The fashion industry uses a quarter of all chemicals it produces. It takes up to 2,700 liters of water to grow the cotton needed for a single T-shirt. One in six people on the planet works in the fashion industry, less than 2 percent of them earn a living wage. Most clothing made from or containing synthetic materials, which release micro-plastics when washed. Of the more than 100 billion items of clothing produced each year, a fifth go unsold.
The figures that fashion journalist Dana Thomas mentions in her recently published book Fashionopolis – The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes – one of two critical books published this year on the modern fashion industry – are clear: fashion has a huge and negative impact on people and the environment. Moreover, if population and prosperity grow at the predicted pace, we will buy another 63 percent more by 2030.
The biggest culprit according to Thomas: “the worldwide explosion of fast fashion”, which has turned fashion into a disposable product – twice as many garments were made in 2014 as in 2000. While prices for goods rose during that period, clothes became cheaper. Americans throw away twice as much clothing as they did 20 years ago.
That textile workers have to work in poor conditions is nothing new. The cotton industry flourished thanks to slavery, and Friedrich Engels wrote in his book: The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) already on the dire conditions of the textile workers in Manchester, half of whom were under 18 years of age.
The fact that so many textile workers in developing countries, mostly women, still do poorly paid work in poor conditions is due to the unstoppable demand for cheap clothing and the physical distance between the offices in the West and the factories where production takes place. „We see ourselves as more developed and humane than our ancestors, more woke. We think pockets full of $5 T-shirts and $20 jeans won’t do us any harm. That we even create good jobs for needy people on the other side of the world. If you’ve visited many factories and talked to dozens of workers, you know that’s not true.”
Thomas also talks to people who are working on solutions. Owners of relatively small American brands that produce domestically. A woman who grows natural indigo as an alternative to the harmful synthetic variant that is used for 99.9 percent of jeans, start-ups that make leather and silk without using animals. The woman behind an important breakthrough: being able to separate fibers from cotton and polyester. A third of all clothing is made from a fiber blend of cotton and polyester, but until recently it seemed impossible to separate the two, making recycling impossible. It is clear that all these developments are still at the beginning, but they do offer a glimmer of hope.
Repair and upcycle
Thomas calls on consumers to ‘stop buying mindlessly’. “Buy less, wash differently, repair and upcycle, think about the material.” And: rent a piece of clothing.
It is a pity that she devotes little thought to the future of the textile workers in the hypothetical case that we will buy en masse less and more locally. In Bangladesh alone, some fifty million people depend on the garment industry.
Thomas’ book focuses on fashion from cotton and synthetic materials, which make up about 90 percent of all clothing. But of course animal materials are also used in the fashion industry, especially for bags and shoes.
Animal materials have been under pressure lately thanks to action groups like PETA. Every year, major fashion houses announce that they no longer use fur. Angora has been banned for the cruel treatment of the rabbits that provide the hair for the wool, mohair (coming from Angora goats) for the same reason. Down is under fire because, despite bans, ducks are said to be plucked alive. After PETA posted a video online this spring showing Chinese goat farmers forcibly ripping off goats’ soft throat hairs, H&M announced it would stop purchasing cashmere after 2020. In addition to angora, cashmere and mohair, the British online shop Asos also no longer uses silk, because the caterpillars are killed.
Wool hasn’t been boycotted by well-known brands so far, but if it’s up to PETA, that’s about to change: “Wool is the result of terrible abuse.” Notorious is the so-called mulesing: removing skin around the anus to prevent insects from laying eggs.
If you factor in the abuses in livestock farming and the environmental damage that this causes, it seems better by now to avoid clothing made from animal materials altogether, not to mention the moral question of whether you should kill animals at all.
That is not the opinion of Melissa Kwasny, who in Putting on the Dog fashion materials of animal origin. Without animal materials, she argues, fashion would become even more dependent on the harmful cotton and polyester (and also taxing alternatives such as viscose). “Animal products are biodegradable, last longer and require less washing,” said Kwasny. “And, if they are grown sustainably, no pesticides enter the ecosystem.”
The huge demand for cashmere has left grass areas where the goats live so depleted that desertification occurs
Like Thomas, Kwasny has set out. She watches how animals are treated, and seeks “the connection to the source of the materials,” which we have lost. Kwasny visits include a slaughterhouse, a tannery, a cashmere goat and sheep farmer, a silk farmer, a down merchant and a mink farm.
She does not detect major abuses, although she notes, for example, that the enormous demand for affordable cashmere has meant that grass areas where the goats live have been grazed so much that desertification sometimes occurs.
Here and there you suspect that Kwasny – not a fashion journalist but a poet and essayist – has not been fully introduced. For example, she doesn’t seem very familiar with the practice of mulesing, and she goes along very well with the Danish mink farmers she visits. The food for the animals is delivered fresh every day! Ginseng continues!
Yet her book offers a refreshing counterbalance to PETA, for example, about which she has someone say it snuff movies of animal suffering, which are not always included in the places indicated. And yes, silkworms are killed, but if they lived, says one expert, “there wouldn’t be enough mulberry leaves in the world to feed them.”
Is that enough reason to buy silk without a conscience? Kwasny leaves it up to the reader, although she does ask them to be more aware, grateful and reluctant to deal with fashion. Her advice does not differ substantially from Thomas’s: “Buy clothes, but not very much, and especially clothes made of animals and plants. Cherish it and take care of it.”