The True Cost behind the Fashion Industry (part 2): The Solutions

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I am not against fashion, rather to invoke how we should design, produce and consume fashion in a more environmental friendly way. Although we have got multiple problems of fashion industry, we should solve them step by step. For example, designers should consider using organic fabric or recycled fabric; manufacturers should take environmental protections and fair trade with labors into consideration. Consumers are supposed to learn about the stories behind the brand besides the price and think about how to deal with remnant clothing, whether you really need to buy the new clothing…

There is already ongoing reformation against social problems caused by the clothing industry. Let’s have a look at what designers from Hong Kong and the West did for this reformation.

@Daniel Silverstein, an independent fashion designer from New York, is doing “zero-waste design”. People outside the industry might not be aware how tremendous waste there is in the textile and clothing industry – on average nearly 30%-40% of the fabrics are wasted (plus the unsold inventory clothing and second-hand clothing, can you imagine how tremendous the waste is? So as someone who is not working in this industry, why should you care? In fact you should! ‘Cos it is related with everyone’s life! First of all, all the wasted materials are counted into the production cost, which eventually will be paid by you – consumers. Don’t blame the factories. It is the nature of business – you count in all your cost and add up mark-up for profit – just like any other industries do. Otherwise no one will make profit. Next, the textile and clothing industry consumes a lot of energy and resources, especially water. Take a simple cotton T-shirt for example. It takes around 1500 liters to plant the cotton needed for one T-shirt. To compare, an average person consumes 30 liters of water every day. Now think about the cotton T-shirts – after consuming so much energy, and a long production cycle, they will either wasted fabrics or unsold inventory. Even if someone purchased them, they might sleep in people’s wardrobe most of the time and eventually be dumped to somewhere of nowhere. This is the whole circulation of our garments today!

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NY independent designer Daniel Silverstein talking about his concept of “zero-waste design” (Photo by the author)

In Hong Kong, @Cirbaf is an enterprise, which focuses on reusing fabrics left over by factories to make baby shoes and accessories. They use organic materials since baby shoes need to be healthy and soft.Baby shoes are designed and manufactured by Cirbaf. Their products are using leftover of organic fabrics from factories. Besides, all products are made by a group of people with disabilities in sheltered workshops run by Po Leung Kuk or St James’ Settlement. They aim to provide employment opportunities for this group of people who are usually ignored by the mainstream job markets. For people with disabilities, they can gain income and realize social values from their own labor input instead of relying on governmental subsidies. It is a tough process to train them to be equipped with manufacturing techniques. So manufacturing procedures cannot be too demanding. However, once they master the technique, each of them will complete each step with their whole heart. Nobody would complain or idle away the time. Many might think that it is hard for people with disabilities to work. There are actually many types of disabilities. As long as one is willing to work, most can qualify for employment.

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Baby shoes made from unused fabrics by people with disabilities. (Photo by author)

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Denim laptop bags made from unused denim fabrics

More and more designers from the west and Hong Kong start to focus on sustainable fashion. Consumers in the west are also getting more aware of this issue. There are many different approaches to support sustainable fashion, zero-waste is just one of them. Others include the use of organic fabrics, and up-cycling techniques, such as, to re-design or re-make second-hand clothing. Simply speaking, sustainable fashion is to design, manufacture and consume fashion in a sustainable way (benefits to the environment, humanity and also labor force). China, as the world manufacturing factory and also the biggest consumer market, actually needs urgent changes in this aspect. We all care about the issue of poisonous air, but actually we are the one who produce the poisonous air. The unsold inventory clothing and the clothes we discarded in daily life mostly end up in landfills, the waste of which is actually one of the major pollutants to air quality. As for labor practices, objectively speaking, China has already improved a lot. This is also why garment manufacturers have gradually moved to Southeast Asian markets which supply cheaper labor. However, it is still hard to say the problems of labor practices are completely solved in China. Both enterprises and designers should take the responsibility to improve the situation of labor practices.

Textile & clothing enterprises and fashion designers in China mustraise awareness on social problems caused by clothing industry, and strengthen their social responsibilities. Unfortunately in China, we tend to blindly take the fashion mode which has already been rejected in the west. For example, “fast fashion” from @H&M, which we have been greatly worshipped by many Chinese enterprises, is actually criticized by most environmental institutions because this mode produced large amounts of waste. Designers shouldn’t just consider uniqueness, aesthetics or quality, but they need also think about whether the fabric they use would affect the environment, whether the fabric quality is durable and whether the labor practices are fair or not. Because designer brands are not cheap, workers also deserve to share a fairly good treatment.

All in all, the sustainable development of clothing industry is the responsibility of every citizen living on this planet.