Consumers are the cause of the apparel industry’s bad behaviour, argues Peter Knight

Before Facebook’s billionaire Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated the relative poverty of Croesus, one of the best ways of getting rich was in schmutter, garb, gear, threads. The fashion industry offers the ultimate in scalability and a constant demand.

But if you care about the world’s Rana Plazas and environmental impacts of cheap clothes, the fashion industry is clearly badly broken and needs fixing.

Before seeking someone to blame, though, some wisdom from the Bible: “First cast out the beam from thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the speck from thy brother’s eye.”

The problems of the fashion industry lie almost wholly with us, consumers. That is because we love fashion and we all have a little bit of the fetish of Imelda Marcos in us.

The social and environmental problems of the fashion industry occur throughout the value chain, from design to textile production, manufacture, distribution and disposal. Some startling facts:

  • The World Bank says up to 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment.
  • An average North American household throws away 30kg of textiles a year.
  • Fabrics account for 5% of landfill.

Add the poverty wages paid to those who cut and sew, plus Rana Plaza-style safety management, and you know why fashion is more often seen as backward than forward.

While complex, most of the environmental problems are fixable and technology is already making a difference. Take dyeing. This is a messy process and involves vast amounts of water as the colour is applied and fixed, and the fabric rinsed.

Nike and Ikea have invested in a Dutch technology called Dyecoo. The pigments are fixed using carbon dioxide and pressure, rather than water. Other industries have cleaned up and there is no reason why fashion can’t do the same.

This includes dealing with part of the loop that still needs closing: the discarded threads being dumped in landfill. As the packaging and white-goods industries discovered, take-back is irritating, costly and annoying, but there are practical and affordable solutions. If there is enough pressure for change, the fashion industry will find ways to close the loop and recycle its old clothes. 

The bargain problem 

It’s the social problems that are hard to overcome. This is because they are rooted in the biblical beam in our own eyes.

Our beam is our love of a bargain. We want it cheap. The near demise of the JC Penney chain in the US when it abandoned rolling discounts is instructive, as is a walk down London’s Oxford Street to witness the popularity of Primark, the ultimate in cheap fashion.

No matter what the industry says about its ability to reduce costs through efficiencies in its value chain, low prices are predicated on low wages. If not, the industry would have sorted out this particularly prickly public relations problem long ago.

The workers of the Rana Plaza were willing to work in dangerous conditions for a pittance. And the industry was happy to exploit that. If you owned a fashion brand, why would you do otherwise and risk distorting the pay structure established by the industry, abetted by weak governments?

The race to the bottom always creates low wages. We won’t admit it, but that makes us happy too. We are totally unprepared to remove the beam from our eye so that the seamstress can better feed, clothe and educate her children. Our selective blindness to human rights abuses is the same as our intentional ignorance of the way our food is produced. In our eyes, spring lamb is a delicious, moist mouthful and not the bloody death in a stinking abattoir of a fluffy bouncy baby being.

The question then is how to change our deep desire for a bargain, so that we can help the fashion houses fix their socially broken business. Eve’s apple eating created the fashion industry and it appears that her original sin remains firmly with you and me as we continue to demand cheap threads while ignoring the social costs.

Transforming the industry requires much work but an important contribution would be to provide more and better information to help consumers understand how they can help create change. It’s a big ask, but those in the fashion industry are consummate communicators. Their runway is getting shorter as policymakers move in. The cat should get walking. Fashion must go forward. 

Peter Knight is chairman of the Context Group.

cheap clothing  clothing  clothing cost  Dyecoo  green consumer 

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