As fast fashion grows in popularity, big brands are cottoning on to the necessity of using sustainable materials, writes Jeanette Wang
In the early 1990s, a series of media exposés on poor conditions, worker abuse and child exploitation in garment and footwear factories led to an anti-sweatshop movement. It prompted high-profile companies to move towards more ethical manufacturing.
These days, however, being socially responsible is not enough - environmental sustainability is also key.
"In the past 20 years, the awareness of ethical manufacturing has jumped dramatically, but the sustainability issue has only come to the fore in the past five years or so," says Steven Jesseph, chief operating officer for consultancy group ICG, and a global leader on responsible apparel production.
"In my view, companies that don't move to a sustainable model will likely be out of business in the next 20 years or less. We - businesses, governments and consumers - simply cannot continue consuming non-renewable resources at the present rate and expect to have any decent quality of life in the future."
Jesseph is the former CEO of certification organisation Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (Wrap). In his 10 years at the non-profit he worked to improve conditions at factories worldwide. His current mission, however, is to draw attention to fashion's future challenges, including the dwindling natural resources which it depends on.
The pace of fashion doesn't seem to be slowing, despite a more sluggish economy. According to research group Euromonitor International, the global apparel market was worth US$1.7 trillion last year, up 5.8 per cent over 2011. Spanish fashion group Inditex, which produces Zara, Pull & Bear, Bershka, and Massimo Dutti, among other brands - led the pack with sales of US$375 million, ahead of Sweden's H&M.
Both Inditex and H&M sell "fast fashion", a marketing trend based on a quick turnaround strategy, filling racks with trendy, inexpensive styles. Because such clothing is cheap, consumers can afford to buy more pieces - and often only wear them a few times before they're out of fashion.
A Cambridge University study found that in 2006, people were buying a third more clothes than they were in 2002. Women have four times as many clothes in their wardrobe than they did in 1980. About 217 tonnes of textiles were dumped in Hong Kong's landfills every day in 2011, according to the Environmental Protection Department.
Cotton, the bedrock of the fashion industry, is facing challenges in production. According to the Better Cotton Initiative, which promotes sustainable cotton, the problems are excessive use of pesticides (bad for human health and the environment), environmentally inefficient production methods (creating water shortages and degrading soil) and poor working conditions.
It takes about 10,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of cotton fabric using traditional methods. According to the World Wildlife Fund, just 2.4 per cent of the world's arable land is planted with cotton, yet cotton accounts for 24 per cent of the world's insecticide market and 11 per cent of the global sale of pesticides.
"Many chemicals used to process cotton and other fibres into usable textile products are harmful to humans and the environment," says Jesseph.
China has been the world's largest exporter of textiles since 1995, with more than 50,000 textile mills in the country. It's also the largest consumer of textile chemicals, using 42 per cent of global consumption, according to a Greenpeace report
To counter this, Greenpeace started a Detox campaign in 2011, asking brands to commit to zero discharge of hazardous substances through the global supply chain and products by January 2020. Uniqlo's parent company Fast Retailing recently signed up, joining brands such as Mango, Esprit, Levi's, Nike, adidas, Puma, H&M, Marks & Spencer, C&A and Li-Ning.
Jesseph says consumers and companies are becoming increasingly concerned about these issues. In recent years, he has seen more companies publishing annual sustainability reports, instead of the usual corporate social responsibility write-ups.
"Companies are realising that many of the resources they use to make their products are limited and that the availability and cost of energy will only go up over time," says Jesseph.
Groups and organisations are being formed to pool knowledge, resources, and tackle the issue together.
Large companies and two universities in the US have formed the Sustainability Consortium, to create sustainability-related knowledge about products in various industries.
Last year, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which is made up of more than 60 companies and environmental organisations (Nike, Wal-Mart Stores, Target, Patagonia and J.C. Penney, among others) launched a standard of best practices. Known as the Higg Index, it measures sustainability across the entire supply chain, including company practices and policies, product manufacturing, usage of resources and management of facilities.
The Better Cotton Initiative, founded in 2005, has signed up 23 retailers and brands, including adidas, H&M, Ikea, Inditex, Levi's, Marks & Spencer and Nike. Working with farmers in Brazil, India, Mali and Pakistan - and soon China and Turkey - it aims to reduce the amount of water and chemicals used to grow cotton and improve social and economic benefits for cotton farmers worldwide.
Levi's, the world's biggest jeans maker, with US$4.8 billion in sales in 2011, is among the forerunners in the fashion industry with its sustainability initiatives. New in stores this year is the Waste<Less range, which is composed of at least 20 per cent recycled plastic. The first batch of products - 400,000 pairs of jeans and jeans jackets - used about 3.5 million plastic bottles.
In 2007, Levi's conducted a life-cycle assessment, from cotton fields to consumers' closets, of some of its major products. It found that farming the cotton for a pair of its signature 501 jeans used up 49 per cent of the water associated with it during its lifetime.
So Levi's joined the Better Cotton Initiative and the 2011 cotton harvest was used for more than five million pairs of jeans. Five per cent of each pair was made using low-water cotton. It aims to use a 20 per cent blend in its products by 2015.
In 2011, it also introduced a Water<Less jeans range, which uses only four litres of water for each pair to achieve a distressed look. The traditional distressing process, which involves repeatedly washing jeans with pumice stones, used about 45 litres of water per pair. The new method uses ceramic stones and rubber balls, and a different filtration system in the washing machines.
"Our life cycle assessment shows that cotton has the biggest environmental impact of our products, and as such we're always looking for alternative sustainable fibres," says Jonathan Kirby, Levi's vice-president of global men's design.
It makes sense financially, too. According to Levi's 2011 annual report, despite an 8 per cent increase in net revenue, higher cotton prices affected net income, which dropped US$45 million from the previous year to US$336 million.
As for consumers, Jesseph says the biggest show of support comes from their wallets. "If they truly don't like the practices of a company, they can simply not buy from that retailer, tell that retailer why they've stopped buying from them, and discuss their concerns with friends and family, as well."