the persecution of endangered species, and habitat loss. And it’s also disproportionately affecting underprivileged communities that are, for the most part, comprised of people of colour. Much of the conversations surrounding sustainability are one-sided and of the Western-focused worldview that human and environmental prosperity are separate. They are not.

Fashion still exists in a system that comes at the expense of human rights. One where garment workers, living predominantly in developing nations and who are 80 per cent women, are subject to unfair wages that often barely enable subsistence and unsafe working conditions. Further exacerbating environmental inequality, the global fashion industry produced around 2.1 billion tonnes of GHG emissions in 2018, equalling 4% of the global total. It’s also the second-largest consumer of the world's water supply. Fabrics with synthetic microfibres shed toxins and plastic debris, polluting oceans, and eventually entering our drinking water and the food chain. This disproportionately impacts poor communities who live in countries with higher pollution levels with less access to clean water and food. The decisions society makes about our environment reflect the racism that's really endemic in everything else.

The pandemic and fragility of systems

Sustainability wasn't welcomed by the fashion industry, initially, at least. Fashion was (and still is) meant to make you dream and not something you would use to push a political agenda. It’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic for companies to see that the systems they have built for economic growth and profit can crumble easily. It wasn’t built for resiliency, and retail is being hit hard.

The pandemic has laid bare the fundamental cracks in the established systems around the globe. As economies halted, garment workers are facing unique circumstances. ⁣⁣Many major fashion brands and retailers were collectively cancelling orders and stopping payments for orders already placed, even when the work has already been done, taking no responsibility for the impact this has on the people working in their supply chain. Continued demand for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) orders means that many factories remain open. Social distancing is impossible.

Even before the pandemic, fast fashion was undergoing significant upheaval. Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy, H&M is closing 200 stores, and Zara posted a net profit down 70 per cent in 2020. According to McKinsey Global Fashion Index analysis, fashion companies will post a 90 per cent decline in economic profit in 2020. And with disappearing department stores and bankrupt retailers, American malls are distressed. Much of the B, C and D-grade malls will become obsolete. You’ll find a full list of major retailers that filed for bankruptcy here. Convincing established brands to decouple volume growth from value growth will be more difficult, particularly the ones more determined to get back to their pre-coronavirus ways of working. That said, we have to ask ourselves if going ‘back’ is the direction we want to be taking.

We exist within a society and context that is equally responsible

The communications angle that they [the industry] take is to show people that shifts in lifestyle behaviours have significant consequences, once you understand this, people around you might change too — that’s how societal shifts begin. You want to look inwards. While I believe that we need to be responsible and careful, it is also not our sole responsibility.

Given brands and companies that produce and market our clothing [the industry] contribute substantially to global greenhouse gas emissions, they are the most responsible for waste culture — the overall exploitative scheme the industry benefits from and therefore have the capacity to initiate the most meaningful change.

All too often, the industry has looked to us, the consumer, to fix these systemic issues. The current dialogue around sustainability remains centred on a capitalist model. The mainstream message primarily focused on“Buy more expensive, buy less but choose well!” encouraging the masses to buy their way into a sustainable lifestyle. That’s not accessible; $ 400 sweaters are not at all affordable to most. Imagining a more responsible industry isn’t just about organic materials or plastic reduction, or upcycling. No one can buy their way into sustainability.

Upcycling and resale programmes further incentivise hyper-consumerist culture while allowing brands to profit twice off one product. They’re also collecting and distributing more waste to countries where the secondhand trade market undermines local textile manufacturing and production.

You may or may not remember the infamous Bryan Boy tweet of 2018. "There's nothing sustainable about creating something new en masse. Just stop. Please. You wanna know what's sustainable? Wearing your old damn clothes, that's what. Bye." And he isn't wrong. The way that sustainability is presented to us today is still “Buy more, buy more!” which is counterintuitive. Overconsumption led us to an unsustainable ecosystem where supply is far greater than demand. Recall when Burberry faced public outrage for burning $37 million worth of excess product in 2017.

A new, regenerative world order needs creating

It’s fair to assume that in the future, those within the fashion industry will need to be highly educated about environmental and social issues and, more importantly, be willing and ready to adapt. And there is a shifting tide. It is a unique moment because people are paying attention and reorienting their relationship with materiality and consumption.

There are already a lot of brands with long-term sustainability commitments—offering complimentary mending services, working with deadstock and regenerated materials and textile recyclers. Ahead of the pandemic, digitally native brands were abandoning traditional retail models, seasonal collections and sales, prompting conversations around perceived value once the season was deemed ‘over’. Local brands, Kowtow, Maggie Marilyn and Ovna Ovich champion that same broad scope of interconnectedness.

Now is the time to reimagine new systems. And that involves rethinking power structures and reevaluating definitions of growth. We need to put the health of our ecosystems at the heart of our business systems, prioritising environmental sustainability. That means designing systems from a human community-centred perspective rather than profit-centred as we have now with capitalism. I am challenging myself and others as more and more people are getting serious about these issues every day to ask questions.

How you can get involved in Fashion Revolution Week

This year, Fashion Revolution added a new call to action — #WhoMadeMyFabric. Asking this question, we acknowledge and connect the maker, the process and the ecosystem surrounding our garments. You can become part of the revolution and, for example, send messages to fashion brands via Instagram under the hashtags #WhoMadeMyFabric, #WhoMadeMyClothes and #WhatsInMyClothes, access guides and zines, or attend local events on the topic.

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