What are the biggest challenges sustainable fashion is facing right now?
That’s an interesting question! I’d like to frame it in a slightly different way: what is the biggest challenge that fashion is facing right now? And the answer is that fashion is an incredibly unsustainable industry, and that we need to do a lot of work to figure out how to create a new global model for the industry that makes it morally acceptable to keep producing clothes. What is being called today sustainable fashion has some of the answers, but not all. If we look at the scale of clothes production and textile waste globally, and at the greenhouse emissions and water and energy consumption that the industry is responsible for, even if sustainable brands had the whole industry market share we would still be in a dire problem. It doesn’t add up.
So to me the primary challenge of sustainable fashion is balancing gaining market share while promoting degrowth of the industry. At the moment we don’t need people to buy more sustainable fashion. We need people to buy much fewer clothes. Only then we can start a conversation on what those clothes should be, and of course they should adhere to the highest sustainability standards! But this paradigm is quite difficult for us sustainable brands to navigate because as businesses we need to survive. And overall it is a very difficult shift for consumers, because it contradicts every bit of information that is being pumped into us daily by consumer culture.
What can be improved in this sector?
Frankly, we think that this sector – as well as many others – needs heavy regulation. Somehow, today, disregarding human rights and environmental protection comes with huge financial rewards. And while we strongly believe in consumer power, this needs to be matched at some point with government action, that is how systemic shifts happen. So far, change in the fashion industry has rested unevenly only in the hands of citizens, activist organizations and some brands. There’s been huge progress and incredible advances in the conversation, but we’re running out of time to prevent massive environmental breakdown and change needs to happen much faster.
We need legislation that bans companies from selling clothes that don’t meet basic environmental standards. And we need legislation that bans companies from selling clothes that have been produced by workers in unfair labour practices. These range from workers not being paid fair wages to child labour and workers in situations of modern slavery. The fashion industry is one of the primary industries contributing to the prevalence of child labour and modern slavery. We’re talking about roughly 40 million people living in modern slavery and 170 million children engaged in child labour. And we know, for a fact, that the fashion industry, primarily through cotton picking and manufacturing, is responsible for a good share of these numbers. Every year, Western countries billions worth of clothes that can be sold cheaply only because they rely on human exploitation. These are clothes that we don’t need, and clothes that we don’t really want, as we throw them away after less and less wears every year. How are we all OK with this?
When legislation that sets bare ethical minimums for fashion supply chains is in place, we can start looking into incentive systems that will enable largescale replication across the industry of the things that we do know work. We know that we need more recycled fabrics (less than 1% of global textile production today is made with recycled feedstock), we need more circular supply chains, and we need regenerative practices to sit at the core of the industry, and of all product-based industries. All these things are doable and easily scalable. But first we need to put checks in place on what the minimum criteria to sell clothes in Europe and the US is, in order to level the playing ground and make it financially rewarding for brands to pivot to value-based business models.
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