The Environmental Challenge of Fashion
Food, shelter, and clothes have all become a combination of what is needed and what is desired as fundamental needs progress into luxuries. What we wear, where we live, and even what we eat are the commodities frequently meant to be visually pleasant. In the present-day world, scarcity and poverty are quite common, but residents throughout most regions do not experience hardship. The official rate of poverty in 2021 was 11.6 percent, with 37.9 million persons in poverty, according to the United States Census Bureau. Neither the proportion nor the number of people in poverty differed considerably from 2020.
Internationally, the World Bank sets a far lower criterion than the United States and characterizes "extreme poverty." They believe that around 860 million people live in severe poverty. According to a Brookings research, there are around 250 million wealthy families globally and another 3.6 billion individuals in the middle class.
The tremendous environmental effect of rich and middle-class individuals includes culturally tied but increasingly damaging fashion choices. The transition to sustainable clothing must address many critical issues: What do we put on? Why? How does clothes get made? How much do we store in our wardrobes without using? What happens to clothes when we throw them away? Even while we consider these issues, many experts remain doubtful about the potential of sustainable fashion. Former Timberland COO Kenneth P. Pucker provides the following commentary in a Harvard Business Review article titled "The Myth of Sustainable Fashion":
“Few industries tout their sustainability credentials more forcefully than the fashion industry… New business models including recycling, resale, rental, reuse, and repair are sold as environmental life savers. The sad truth however is that all this experimentation and supposed “innovation” in the fashion industry over the past 25 years have failed to lessen its planetary impact…Take the production of shirts and shoes, which has more than doubled in the past quarter century — three quarters end up burned or buried in landfills…Thanks to trade liberalization, globalization, and enduring cost pressures, very few brands own the assets of their upstream factories, and most companies outsource final production…Like all industries, fashion is nested in a broader system. It is a system premised on growth….Combine the imperative of growth with accelerating product drops, long lead times, and global supply chains, and the result is inevitable overproduction…predicting demand across tens of styles that are launched seasonally is much easier than doing the same for thousands of styles released monthly…Five years ago, McKinsey reported that shorter production lead times enabled by technology and revised business systems enabled brands to “introduce new lines more frequently. Zara offers 24 new clothing collections each year; H&M offers 12 to 16 and refreshes them weekly.” This acceleration and proliferation of “newness” served as a constant draw to bring consumers back to sites and stores.”
This business model is facilitated by technology and the lack of robust global supply chain regulation. However, it is lucrative to a culture because of the need for shifting trends and keeping it fresh. Social media and visual applications such as TikTok and Instagram are also fueling the need for fresh appearances. Clothing is worn for personal expression rather than for utilitarian reasons such as warmth and public modesty. This aspect of expressiveness will not go away. Pucker's conclusion is that the private sector cannot boost the use of sustainable materials and the creation of sustainable business models on its own. He argues that we charge negative externalities, reverting to the traditional economist solution. As Pucker claims: “After a quarter century of experimentation with the voluntary, market-based win-win approach to fashion sustainability, it is time to shift.”
Wait till he attempts forced change if he thinks voluntary change doesn't work. Pricing externalities is a fine economic idea that works well until it collides with political reality. Externalities are generally not politically feasible to price. People dislike paying taxes for items they desire, and pricing externalities have equity implications since impoverished people pay the same prices as wealthy people. The most effective approach to use money to modify behavior is to subsidize constructive conduct rather than charge more for destructive behavior. It will be tough to change the culture of novelty. Business principles in design, finance, and social media support it.
However, there is a growing knowledge of the nature of the issue, and young people, who are fast fashion's major market, are starting to understand the ecological harm caused by fast fashion. In a latest Wall Street Journal article, Dieter Holger stated the following:
“Fashion companies are planning to buy more recycled fibers as part of a wider trend of businesses using their spending power to foster innovative, low-carbon suppliers. Owners of fashion brands H&M, Zara, Gucci and Stella McCartney were among companies that said Monday they would collectively buy 550,000 metric tons of alternative fibers to make textiles and packaging, such as those made from agricultural residues or recycled materials. The planned purchase represents only a small portion of their total output and no deadline was set, largely because the materials are currently in scarce supply…Like many sectors, the fashion industry is coming under increased scrutiny from consumers and regulators about where its fabrics come from and the waste it produces. In the U.S., textile waste going to landfills has been rising since 1960 and reached 11.3 million tons in 2018, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The fashion sector is also bracing for regulations from the European Union, whose executive arm published a plan in March that said clothing should be “long-lived and recyclable, to a great extent made of recycled fibers” by 2030.”
None of this undermines Kenneth Pucker's claims because these initiatives are mostly limited and ceremonial. Another topic not covered in any of these articles is the industry's abusive labor practices. Rachel Greenley, a graduate student researching and working in the fast fashion sector, reported in a recent New York Times opinion piece:
“Of the 75 million garment workers worldwide, it’s estimated that less than 2 percent make a living wage, according to 2017 data compiled by one advocacy group. When we buy fast fashion from the comfort of our couches, we support a system in which low-wage workers (most of them people of color) make the clothes at one end of the world, and other low-wage workers (many of them also people of color) process the returns, unseen in the concrete suburbs of American cities.”
I assume that with further economic development and over time, many of these manufacturing jobs will be lost to automation. Nevertheless, today’s fashion industry must be characterized as oppressive and polluting. It also must be seen as culturally significant. Its ties to our culture are built on its deep connection to contemporary art, cultural taste, and design. The people who design clothing are creating beauty and expressing their own aesthetics, and enabling their customers to do the same. While I personally don’t participate in this world, I admire some of the people who do. The business model of contemporary fashion is less than admirable because it creates pressure for constant growth. The challenge of sustainable fashion is how to make that growth less destructive and less oppressive.
Here in New York City, back in the mid-20th century, before the fashion industry went big time and mass-scale, 500,000 workers used to make nearly all of America’s clothing. Clothing was still a necessity rather than the luxury item it is for many today. Today, we only manufacture samples in New York, but about 100,000 people design, market, and manage the fashion business in New York. It is part of the culture, arts, information, finance, education, health, wellness, and media economy that keeps New York City financially whole. Moving toward sustainable materials, renewable energy, and business models promoting ecological well-being and fair labor practices will not be easy or simple. But frankly, the fashion industry is no different than others now engaged in the generation-long transition we are beginning throughout the developed world: to move toward an environmentally sustainable world economy. Like earlier transitions from agriculture and trade to manufacturing and from mass manufacturing to today’s automated manufacturing and service economy, the transition to sustainability is not always apparent in its early stages. The sustainability transition is underway, but no one should underestimate the complexity and difficulty of the challenges ahead.”