The fashion industry has a disastrous impact on the environment. However, significant change throughout the industry, spurred on by mass consumer action, may yet be on the way.
Sustainability in fashion is a hot topic, with large and small retailers racing to prove their green credentials. However, the industry remains one of the world's largest polluters.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, the fashion industry is the second largest consumer of water – just after the oil industry – and is responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
“So, for example, it would take 13 years to drink the water that is used to make one pair of jeans and one T-shirt,” says Fee Gilfeather, a sustainability expert at the nonprofit OXFAM. “It's just an incredible amount of environmental resources that are required for making the clothing that we wear.”
Besides the water waste, harmful chemicals, global transport of goods, and non-biodegradable packaging add to the environmental footprint of the industry.
This combined impact has put the fashion industry under scrutiny among consumers who want to know where and how their clothes are produced. More and more consumers are demanding ethical practices and responsible retailing.
China’s millennial consumers and its fashion industry are no exceptions. In fact, the country has a key position in shaping the new green trends in the global fashion market. The global fashion industry is growing, and a great deal of that growth comes from China.
At the same time, the environmental awareness of global and Chinese consumers is also growing, and along with that growth there is an emergence of designers, entrepreneurs and consumers seeking more sustainable, eco-friendly, ethically produced clothing.
Therefore, from both the supply and demand sides, there is a great chance for the fashion industry to go green in China.
This logic has led some ethical brands to specifically chose manufacturing in China, providing sustainable and ethical jobs for factory workers, and even seeking out uniquely skilled craftspeople to serve a more global market.
Here are some examples of China’s Green Fashion Industry:
Snoozer Loser originated in the US, with a store located in Shanghai. The brand is not marketed as completely sustainable, as the designers feels this is not possible in the fashion industry. Snoozer Loser hand make all their clothing, mixes their own dyes, incorporates vintage materials in their designs, and uses organic cottons.
NEEMIC is a high fashion brand based in Beijing, seeking to address both ethical and environmental consciousness within their label. Their clothing is made from organic materials, eliminating all artificial products from agricultural production of fibers. Biodegradable soaps are used to wash materials and all clothing is produced in an ethical environment.
Fake Natoo is differentiating itself from competitors with its production techniques. The company’s’ clothing is made exclusively from up-cycled materials. Fake Natoo creates the clothing using discarded clothes or donated textiles, making this a truly sustainable line as these fibers are given a second life.
In addition, not only is Fake Natoo based on a sustainable model of production, but the fashion line creates employment opportunities for migrant women by employing them to create designs and donating 10% of all revenue to migrant women’s cooperatives.
Shokay is a social enterprise that creates clothing using yak down through a partnership with Tibetan herders. Furthermore, not only is Shokay’s clothing line based on sustainable fibers, but they are actively contributing to the development of communities in western Tibet. In addition to supporting yak herders, Shokay set aside 1% of their revenues specifically for their Community Development Fund, which further contributes to the development of these rural areas.
Baggu creates Nylon, Canvas, and Leather Bags, constructed to minimize material waste and ensure high quality products. Although Baggu doesn't have stores in China, it's products are manufactured in China.
"China offers the most advanced manufacturing technology and ethical work practices." says the company on its website. Manufacturing facilities are audited yearly by an independent third party to ensure they are upholding standards of occupational health and safety, and humane work hours and wages are enforced.
Their original bags were based on a standard plastic grocery bag but designed to carry 2-3 times more weight. Baggu's vision is always for everyone to keep a reusable bag with them to reduce plastic use.
These companies stand out as excellent examples for green development in the industry. However, their ability to overcome rising costs in materials, labor and transportation, while tackling more active regulation and shifting consumer sentiment, remains to be seen in the long run.
The good news is the severity of the fashion industry’s problem and its sheer scale create a pressing argument for change in the industry.