Call for change: how our fashion choices affect the environment

With fast fashion wreaking havoc on our environment, it is time to be more responsible shoppers

An image from the autumn winter 2017 ad campaign by Stella McCartney
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Shopping. Ah, how we all love shopping. Pick any weekend, in any mall, and crowds of people will be found wandering around shops, flicking aimlessly through rails, new purchases in hand. Now a worldwide obsession (in the UAE, particularly during the oppressive summer months, it's almost a national sport), McKinsey and the Business of Fashion estimate the value of the global fashion industry to be a whopping US$2.4 trillion (Dh8.8tn) a year.

Yet for the autumn/winter season, fashion designer Stella McCartney launched an advertising campaign that sees models not frolicking on beaches or striking poses against dramatic streetscapes, but instead clambering across a landfill site. Staging a shoot in a rubbish pit is a risky move (who wants their expensive clothes to be associated with garbage?), but in doing so, McCartney is shining a light on one of fashion's dirty little secrets.


Take a peek under the gloss and glitter, and fashion loses its sheen pretty quickly. High street giants such as Zara, H&M and Forever 21 process one million garments a day, to fuel our insatiable desire to shop. Fashion relies heavily on cotton, a plant so thirsty it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce enough cotton to create a single T-shirt, and despite representing just 2.4 per cent of the world's crops, uses 24 per cent of the world's pesticides.

Skins and hides fare little better. The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation values the leather industry at $40 billion per year (a by-product of the estimated 29 million cows slaughtered for food annually). This is turned into goods such as shoes, bags and belts. However, transforming raw skin into a usable piece of leather requires the use of metals such as chrome in the tanning process, which is harmful to both the environment and the workers exposed to them. The vegetable-based alternatives are slower and more expensive, so deemed largely unsuitable for mass manufacturing. The exotic skins and fur industry, meanwhile, sees 50 million animals a year killed purely for their pelts. 

The so-called fast fashion industry, and its model of updating shop stock every few days, encourages customers to buy an ever-increasing amount of clothes and accessories. To keep prices down, many are produced in garment factories in countries such as Cambodia and Bangladesh. It is estimated that there are currently over 3m Bangladeshis (of whom 85 per cent are women) employed in garment factories, routinely working six days weeks, and 12 to 15-hour shifts, for around Dh120 per month.

But, as our wardrobes regularly swell to bursting point, what happens to all the things we no longer want? Few of us have limitless storage space, so where do all the casts-offs go? Charity drives encourage people to donate to worthy causes such as the Red Crescent or Islamic Relief, providing essential clothing to those in need, but the sad reality is that a good proportion of our unwanted clothes – most of which have been worn just a few times – go straight into the dustbin. A recent report by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) worked out that the United Kingdom alone dumps a staggering 350,000 tonnes a year of unwanted clothing straight into landfills (worth in the region of Dh680 million). The peak in the number of clothes being dumped ahead of summer shopping sprees is a worrying new trend.

The upside is that fabric decom-poses, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, the fibres of cotton, linen and silk (and given long enough, leather) will rot, but synthetics like polyester and rayon do not, and like other plastic based materials, can take over 1,000 years to break down.

Which highlights a whole other issue. We get through 300 million tonnes of plastic each year, which, like our unwanted clothes, generally ends up in landfill. Despite years of recycling campaigning in the United States, the country still only manages to recycle less than 3 per cent of its plastic bags, with the other 100 billion bags going straight into landfill each year. Snagged in trees, lying in wadis and trapped in coral reefs, plastic is everywhere.  

While this all makes for grim reading, there is a solution, and it's in our wallets. Every industry in the world is driven by money. Our money. It is basic supply and demand – if we demand something, somebody, somewhere, will do anything in their power to supply it. In other words, we all just need to be a bit cannier about who we give our money to.

Parley for the Oceans is a not-forprofit initiative established in 2012, to find workable solutions for the protection of the seas. Founder Cyrill Gutsch has declared plastic to be a "design failure", and is tireless in his quest to both wean us off our addiction to it, and find ways to deal with what's already here. One such solution is a partnership with sports giant Adidas, who in 2015 launched the Adidas x Parley shoe, which features an upper made from 95 per cent recycled ocean plastic. It sold out in hours, and has spurred Adidas to commit to making one million pairs of trainers from ocean plastic, which will remove 11 million plastic bottles from the sea. The brand has also used ocean plastic to make the strips for football clubs Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

Month of October. A model stars in the autumn winter 2017 Stella McCartney ad campaign
Month of October. A model stars in the autumn winter 2017 Stella McCartney ad campaign

Stella McCartney joined forces with Parley for the Oceans this year, to launch its own plastic trainer, the Parley Ultra Boost, which arrived on our shores in the spring. In addition, McCartney has voiced a commitment to replacing all synthetic and recycled fibres in its products with ocean plastic. This is not an unexpected move from the fashion house, which despite being mocked for its cruelty-free, eco-friendly platform, has in 15 years built an empire covering 70 countries without using a single piece of leather, fur or feather.

Later this year, McCartney is collaborating with Bolt Threads, a Silicon Valley biotech company that has created an artificial spider's silk using yeast. In nature, spider's silk is both strong and flexible, and there have been many unsuccessful attempts to harvest the material (most of which failed because the spiders kept eating each other), but Bolt Threads has found an innovative way to recreate spider's silk using yeast. McCartney will use the vegan fibre to create a dress for the Items: Is Fashion Modern exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which starts on October 1.

Parley for the Ocean has also worked with Adidas on a technical fabric for swimwear, made from discarded fishing nets. Left drifting aimlessly in the oceans, unwanted nets are drowning innumerable turtles, dolphins, whales and sharks every year. By retrieving them and turning them into so-called ebony fabric (1,000 swimsuits can be made from just one net), Parley has created a new fibre so well suited to swimwear that it has also been adopted by manufacturers such as Arena, Speedo and Mara Hoffman.

Ian Rosenberger is another individual who has set his sights on reducing the impact of plastic waste on our oceans. In 2010, Rosenberger visited Haiti following the devastating earthquake, and was struck by both the extreme poverty that the people were living in, and the choking rubbish that surrounded them. His solution was Thread International, a company set up to employ Haitians to collect plastic for recycling. The plastic is first ground into chips, and then spun into a fabric that has been used for a T-shirt by designer Kenneth Jay Lane, and the City Blazer and Newport Bay boots by Timberland. To date, some 700,000 bottles have been collected by Thread International.

High street giant H&M is one of the names blamed for the fast fashion behemoth, but it is trying to do its bit to help. In 2012, the brand established its Conscious Exclusive Collections, made using organic cotton and repurposed materials. The following year, it launched its Garment Collection initiative, urging customers to bring old clothes into stores for collection. By April 2016, it had collected 25,000 tonnes of old clothes, which were sold, re-used or recycled. This year's offering, The Spring Summer Exclusive collection, was made using the new Bionic fibre from ocean plastic. Bionic yarn differs from other fibres in that it is very versatile and can be put to almost any use, from jeans to T-shirts. To highlight this, H&M chose it to create a soft, flowing, full-length evening gown that was modelled by Natalia Vodianova. Well-received by customers, it was a huge step forward in changing perceptions about how sophisticated and wearable recycled fabrics now are.

At the opposite end of the fashion spectrum sits Livia Firth, who launched her Green Carpet Challenge in 2013, with Eco Age. As the wife of actor Colin Firth, she has used her position in the spotlight to challenge high-end designers to go green, and to create red carpet-worthy looks that are as sustainable as they are stylish. To date, Burberry Prorsum, Gucci, Stella McCartney, Chopard, D&G Alta Moda, Tom Ford and Valentino have all risen to the challenge.

This autumn Firth will return to her native Italy, to host The Green Carpet Fashion Awards, as part of Milan Fashion Week in September. In addition to high-end names such as Giorgio Armani, Fendi, Valentino and Prada taking part, it will also show the work of emerging designers. Selected by a panel of industry experts, finalists will show collections that follow strict sustainability guidelines, but also offer the quality associated with the "Made in Italy" moniker.

Speaking of the project, Firth says: "This is what sustainability is – Italy is the steward of a unique design heritage, of which I have always been supremely proud. But this must now be developed and built on the values of environmental protection and social justice in our supply chains."

We could all take a leaf out of Firth's book. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, it is our responsibility to affect change, in whatever small way we can.


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