Why sustainable fashion matters

Alex Blumberg, Executive Producer of the Planet Money T-shirt project, appeared on The Colbert Report last week. The project traced a T-shirt on its 20-thousand mile production journey, starting with cotton harvested in Mississippi that was spun into yarn (the industry calls thread yarn) in Indonesia, and assembled by suppliers in Bangladesh and Colombia. This isn’t a fancy-pants, organic, ethically produced T-shirt. It’s made of conventionally grown cotton and costs about $12.42 to make. NPR is currently selling a men’s and women’s version for $30.

Colbert told Blumberg, “Not a fan of this project. The global marketplace is someplace where we export work to have happen in whatever conditions we want, and then the products come back to me cheap enough to throw away without thinking about it.… Why do you want to make the hand of the market visible?”

Current apparel technology and cheap labor support supersonic change, high profits, and low prices. This makes the average modern wardrobe about as disposable as a box of Kleenex. Blumberg told Colbert about a customer in a Paramus Wal-Mart who was buying a four pack of T-shirts because the man didn’t want to do laundry.

Despite Colbert’s quip, international apparel retailers Benetton, H&M, C&A, Tesco, and Zara recently decided to source their garments ethically. H&M, the international fast fashion titan, announced that it plans to raise wages in Bangladesh, one of many countries where garment workers don’t earn a living wage. Higher retail prices to cover increased wages would be a likely outcome at some point. It’s newsworthy because this is the first time H&M has been willing to discuss raising prices because consumers are ready, the Paramus Wal-Mart shopper mentioned above excepted.

There is a growing consumer awareness of the apparel industry’s less glamorous SOPs. Fast fashion is cheap — cheap materials, cheap labor, and cheap overhead that often includes dangerous working conditions for textile workers. Like the farm-to-table movement that preceded it, sustainable fashion or eco fashion, is gaining momentum and mainstream acceptance.

“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening,” explained Coco Chanel. The way we live and exchange ideas now is lightning fast. Ideas about style, as differentiated from fashion, are relatively constant. People want to feel good about their clothes. The definition of good varies over time. Green, ethically produced garments engender good feelings. Can anyone possibly feel good about angora sweaters or the retailers who continue to sell them?

Green is good for business and technology like the newly released Higg Index 2.0 helps retailers get on a sustainable track. The Higg Index is a social and environmental impact assessment tool for apparel and footwear developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Their mission statement:

“The Sustainable Apparel Coalition was founded by a group of sustainability leaders from global apparel and footwear companies who recognize that addressing our industry’s current social and environmental challenges are both a business imperative and an opportunity.

Through multi-stakeholder engagement, the Coalition seeks to lead the industry toward a shared vision of sustainability built upon a common approach for measuring and evaluating apparel and footwear product sustainability performance that will spotlight priorities for action and opportunities for technological innovation.”

It’s difficult to get a handle on something that’s as changeable and seemingly disposable as fashion, but it’s not impossible. Sustainability is definitely in style. High-quality apparel that wears well over time is a variation of sustainability. Clothing that is intended to be kept and worn for decades isn’t a new idea but it’s another important aspect of marketing in the growing green sustainable apparel industry.

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