The question is simple and straightforward. Why all the effort for sustainable clothes? What really is the problem? What is wrong with (my) clothes? Without trying to give a complete or scientific answer here, I do have some thoughts on what the problem is.
Clothing is a product like any other. Like a bike, a phone or a light. Products are made with raw materials and made by people. Products are made to use them and after we’ve used it we throw it away. With clothing it’s important that the garment is beautiful. And some functionality is needed as well. And, of course, the price has to be right. The cheaper the better. We live in a world of scarcity. It’s always better is we can spend the extra dime on other fun things.
There are two simple ways to make things cheaper. The first is to use cheaper materials. The second is to make them with cheaper personnel. In the clothing industry especially the latter option was used. Due to the labor intensive character of clothing, production long ago has been moved to low-wage countries. There’s nothing alarming about this. The reasoning is that trade with the low-wage countries increases, so does the income and thus the prosperity for the poor people. But the clothing market has developed itself in a remarkable way, and the potential positive effects have had a negative impact. With disastrous consequences for people and nature.
About 50 years ago, the production of clothing shifted to low-wage countries. This caused for an explosion of small production factories, especially in Asia. The production chain became very fragmented (with subcontractors, agents and different suppliers), so it wasn’t clear where your clothes came from. But that did not matter at all. It was not important how clothes were made. It was too far away. Out of sight out of mind. Clothing brands started focusing on sales. Clothing became emotion. Companies also joined forces, which led to a few large chains with a lot of purchasing power.
And this is exactly where the value chain of clothing went wrong. On the one hand, a few powerful companies who are interested in price and speed but are not interested in the ethics of production (because their customers do not ask for it). On the other hand, a fragmented market, which is forced to produce faster and cheaper. In addition, it is easy for these producers to disregard responsible working conditions or preservation of nature. And because the Western market does not see (or does not want to see) the problem, the downward trend continues. It’s a race to the bottom.
It’s not an easy problem. You can’t immediately tell if a piece of clothing has been made by child labor or that poisonous substances were used. Given the fragmented production chain, many clothing labels can’t even state this even if they want to. A low price indicates a high probability of malpractices, but a high price does not automatically mean that a piece of clothing is socially and environmentally sound. Therefore, consumers are not given a clear choice, and the consequence is that people are mainly looking at price and product quality.
The clothing industry is an unhealthy one. Because of three reasons. One, the production of clothing happens in risky working conditions. Two, in the production process natural resources are wasted. Three, the clothing market is intransparent and this ensures that the abuses can continue.
The clothing industry is even that unhealthy that it’s the 2nd most polluting industry in the world. The impact on the world it gives through production is unprecedented.
Here’s some examples. The clothing industry is responsible for 10% of the annual CO2 emissions. To grow a kilo of conventional cotton you need 10,000 liters of water. A quarter of the world’s production of pesticides and insecticides is used for cotton. In many clothes toxic formaldehyde is used. On average, each (non-organic) contains a glass of 200ml full of poison. The groundwater level in Bangladesh decreases by 2 meters per year and the pollution of the rivers is enormous. On a shirt that sells for 50 euro’s, about 3 cents go to the cotton picker and 18 cents to the person who made it. In Bangladesh, a textile worker earns about 1,5 euros a day, while the living wage is about five times higher. We buy twice as many clothes as 15 years ago, and pay less in total. On average every Dutchman throws away 9 kilos of clothes per year. Had enough already?
It is a world-class problem. Both in size and complexity.
You could question if the problem of the clothing market is bigger than the food industry, the transport industry or the energy market. Is it more important than the refugee crisis or deforestation? My opinion is that these are all big world problems. We are constantly learning about the origin of our products, and the public rejection of highly polluting goods and services is growing. Clothing just belongs to this movement. There is already a growing awareness of sustainable food, transport, energy and waste. Due to the already mentioned intransparency the clothing industry is not that far yet. That simply means we need to put some extra effort in this area. The high level of pollution of wrong clothes makes it worth it.
That is what’s wrong with clothes. That is why it is better to buy sustainable clothes.
What is sustainability exactly? This is my view. It is using a combination of three things. Use materials with minimal impact on nature. Act fair to people working in the production of clothing. And above all, be completely transparent about the production chain. Sustainability is buying quality clothing that lasts long and causes less waste. It is buying from brands that do not hide behind the complicated production chain. It is buying clothes that inform the consumer on the level of sustainability. It’s not hard at all to provide that information.
I know a fair example. SKOT sustainable shirts! Shirts made from high quality materials and with a perfect fit. And made sustainably. 100% organic cotton is used, grown with 60% less water. Produced with fair labor throughout the chain. The shirts can be recycled after use. There is full transparency about who made your shirt and in what way. SKOT provides the most sustainable shirt ever made.
Up to a better clothing industry. The goal is 100%!