Sustainability needs fashion, but does fashion need sustainability?

By Laura Saade

Milan Fashion Week started off with their hybrid fashion week with both virtual and physical shows. However, where’s the sustainability in fashion we all talked months ago?

Hult Prize at Universidad del Rosario challenged its participants to think about sustainable ideas that could solve the many problems the fashion industry has nowadays. This made me think about the many possible solutions that the fashion industry could be doing right now to promote a more sustainable system than the one we currently have.

 The aftermath of the COVID-19 quarantines around the world created economic effects in all industries, especially in the fashion one. Nevertheless, the fashion calendar is back on its feet and Milan Fashion Week is taking place as I am writing this piece (still in lockdown in my country all across the Atlantic). If we can come up with new and innovative ideas about how to make fashion sustainable, why haven’t the big ones already done that? 

Well, maybe they don’t need it..

Let’s break it down to numbers: the fashion industry is worth about three trillion dollars, which is about 2% of the world’s GDP. It generates more than 7,260 million jobs. However, it also contributes to 10% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Yes, fashion can be art, can be design, can be glamour, can we everything that is nice and pretty. But fashion is also pollution, contamination, water waste, and overconsumption. The Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates that each year 150 billion garments are produced. That’s about 20 per person.

People are buying more and more but tend to keep their clothes less. According to the UNEP, 85% of the textiles purchased annually get thrown away. That means that a garbage truck filled with clothes is burnt or dumped on a landfill every second (so as you reach this point of the article 105 garbage trucks of clothes have been dumped). But that is just the tip of the iceberg. 

When talking about sustainability in fashion we must discuss the materials that make up our clothes. Synthetics fibers such as polyester release microplastics to the ocean every time we wash them. So annually, 500,000 tons of these particles go to our marine systems. These are equivalent to 50 billion plastic water bottles. According to the Engineering out Fashion Waste report in 2017, 35% of the microplastic in the ocean came from washing synthetic fibers. 

Also, fashion is the second-largest water consumer in the world. The World Economic Forum estimates that to harvest the amount of cotton needed to make a t-shirt and a pair of jeans are 2,700 gallons of water. That is enough for you to take eight glasses of water every day for 13 years.  Besides, fashion is accountable for almost 20% of all water contamination due to the wastes produced from the fabric dying process. 

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, fashion houses stopped their calendars and started to rethink their role in the industry. Gucci or YSL stated that they would no longer be part of the fashion week systems and that they would present when creativity came, which meant stopping the season system that forces consumers to shop more and more every time. However, Milan Fashion Week is showing us that the rush for a more sustainable system will have to wait yet again

We learned that fashion shows can be streamed online and that the experience of clothes can be transmitted via PR boxes that travel miles around the world. But we did not learn that the fashion system we currently have is urging us to have a real change. At the beginning of the quarantines in Europe, it seemed that everyone turned their eyes into sustainable ways of producing. But now that the mask is falling off, it appears that the sustainability façade is doing it as well. 

Maybe we lost this opportunity. I am just hoping we do not need another pandemic to get a new one. 

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