The clothing and textile industry as it currently stands negatively impacts, rather than protects and promotes, the health and wellbeing of humans, animals, and the planet. Restructuring it to meet human needs without negatively impacting other humans, animals, or the environment requires changes at every level of production and distribution, as well as a serious reduction in the amount of clothing and textiles that are produced.
Rethinking fashion is an important aspect of moving toward necessary reductions in clothing and textile production.
A Just Fashion Industry
In wealthy countries the fashion industry creates the demand that drives the textile and garment industries to excessive production, which causes immeasurable suffering for child laborers, exploited workers, and animals in the agricultural and manufacturing processes, and which harms the environment through toxic outputs and waste.
A just fashion industry would adhere to a reduce-reuse-recycle model and promote an aesthetic of well-loved and repaired apparel, rather than an exclusive focus on new products.
These values have been embraced in a few recent trends which have spanned the spectrum of fashion industry participants, from individuals, to free and paid service providers, to corporate entities.
- the “visible mending” movement, which promotes self-expression through creative repair rather than new purchases;
- new services that help people maintain the wardrobe they have, including the resurgence of professional menders and apps that encourage consumers to revalue what they already own and buy less (for example, this Save Your Wardrobe article provides helpful tips for becoming a “fashion citizen” instead of a fashion consumer;
- for-profit publications and designer collaborations that promote the “upcycled” aesthetic (for example, Display Copy, which launched a #nonewfashion2021 campaign; and the Post-Industrial Fashion Show, based in Barcelona).
Regional Clothing Sovereignty
A just fashion industry would also enable regional clothing sovereignty, taking advantage of the knowledge, skills, styles, and tools of handweaving traditions throughout the world.
In Europe and North America, people who made cloth by hand as a primary or secondary source of income were some of the first to be displaced when the industrial revolution enabled the manufacturing of textiles in factories.
And, globalization of the garment industry has put pressure on local textile markets in less wealthy countries because garments mass-produced in those countries for export and sale in Europe and North America return to those countries as secondhand goods that can be purchased at a lower cost than can textiles and clothing produced by local craftspeople (see, for example, this discussion of the impact of secondhand clothing exports from Germany to African nations and this discussion of the impact of secondhand clothing exports from the US to El Salvador).
Recognizing the high carbon cost of garment imports, the “fibershed” movement has begun promoting regional textile economies in North America and in Europe by creating networks for the local sourcing of raw materials and the manufacturing and sales of cloth and clothing. Fibershed networks do reduce some harms to the planet, but so far they have fallen short of aiming toward a socially and environmentally just system because of their unquestioned reliance on products derived from animals instead of, for example, encouraging a transition from ranching to the sustainable farming of plants used as fiber.
The Impact of Reduced Demand
Reducing the level of demand for garments in wealthy countries to better reflect necessity could help restore self-sufficiency to less-wealthy countries.
A more reasonable level of demand could also reduce the number of agricultural and factory workers needed to manufacture disposable fashion products, which would likely curtail producers’ incentives to engage in exploitative labor practices.
Standards for Just Fashion
In addition to creating regional clothing economies and reducing consumer demand in wealthy countries to create a more just fashion industry, it’s vital for governments and trade organizations internationally to set standards that deter destructive practices.
Such standards would
- protect the planet from toxins used in textile manufacturing and from the waste stream of discarded, excess clothing;
- protect the rights of animals to bodily integrity and to environments in which they can flourish; and
- protect the rights of workers to healthy workplaces and fair wages and ban child labor or coerced labor. (For a sense of how widespread child labor and coerced labor abuses are in the garment industry, see the US Department of Labor’s report 2020 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. For more on the scope of the problem of child labor in the garment industry, and the importance of incorporating a rights perspective into sourcing textiles, see UNICEF’s 2020 report Children’s Rights in the Garment and Footwear Supply Chain.)
Such standards are necessary to ensure that social and environmental justice are embedded in the manufacture of any new textiles and clothing going forward.
A Transition Toward More Ethical Fashion and Fiber
Since such standards are currently absent, various individuals, organizations, and companies are attempting to work toward greater justice within the current system.
One positive trend is the growing number of designers and entrepreneurs that are prioritizing fair trade, healthy working conditions, and sustainably-produced vegan fabrics in their product lines.
For example, Impact Fashion, a volunteer-run nonprofit organization, brings attention to the human and animal rights abuses of the textile industry and helps alleviate them by raising money for related causes and by highlighting ethical designers and brands at an annual fashion show and summit. The organization maintains a directory on their website of brands they have vetted.
Recent years have also seen the expansion of research on developing sustainably-produced fibers to replace the use of leather, wool, and silk in clothing, accessories, and household goods as well as in the automotive and transportation industries.
Some of the research is ethically suspect, relying on the use of animal products at the initial stages, but much of it focuses on plants, mushrooms, and mycelia, with the explicit aim of taking animals completely out of the equation.
Many of these new fashion ventures reclaim what previously was a waste product of other industries, such as
- grape marc from winemaking operations;
- apple pulp leftover from cider pressing;
- byproducts from citrus juicing;
- pineapple leaves discarded during harvest; or
- recycled sawdust for use in growing mushrooms to produce an alternative to leather.
The Challenges of Transforming Fashion
Even with the best research and intentions, many challenges to creating a just fashion industry remain.
To replace animal-derived materials, the new textiles must function as well as or better than current materials, and some developers aim to reproduce the look and feel of the fabric they’re replacing to satisfy consumer preferences for familiar characteristics.
Once companies have met the desired standard, they must be able to scale up their production so that they can price their products competitively with the materials that currently dominate the market.
Some ventures are gearing themselves first toward luxury goods for that reason and as a means to generate demand for the materials, but doing so perpetuates the current inequalities in access.
And, because of this focus on the luxury market and the way that manufacturing services are distributed under the current system, many of these new companies are manufacturing their goods on one continent and shipping them to another for processing, which reduces the overall sustainability of the production process.
As these companies scale up their production, they also will need to avoid the exploitative manufacturing practices that plague the industry as a whole.