The buzzwords of today are ‘sustainable fashion’—a topic that initially stemmed from an actual environmental movement in 1962, when American marine biologist, author and conservationalist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a groundbreaking study that not only documented the horrifying effects of DDT, a carcinogenic pesticide harmful to both humans and fauna that ended up polluting the world’s food supply, but had also posed as a grim foreshadowing of what happens when our growing demand for ‘more’ is left unchecked.
Fast forward to the 21st century, the industrial system we’ve been coasting on so far is now coming apart at the seams. From the advent of social media to a worldwide pandemic that disrupted our way of life, we are now more informed about the consequences of our actions as consumers, manufacturers and distributors alike in a linear economy.
What’s that, you ask? It means ‘take-make-dispose’. Which is a model that perfectly describes how the fast fashion industry operates. But here’s another question: what happens to these businesses when they’ve either depleted their resource, or, are unable to distribute the end-product because of an international lockdown? Worse still: Where does that waste go?
“In times of crises, inequality tends to be one of the first problems that come to light,” says Melissa Tan, the country coordinator of the Malaysian team at international nonprofit movement Fashion Revolution. “With travel restrictions impeding on international trade and how frugal customers were being due to their shift in priorities, fashion stores were forced to close for extended periods of time—costing them a significant loss in sales. Due to that, factories worldwide, particularly those in the Global South, bore the brunt of cancelled orders even when they were completed, which meant that they had this backlog of inventory that had nowhere to go and were unable to pay their workers.”
The pandemic was both at once a rude and enlightening awakening for the fashion industry at large, as evidenced by the onset of social media campaigns like #PayUp, which was founded by another nonprofit organisation named Remake, who called out for brands to pay underpaid garment workers their rightful dues. However, that was just the tip of the iceberg; the bigger picture was even more complex. According to Tan, what made matters more difficult was when brands began to catch on to the lingo environmental activists were using.
“While people are becoming more aware that the issue [with the fashion industry] doesn’t just stop at waste management, we need to start looking beyond the material and think about how we operate our supply chain as well as the actual life cycle of a garment,” she stresses. “But greenwashing only hinders that understanding. So when brands get people who are in-the-know into the business, it makes it a lot harder for consumer groups to look into their model or hold them accountable when they start speaking marketing rhetoric that references to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
“We’re not looking to police or preach to anybody—we just want brands to disclose their current supply chain operations so that we can better identify and address the abuse of human rights as well as harmful environmental practices. We cannot afford to be satisfied by the bare minimum anymore; because even if a brand uses recyclable materials, what about their workers? What about the rest of their business model? We, as consumers, brands or factories, can do so much better than that, it just comes down to the intention and commitment to care.”
So, if you're looking to go green (or green-er), we've compiled a basic starter kit below for you to get started on your journey.
The ‘Go-Green’ Starter Kit
From brands, books, and films—here are six of our recommendations for those who want to be in-the-know but don’t know where to begin.
Read more: Sustainable Fashion: This Is What You Forget