For far too long, little attention has been paid to the environmental footprint being stamped by the clothing industry. Our current system is damaging because it encourages disposability without factoring in real costs. More often than not, we are accustomed to accepting retail information at face value, forgoing a full account of environmental impacts. Sustainability represents a newly discovered but growing phenomenon in the fashion market. According to Dr.Dafna Disegni from Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of Environmental Studies, “Sustainability is a company’s capacity to prosper in a competitive and changing global business environment by anticipating and managing current and future economic, environmental and social opportunities and risks.” Given its inclusiveness, sustainability offers the potential to redefine our consumer culture and can help to fashion a sustainable generation tailored toward environmental values.
Regrettably, the rapid growth of “fast fashion” – low-cost clothing collections that change rapidly – and the “throw-away culture” it brings, is outpacing environmental progress at an alarming rate, leaving us to face the music as complicit consumers. The clothing industry is now a fast-paced industry, with fashion stores able to sell more products with shorter seasons, thanks to the transformation of traditional seasonal collections (spring/summer, autumn/winter) into bi-weekly cycles. With the focus placed on the low cost of a product instead of its quality, fast fashion presents consumers with numerous opportunities to make a “fashion mistake” by purchasing unnecessary clothes.
As designer Illana Leizin illustrates through her MA research work on Sustainable fashion, “The time has arrived for us to become conscious of what we are putting on our bodies, as well as what we are putting in, and invest in sustainable fashion”. Leizin used to work as a production coordinator for an international clothing retailer before she decided to quit and dedicate her work and research to sustainable fashion and DIY culture. She is also a co-founder of the Israeli Forum for Sustainable Fashion. Although Israel is currently lagging behind in the sustainable fashion movement, Leizin explains that embracing a
sustainable lifestyle could surprisingly begin with a rite of passage normally taken in the IDF. Soldiers typically enter the army to learn important skills about defense and intelligence and to serve their country, but through this experience and service, they actually learn some neat tricks about sustainable living. “Soldiers often personalize their uniforms, their beret and their equipment, which forms a cultural part of life in the army,” Leizin elaborates. There is
a sense of upcycling invoked as young Israelis creatively reflect their individualism through the adjustments and repairs of materials, safeguarding their belongings and expressing their identities at the same time. The problem is that once it is time to put away our boots, these skills often become lost as the pressure cooker of modern life quickly evaporates our time and patience. Leizin reminds us, “A sustainable society is not possible without sustainable individuals. Something more sustainable and sensitive to our needs will take time.” According to Leizin, “the net effect of this phenomenon is waste: For women, 80% of clothes remain unused in their closets, while for men the figure is as high as 50%.”
The encouraging news is that we have the chance to contribute to sustainable living by choosing a lifestyle that values “slow fashion” over fast fashion. Sharing characteristics with the slow food movement, it offers the opportunity for participation, expression, creation and innovation toward a sustainable vision. As a starting point, consumers should be motivated to recognize the environmental impact of hallmark fashion items, such as denim jeans and cotton T-shirts. These items, among many others, are commonly purchased in excess without a second thought beyond the monetary cost or fashion value. According to Cotton Incorporated, on average, “96% of US consumers own seven pairs of denim jeans at one time.” This is just as much of a wake-up call as the news that our cars spend 96% of their lifetime parked.
Life-cycle assessment analyzes the entire life of a product, from raw material extraction and manufacturing to product use and end-of-life disposal, including the energy-consuming transportation that occurs between each stage. In the latest jeans life cycle impact assessment conducted by retail giant Levi Strauss & Co., there were dramatic findings. The entire life cycle of one pair of Levi’s popular 501 jeans equates to 33.4kg of carbon dioxide production, which is the equivalent to 111 kilometers driven by the average US car. Water consumption was equally startling, with 3,781 liters consumed for a single pair of jeans, amounting to three days’ worth of a US household’s total water needs. Nevertheless, it has been shown that the biggest impact of clothes actually involves caring for them, as described by Kingston University’s UK Annie Sherburne. “An estimated 75% to 95% of the total environmental impact is accounted for by the use of electricity and hot water in the washing and drying processes,” she writes. Such processes contribute significantly to the generation of greenhouse gases and global warming.
Given this wakeup call, what can we do? While new designs and technological innovations may help manufacturers and retailers to minimize the environmental impact of the latest denim jeans or collared shirt, such advances are fruitless if consumers remain reluctant or even unwilling to adopt eco-friendly fashion decision-making. According to Kate Fletcher, the designer who coined the term “slow fashion,” washing at lower temperatures reduces energy consumption by 10% for every 10° centigrade reduction. Eliminating tumble drying reduces energy by 60%. No ironing combined with lower washing temperatures can lead to a 50% reduction in energy consumption. The Levi’s report sums up, “Washing every 10 times instead of every two times reduces energy/climate change and water consumption impact by up to 80%,” which is pivotal to the sustainability of the local economy and our livelihoods.
According to experts, if we are to pave a new Silk Road to sustainability, we also must start to better appreciate the interaction between designers and customers in today’s fashion world. As Disegni confirms, “the adoption of sustainable practices is a long-term systematic approach that integrates economic, environmental and social considerations into traditional financial operation.”
This ZAVIT article was also published in the Jerusalem Post on 3/23/2017.