Pandemic, Pollution – A Fashion Industry Wake-Up Call ?

- - Sustainability

Naomi Campbell wears Hazmat suit to the airport. (Photo credit: CNN)

2020 is turning out to be one of the most difficult years in world history. Globally, we are fighting a war against COVID-19, a virus that spreads so quickly and easily that the numbers of those effected and who die rises daily at alarming rates. Worldwide, people are on lockdown or partial lockdown, and a new word has been  added to our vocabulary, social-distancing.

COVID-19 is not only affecting our health, physically and mentally, but is greatly affecting the world economy, as companies and factories are shut down with only essential businesses remaining open. As we adapt to the new ‘work-from-home’ model, schools are asking teachers and students to move online. However, without accessible content, many teachers are finding it difficult if not impossible.

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As doctors and scientists around the globe race to find a vaccine for the virus, environmentalists have found a silver lining among the fear and anxiety. They have noted that while COVID-19 is a global health crisis, the forcing of businesses to shut down and people to quarantine has had a positive effect on the planet. The biggest difference is the change in air quality, as industry, aviation, and other forms of transportation came to an almost worldwide halt, thus resulting in a reduction in air pollution. These air quality reductions have mostly been tracked in countries such as China and Italy. India, who recently went on lockdown, will hopefully soon follow.

Air pollution levels, as observed by satellite, are showing drastic improvements in many areas that have been undergoing restrictive quarantines due to COVID-19” Peter DeCarlo, an Associate Professor of Environmental Health Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, told Newsweek.

However, in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday March 26th, announced a sweeping relaxation of environmental rules in response to the coronavirus pandemic, allowing U.S. power plants, factories and other facilities to ‘determine for themselves’ if they are able to meet legal requirements on reporting air and water pollution. The agency will not issue fines for violations of certain air, water and hazardous-waste-reporting requirements during the corona outbreak and for an undetermined period of time. In a New York Times article on March 25th, former E.PA. administrator Gina McCarthy was quoted as saying that this new rule is “an open license to pollute.” Let’s all keep our eyes on this situation.

The water in the Venice canals is clear enough to see fish swimming below as the coronavirus halts tourism in Italy. (Photo credit: ABC News)

With all that Italy has had to deal with as a result of the pandemic, Venice reported that the water in city’s famous canals appear to be unusually clear, due to the fact that the canals are empty because of the coronavirus lockdown. The quarantine is also having an effect on wildlife across the globe. As people are confined to their homes, animals are roaming the streets looking for food.  According to a recent article in Newsweek, “In Japan, for example, sika deer living in the popular tourist destination Nara Park were spotted wandering into urban areas to look for food after restrictions on visitors from China and South Korea came into place. Normally, tourists buy special snacks to feed the deer, and many of the animals have become accustomed to eating these treats.”

As the pandemic manages to wreak havoc, perhaps now’s the time for the fashion industry to take a long hard look at changing our business model and commit to becoming more responsible earth citizens?

In an interview with Newsweek, Steven Davis, an Associate Professor in the Department of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine stated that as a result of the virus, “We will have a new baseline of what’s possible to do online: telecommute, educate, shop, etcetera. And to the extent our government, institutions, and social networks succeed by coming together, we may feel more empowered to take on daunting issues like climate change and a transition to sustainable energy sources.”

Once a vaccine is discovered and the world can get back to some sense of normalcy, it is important that the fashion industry come together to find sustainable solutions. As an industry, we are constantly producing goods. We use tons of natural resources and produce garments all over the world just to keep up with ever changing trends. A recipe for planet disaster!

Let’s ask ourselves how can we still create, design and produce, while making a smaller carbon footprint and a more positive impact while doing so.

Here are a few ways that fashion designers can work together to achieve sustainability and decrease that every enlarging footprint.

SUPPLY CHAIN TRANSPARENCY & BLOCKCHAIN 

A sustainable textile is Organic Cotton. (Photo credit: What About Yves)

First, as a designer, examine your supply chain. It is important to know from where you are buying your textiles and whether these textile mills follow environmental guidelines, as well as protect the communities that surround them. This information can be easily found through organizations like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition /The Higg Index and various textile exchange organizations, like Queen of Raw and The Textile Exchange.

Designers should also try to buy from sustainable textile mills and educate themselves on the global impact that certain textiles have on the environment. Today, organizations are working to certify fibers and textiles with more transparency, so that designers can educate their consumers to make educated choices.

Queen of Raw uses blockchain, a distributed database existing on multiple computers at the same time. It is constantly growing as new sets of recordings, or ‘blocks’, are added to it. Each block contains a timestamp and a link to the previous block, so they actually form a chain. By design, a blockchain is resistant to modification of the data, thus guaranteeing a transaction’s authenticity/transparency.

BRING MANUFACTURING HOME

Made in the USA. (Photo credit: US Chamber of Commerce)

Another way designers can make a positive impact on the environment is to manufacture their collections in their own country. In the 198os, 70% of our clothing was made in the United States, today it is only 2%. Bringing manufacturing home will not only help boost the economy, but it will also minimize the environmental stress that comes with shipping, which in turn, will produce less air and ocean pollution.

TEXTILE WASTE

Textiles go to waste. (Photo credit: Apparel News)

As consumers crave the latest trends and our landfills are piling up with last season’s clothes, designers need to make better products with responsible materials so that when they are discarded they leave less pollution. In turn, designers must train consumers to understand quality over quantity.

On February 25, 2020, a new sustainability initiative was announced entitled, Accelerating Circularity, an organization that works with major apparel companies such as Gap Inc., Target Corp. and VF Corp, helping to find ways to eliminate textile industry waste and recycle it into new fibers and materials.

Accelerating Circularity’s mission is to research and identify opportunities in apparel supply chains in order to make them circular, which means taking returned goods and items defined as waste materials and turning them into new textiles. According to Karla Magruder, the group’s leader, “If we’re going to have circularity, textile waste will be the new raw material. We’re going to have to find out how to get from point A to point B. Less than 1 percent of textile waste gets recycled into new textiles. It’s nothing.”

In a 2017 Apparel News article, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 16.9 million tons of textile waste is dumped annually. “There needs to be new maps for the supply chain that don’t exist today. We need to create the knowledge of where the textile waste is, how we should collect it and where we need to feed it to the appropriate recyclers.

FRENCH GOVERNMENT BANS COMPANIES FROM DESTROYING UNSOLD PRODUCTS

 

Twitter post from The Fashion Law (TFL).  (Photo credit: TFL)

Earlier this year, France began working on passing one of the strongest laws when it comes to the handling of unsold garments and accessories. The legislation will ban companies from destroying certain unsold products making good on the French government’s vow to “put in place in the [fashion and textile industries] the major principles of the fight against food waste in order to ensure that unsold materials are not thrown away or destroyed.”

According to TFL’s website, French companies are slated to be subject to more than 100 new sustainability-centric provisions, such as those that require the systematic phasing out of automatic paper receipts and single use plastic in fast food restaurants, followed by the outright ban on all single-use plastics by 2040.

The fashion industry has been especially called out according to French legislators  as “apparel retailers, in particular, as they renew their products more frequently [than other industries] and often have surplus unsold stock.” As a result of its longstanding practice of destroying unsold merchandise to avoid discounting it and/or paying to burn it, the industry itself is one of the biggest culprits in terms of the more than €650 million (nearly $710 million) worth of new consumer products that are destroyed, or disposed of in landfills on an annual basis, according to Prime Minister Édouard Philippe’s office.

For years prestigious brands such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Cartier, Piaget, Baume & Mercier, and even H&M, have destroyed their unsold goods as part of a large-scale scheme to maintain its brand image.

CLIMATE CRISIS WILL RESHAPE FINANCE

Laurence D. Fink, the chief of BlackRock. (Photo credit: The New York Times)

Laurence D. Fink, the founder and chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager with nearly $7 trillion in investments, announced early this month that his firm would make investment decisions with environmental sustainability as its core goal; stating his firm would avoid investments in companies that “present a high sustainability-related risk.”

According to The New York Times, BlackRock will fundamentally shift its investing policy — and could reshape how corporate America does business. It will undoubtedly put pressure on other large money managers to follow suit.

Fink’s annual letter to the chief executives of the world’s largest companies is closely watched and in the 2020 edition he said that BlackRock would begin to exit certain investments that “present a high sustainability-related risk,” such as those in coal producers. His intent is to encourage every company, not just energy firms, to rethink their carbon footprint. “Awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance,” Mr. Fink wrote in the letter obtained by The New York Times. “The evidence on climate risk is compelling investors to reassess core assumptions about modern finance.

Fink anticipates a major shift, much sooner than many might imagine, in the way money will be allocated. This dynamic will accelerate as the next generation takes the helm of government and business,” he wrote. “As trillions of dollars shift to millennials over the next few decades, as they become C.E.O.s and C.I.O.s, as they become the policymakers and heads of state, they will further reshape the world’s approach to sustainability.”

This is meaningful news for those companies that are on the forefront of sustainability when it comes to looking for funding.

BEYOND RECYCLING

Puma Shoes. (Photo courtesy of Puma)

Global athletic brand Puma and First Mile have co-created a sportswear and shoe collection made from recycled yarn that is manufactured from plastic bottles collected by the First Mile network.

First Mile is a people-focused network that strengthens micro-economies in Taiwan, Honduras, and Haiti by collecting plastic bottles. This helps to create sustainable jobs and reduce pollution. The bottles are then sorted, cleaned, shredded, and turned into yarn, which is later used to create products with purpose that truly empower from ‘the first mile’ forward.

Plastic recycling in Bangladesh. (Photo by Flickr)

Even though one of the key benefits of this partnership is social impact, the Puma and First Mile program has diverted over 40 tons of plastic waste from landfills and oceans, just for the products made for 2020. This roughly translates into 1,980,286 plastic bottles being reused,” said Stefan Seidel, head of corporate sustainability for Puma. “The pieces from this co-branded training collection range from shoes, tees, shorts, pants and jackets — all the apparel is made of at least 83% to even 100% from the more sustainable yarn sourced from First Mile.”

The collaboration with First Mile is part of Puma’s commitment to reduce its environmental impact and lives up to its code of being “Forever Better.”

CARBON NEUTRAL AND CARBON NEGATIVE

In September 2019, Gucci announced it was going carbon neutral (net-zero), meaning it would no longer be adding carbon into the atmosphere.

Other companies are going ‘carbon negative’, meaning they will remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they emit. In January 2020, Microsoft announced their carbon negative pledge, promising that by 2030, they will remove all of the carbon from the environment that it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975. That goes well beyond a pledge by its cloud-computing rival Amazon, which intends to go carbon neutral by 2040.

According to an article in Fashionista on how brands don’t know enough about their carbon footprint, Elizabeth L. Cline wrote:

” Stand.Earth, an environmental advocacy group, ranked 45 major clothing brands, and found that only two brands — Levi’s and American Eagle Outfitters — are doing enough to curb emissions to keep us under 1.5 degrees of warming, which is the limit recommended by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

“The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) published its Green Supply Chain CITI (Corporate Information Transparency Index) ranking, which scores over 400 global brands that manufacture in China, including 80 major clothing companies, based on their efforts to curb pollution and their emissions. What these rankings reveal is that few brands are doing anything to measure their carbon footprint, much less cut it back to an Earth-sparing size.”

Hopefully the tide will turn in 2020 and beyond, as more brands make a concerted effort.

NEW CERTIFICATION HELPS BRANDS

Many fashion brands are claiming to be carbon-neutral but are actually not, a term referred to as “greenwashing.” As of April 2020, a San Francisco-based company called  Climate Neutral is unveiling a Climate Neutral Certified label that will identify companies that have reached a net-zero carbon footprint by reducing and offsetting emissions released through their entire creation process, from design to production to shipping.

Designers can and should play a bigger role in the products that they design. With a trove of agencies, organizations and other resources, there is really no excuse not to be eco-compliant.

OTHER HELPFUL RESOURCES

Here are a few additional organizations that are pushing the envelope in sustainability:

Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (C2C)– An organization that educates and empowers manufacturers of consumer products to improve what their products are made of and how they are made.

Evrnu – A new fiber that comes from the recycling of cotton garments. They take garment waste to its supply chain in a way that is good for business, for the environment, and for consumers.

Let us know what you are doing to reduce your carbon footprint and what other agencies you might know to help designers “design green”?

 

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Antonia Sardone

Antonia Sardone

Antonia Sardone is a new contributor to the University of Fashion. She is also a freelance fashion consultant, stylist and writer. Antonia Sardone graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in Advertising Communications, Marketing and Fashion Journalism. She is an industry veteran having worked for WWD for over fifteen years and has strong relationships with designers worldwide. Today, Antonia Sardone continues to write reviews for WWD as well as work with many contemporary designers on a variety of projects from helping to re-launch their websites to writing their brand books. She enjoys raising her children to be creative individuals, as well as styling, writing and traveling.