Teach Series: Sustainable Fashion

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Thank you to everyone who came along and participated in our first ever Teach Series event this Wednesday. Our inaugural student speaker was the Association’s own Lead Writer and Website Designer, Ida, discussing how the fashion industry relates to international development.

We were delighted with the turn out but for those unlucky enough to miss it,  Ida has summarised her presentation and captured highlights from the fantastic discussion that came from it. We have even included some relevant links for further exploration of the topic.

And as always, we invite you to continue the discussion in the comments section below.

Fashion and Society

Consumers have been led to expect more variety at a lower price, putting pressure on companies to produce higher volumes at lower costs. This economic and profit-margin squeeze ultimately lands on the factories, who compromise human rights, wages, safety and working conditions.

The reason companies are interested in production locations such as Bangladesh, is the overall low costs but also that there are low regulations and not many limiting laws, allowing companies to put unreasonable pressure on the factory managers.

Corruption is a huge problem in the fashion industry. One student highlighted that a common practice in Cambodia is to pay up to two months wages to the ‘insider’ who got you the job. A debilitating societal tradition if you are already living on the poverty line.

We also heard of garment workers beginning to mobilise and demand their rights, putting overdue pressure on governments.

 

Fashion and the Environment

The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry globally. The value-chain is filled with problems of water, chemicals, trash and so on.

Cotton is highly water-consuming, it takes up land that could have been used for agriculture and heavily relies upon fertilisers that seep into groundwater and pollute local water sources. Certain fertilisers have been linked to waves of farmer suicides in India.

There is also a huge energy cost to clothing: in production, transport, when we wash our clothes, iron them, dry clean them, drive them to the second-hand shop, ship them overseas for charitable causes and so on.

All this energy is wasted when we do not keep our clothes for a long time. The lifecycle of clothes is short, we put our clothes in landfills, which produce methane. Or we give it to charity, to a friend or companies that will recycle it, depending on its quality of course.

 

Fashion and the Pressure of Consumerism

We use clothing as a key personal identifier: clothes are our chosen skin. A responsible sustainable approach to clothing could focus on letting only a few pieces of clothing identify us, rather than a continuous change of outfit or refreshing our ‘look’ define us.

Gender plays a role in consumerism, women are expected to look a certain way when they go to work e.g. wear high-heeled shoes. The men in the room also contested that there are plenty of pressures on them! Media reinforces expectations of how everyone is supposed to look.

It is very important that we do not only consider how the ‘West’ consumes and exploits the ‘South’. A participant pointed out there is a growing middle class in many countries such as India, China and Brazil, that partake in high consumption as well.

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Fast Fashion and the Recycling Norm

When we give our clothes to charity we think we are doing good. However, one study found that there are so many clothes given to charity that even if it was given away for free, there would be too much to go around. Another study found that only 20% of the clothes are used or resold.

The question is what happens to everything else? Much of it is shipped to places like Haiti, disaster areas. The problem with this is that the local markets cannot compete with the low prices of these clothes, ruining their chances of starting up their own locally produced clothing stores.

 

Who is Responsible for the Fashion Industry’s Habits?

The question was posed: who is responsible for the social and environmental issues linked with the fashion industry?

We as consumers have a choice to only buy from places that support our own values in terms of production. To ignore societal pressures to look good in a fast-consuming world.

However looking at the production side this could lead to economic problems for garment workers. If the consumer demand falls for cheap clothing or if we buy less they potentially lose their only source of revenue.

This is a central and essential question linking capitalist consumerism and neoliberal development. Who is responsible to action change in the industry? Would this change be beneficial for all or just a clearing of consciousness for the consumer? Leaving local ecosystems destroyed elsewhere…where do you see the responsibility falling?

 

Further Exploration of the Subject

These are a few apps designed to help you buy more ethically: ‘The Good On You’ and ‘Shop Ethical’.

Here’s an Ethical Fashion Guide:

http://www.baptistworldaid.org.au/assets/Be-Fair-Section/Ethical-Fashion-Guide16.pdf

Further information can be found at these two websites:

http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/detox/

http://fashionrevolution.org

 

And as always, there are some fantastic TED talks on related topics:

https://tedxsydney.com/talk/fashion-as-a-catalyst-for-social-change/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= d4VTPLpfGq0

 

Final Remarks

The Association have discovered that Monash University does not have an ethical policy surrounding its supply chain, for example where it sources Monash uniforms or your Monash hoodies. If you are interested in becoming an agent for change on this matter, please contact Ida.

Thank you again for your excellent participation! Please do share below if you know of any other apps, websites, articles or brands that can help everyone be inspired to consume more ethically.

You can find the presentation here.

 

Sense and Sustainability

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If you knew me growing up you’d probably say I was one of those ‘greenies’. Back in high school I was already active in organizations that aimed to help the environment, I went to summer camps on wildlife and marine conservation, headed reforestation activities, and spent most of my holidays and weekends climbing this mountain and that during my four years in university. It was almost second nature to me to try my best not only to nurture the environment, but also to ensure that my actions and consumption patterns weren’t going to have any negative externalities on earth.

It just made sense to me given my upbringing: ‘unplug appliances when not in use’, ‘take quick showers’, ‘dispose of trash properly’, ‘use less paper’, ‘opt for a reusable bag’ and let’s not forget the good old ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’.

Back then I thought that conserving the environment was important, now I know that it is a non-negotiable. This is not only for environmentalists, but also increasingly now for development practitioners. The onset of the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) has created the crucial link between the health of the planet and development and progress that the human species has always yearned for.

For me, responsible consumption is the closest and most accessible option that individual citizens have to making sustainability a reality instead of being just another development buzzword. It is important that as consumers, we realize that we have an option just not to blindly consume, but to really think about our purchases. Next time you buy something in the department store spare a few seconds and ask not only the usual ‘do I really need this’, but probe a little deeper and think ‘who made this, where did the raw materials come from, how much raw materials and energy was used, how far did this have to travel just to get to me, how long will this garment really last?’

Those questions not only reflect the cost on the environment but also considers the social and human costs, energy and fuel consumption, and maybe even the planned obsolescence behind certain cheap products that leaves us constantly repurchasing after one or two uses.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything inherently evil or selfish in consuming, we’ve been consuming resources in order to survive as a specie. What’s problematic though is the mindless consumerism that we’ve set our economies and ultimately our sense of development on. We buy, we discard, the economy grows, but do we even think about the life cycle of the products that we buy. Most people will rarely give a time of day to where their products come from or where they will go to once they’re in the bin. For me, certain ‘out of sight out of mind’ mentality has been bred and reinforced by this constant stream of validation on why we need to consume more and more.

The SGD on responsible consumption also highlights that point that the goals are merely guidelines and roadmaps, the solutions to social, economic, and environmental problems that we face can’t be found in them just by agreeing to them. The solutions must come from concrete actions from people, organizations, communities, and governments. However it must also be clarified that this goal for sustainable consumption is not only aimed for individual consumers. It also stands as a challenge to companies, manufacturers, and institutions like governments to help facilitate and make responsible consumption easier and more accessible for their markets.