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Meet fashion's true victims

The global fashion industry is coming under pressure as campaigns open consumers' eyes to the ethical and environmental issues surrounding the creation of the clothes they wear

13 May 2018 - 00:01 By Andrea Nagel
A Fashion Revolution Week was held last month to mark the collapse of Bangladesh factory in 2013, which killed 1,138 garment workers and injured a further 2,500.
A Fashion Revolution Week was held last month to mark the collapse of Bangladesh factory in 2013, which killed 1,138 garment workers and injured a further 2,500.
Image: Fashion Revolution

Livia Firth - wife of actor Colin - and Gisele Bundchen, international supermodel, both wore ethically and responsibly produced designs at the Met Ball earlier this week.

The Costume Institute Gala at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is the biggest event on the fashion fundraising calendar and naturally gets a lot of worldwide publicity, what with Rihanna dressing up as a bespangled pope and Sarah Jessica Parker wearing a nativity scene on her little head.

This year, the exhibition theme was Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, and those high up enough on fashion's most exclusive list to be invited were expected to dress according to the theme. But Firth and Bundchen were concerned less with heaven than with the earth.

Firth is the producer of The True Cost, a 2015 documentary that focuses on fast fashion and the impact the clothing industry is having on the world. She is also the creative director of Eco Age, a sustainability brand consultancy, and founder of the Green Carpet Challenge, which held its inaugural event last year to celebrate the best in sustainability in the luxury fashion chain (its next star-studded event will be in Milan in September).

Bundchen is an eco activist who, along with other models like Amber Valletta and Kirsty Hume, is using her glamorous platform to make people aware of the destructive impact the fashion industry has on the planet.

Gisele Bundchen at the 2018 Met Gala in New York.
Gisele Bundchen at the 2018 Met Gala in New York.
Image: Getty Images
Colin and Livia Firth at the 2018 Met Gala in New York.
Colin and Livia Firth at the 2018 Met Gala in New York.
Image: Getty Images

Fashion designers and big brands are also jumping on the eco-friendly bandwagon. Stella McCartney, for instance, has completely rebranded her label to focus on sustainability.

''Each decision we make is a symbol of our commitment to defining what the future of fashion looks like," she writes on her website. ''From never using leather or fur and pioneering new alternative materials to utilising cutting-edge technologies, pushing towards circularity, protecting ancient and endangered forests and measuring our impact with ground-breaking tools."

Whether or not this is just a publicity stunt remains to be seen in her follow-through, but she is part of a growing number of major clothing producers, along with H&M and Country Road, who are starting to care about what fashion is doing to the planet.

Even die-hard fashion abusers like Italian fashion editor Anna Dello Russo - who famously said she never wears an outfit more than once - are starting to feel the shame brought on by the eco-fashion police's wrath.

In January Dello Russo cleared out her wardrobes, plus the second apartment housing just her clothes, next to the one she lives in, plus her remote underground archive - all of which have for years housed her ever-expanding, compulsively compiled collection. And she put it up for sale on Net-a-Porter, for cheap.


This conscientising of some of the fashion world's elite may be due in part to the work of an ever-expanding, global movement, the Fashion Revolution, calling for ''a fairer, safer, cleaner and more transparent fashion industry".

A Fashion Revolution Week was held at the end of last month to mark the initial catalyst for the movement: the collapse in 2013 of a factory complex in Bangladesh that killed 1,138 garment workers and injured a further 2,500 in one of the worst industrial tragedies in history.

Greek designer Athina Korda shone a spotlight on the Fashion Revolution movement in a recent runway show.
Greek designer Athina Korda shone a spotlight on the Fashion Revolution movement in a recent runway show.

The movement, launched in 2014, encourages consumers to ask, ''Who made my clothes?". The movement also encourages some introspection about the following questions:

  • What's my clothing made out of?;
  • Where were the materials grown?;
  • Did the processes contribute to environmental and social wellbeing?;
  • How did my clothing travel around the planet?;
  • How long have I had it, and how much life is left in it?; and
  • What will I do with it once I no longer want to wear it?


Anna Cowen, social change practitioner, architect and urbanist, suggests that people don't know the answer to most of these questions. She believes that the clothing industry needs to radically transform the way it does business, reinventing itself as a circular economy rather than a linear, or cradle-to-grave one.

The industry currently extracts raw materials from the ground and refines them to produce yarns and threads to make fabric to make clothes - all which causes a lot of pollution. We then drive, fly or freight them around the planet, sell them, wear them and then get rid of them quickly and they end up in landfill.

Micah Chisholm, lecturer in surface design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and researcher on future textiles, says that the fashion industry currently creates greenhouse emissions of 1.2 billion tons a year, and it's estimated that more than half of fast-fashion products are disposed of within a year.

''One garbage truck full of textiles is transported to landfill sites or burned every second," he says. ''This, combined with a very low rate of recycling, leads to ever-expanding pressure on resources."

Cowen says material used by the clothing industry is still 97% virgin fabric - in other words, it hasn't been recycled - and 73% of it quickly gets discarded or incinerated.

Material used by the clothing industry is still 97% virgin fabric — in other words, it hasn't been recycled — and 73% of it quickly gets discarded or incinerated
Anna Cowen, social change practitioner

An extensive report, explaining how the circular economy model can be adopted by the clothing industry, was published this year in collaboration with big brands like H&M, Nike, Unilever and Philips.

The report was released by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and summarises the model as a move away from today's take-make-dispose method of production, replacing it with a holistic approach that designs out waste and pollution, keeps materials in use and regenerates natural systems. 

''People describe the circular economy as a butterfly with two wings," says Cowen. ''One wing is the technical nutrient wing (can get recycled and reused over and over again) and the other is the biological nutrient wing (can decompose or biodegrade and return to the earth).

"We need to design, fusing the two cycles into one product."

As an example, Cowen points to a shoe developed by Nike, the Considered Shoe. The sole of the shoe (the technical nutrient) can be reused over and over again. The upper is made of leather and is biodegradable.

Cowen cites the thinking of Michael Braungart and William McDonough, authors of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, as ground-breaking on the subject of the circular economy.

''They make this interesting point," she says. ''All the ants that cover the earth weigh more than all the humans - the biomass of these tiny creatures is greater than ours. But ants cause no destruction in terms of the earth's ecosystem whatsoever. They are 100% good for our world. Imagine if we could be like that."

Firth, Bundchen and McCartney are making the right moves in this direction, along with some big-name brands.

H&M launched its H&M Conscious Exclusive Collection in South Africa last year and followed up with another range last month in collaboration with Aquafil, a leading producer of yarn called Econyl, which is regenerated nylon made from waste diverted from landfills and oceans. It can be regenerated an infinite number of times, dyed and redyed to be used in new designs.

So now you can wear as fine clothes the plastics that used to poison and injure marine life, disrupt hormones, litter beaches and clog the world with landfill.

The question now is how many of us can afford to buy them?

African fashion companies like Lalesso,Lunar, Give It Bag, Township Pattern, Sealand Gear, Guillotine and Next of Kin are some of the local producers leading the way in the move towards sustainable fashion. See twyg.co.za for news about sustainable brands and practices.