Over the years, as my career progressed, I became increasingly aware of the environmental impact of apparel manufacturing, though as I rose in the ranks of corporate fashion, it was fairly easy to turn a blind eye to it. When an assignment took me to India for a year, however, I began working very closely with garment factories, and learned even more about the resources and man power required to run a mass-market apparel business.
THE TRUE COST OF CLOTHING
Manufacturing is an important piece of the Indian economy, giving livelihoods to workers in poor areas and encouraging what has become the greatest urban migration in history to manufacturing hubs like Chennai and Bangalore.
It also has an undeniable effect on the environment. To achieve a sharp price point, most high street fashion brands rely on synthetic fabrics, which are cheap to produce, but are derived from petroleum. Fabrics made from natural fibers have a big impact as well, since fiber crops like cotton require staggering amounts of water to grow.
Treating, washing, and dyeing fabric are all very water-intensive processes. The chemicals used in these processes pose a health risk to factory workers and often contaminate water supply if waste water is not treated properly.
Factory machinery uses a huge amount of electricity, as do the cooling systems needed to counteract the heat the machines create.
To source the cheapest materials and labor, high street brands rely on a global network of suppliers. Fibers grown in one country may be shipped to another to be spun, knitted, or woven, the fabric then sent to yet another country to be sewn into garments, which are then shipped to distribution centers in the brand’s home country, before they are sent to brick and mortar stores
or directly to consumers. This global production scheme, while enabling brands to keep their prices low, means a huge carbon footprint for each and every garment.
India is currently undergoing the greatest urban migration in history – photo by Emma Street
Then there is the waste created by the product itself: the thousands of samples that are produced in a season before production even begins, the discarded garments and bolts of fabric that don’t pass quality control, and the packaging required for shipping finished product.
The human rights piece of apparel manufacturing is too complex an issue for me to fully address here. However, I will say that though many companies have good intentions with regard to human rights for workers in their supply chains, overseeing and enforcing human rights policies at every stage of the product life cycle is extremely difficult. While I appreciate brands that are dedicated to the ethics of their products, good intent doesn’t always mean 100% compliance from mills, factories, and farms.
By the time my assignment in India was over, I was ready to leave the apparel industry altogether, and step away from my role in this cycle of endless consumerism. I resolved from then on to, above all, buy less clothing, and when I do buy clothing, to opt for second-hand.
THE BEAUTY OF SECOND HAND
Vintage and charity shops have become great resources for me, and I love the challenge of hunting the rails for those perfect pieces to spruce up my wardrobe. I always find more interesting fashion than I’d find in high street shops, and I feel good knowing that I’m not adding to the demand for more new clothing. I follow the one-in-one-out rule, and whenever I bring home a new (to me) pre-loved piece, I try to pull something else out of my wardrobe and donate it to my local charity shop.
Second hand shopping has become a key part of my lifestyle, and helps me keep my environmental impact to a minimum, while enabling me to refine my own unique style. There’s so much stuff of all kinds already in existence in the world. Whenever I need something, I always try to find it second hand first. 9 times out of 10, I can!