I am a member of the fashion industry as a consumer, style enthusiast, student, and researcher; it is safe to say fashion is almost always on my mind. As I contemplated my beloved fashion industry’s environmental and social conundrums, I couldn’t help but wonder…What is the fashion industry doing to help itself?
In my two years of research, I found that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9—industry, innovation and infrastructure—are a set of applicable and intertwined goals for the fashion industry to accept responsibility for its actions. The purpose: to mitigate, or even turn positive, the impact it has on both people and the planet.
SDG 9 aims to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation in the path to a more ethical industry.
An excellent example of a commitment to SDG 9 from within the fashion industry is One X One. One X One is a Conscious Design Initiative from Slow Factory Foundation, a public service organization working at the intersection of climate & culture, and Swarovski, supported by the United Nations Office for Partnerships. In this year-long initiative, industry experts, scientists, and academics collaborated on three projects. One X One’s 2020 cohort featured three collaborations: Public School NY X Theanne Schiros, Mara Hoffman X Custom Collaborative, and 3.1 Phillip Lim X Charlotte McCurdy.
New York fashion brand, Public School NY X Dr. Theanne Schiros, focuses on circularity. Through the cross industry collaboration of fashion and science, Public School designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne and scientist Dr. Theanne Schiros utilized waste to create new “leather”, grown from microbes which differs vastly from the current leather being produced by the textile and fashion industry, and alternative dyes for sneakers. Conventional leather processing involves leather made from animal hide, which is cleaned, tanned, and finished with coloring and added texture. However, this process is incredibly detrimental to the environment, as surrounding waterways are polluted and poisoned. According to the Human Rights Watch, tanning is the most toxic phase in leather processing, with 90% of production using chromium tanning. The consequences are chemicals and gases so toxic that most governments in the U.S. and Europe have shut down tanneries, thus the fashion industry has taken this as an opportunity to further exploit the lax environmental policies of garment producing countries, where the toxic chemical runoff enters water streams. From an environmental perspective, this is bad for the planet. From an ethical perspective, this is awful. The environmental justice concerns are endless: people who live in these garment producing countries are being poisoned by the very industry which they toil away for their livelihood. The “leather” and dye process that Public School NY X Dr. Theanne Schiros sneakers utilizes is based on the lowest carbon and toxicity footprints possible according to Dr. Schiros. This collaboration resulted in innovation and growth for the fashion industry. This collaboration is an essential blueprint for the fashion industry to move forward by putting people and the planet first. Instead of sticking to conventional methods for producing leather, which poisons both society and the environment, microbial leather and waste produced dye will save people’s lives and will create a positive impact for the Earth. The rest of the fashion industry should take note of this example and explore what other environmental ills it can rectify through collaboration and innovation.
For Mara Hoffman X Custom Collaborative, Designer Mara Hoffman worked with Custom Collaborative, a workforce development program for the New York City garment industry, to create an equity-centered training program and support women from low-income and immigrant communities. For most modern fashion brands, the profits from cheap labor are too vast to forfeit in pursuit of ethical labor practices. The low wages and poor working conditions of garment workers don’t keep them up at night as they slumber peacefully in their Casper mattresses. Again, this is an instance of the fashion industry exploiting the meager health and safety policies of garment producing countries. Yet low wages and deplorable working conditions are not exclusive to the Global South–garment workers in California and New York face similar conditions. By fostering ethical relationships between designers, brands, and garment workers, this collaboration is setting an example for how the industry’s infrastructure can change to be more thoughtful throughout the fashion supply chain. By championing the people without whom the sector cannot function, there is a new dawn: a new standard of what a relationship between a brand and its core actors should resemble. Because policy follows culture, the fashion industry must adopt a policy of refusing to work with factories that do not comply with ethics standards set by brands.
Beyond conditions inside factories, the fashion industry must reevaluate how their raw materials impact the environments they are created and thrown away in. 3.1 Phillip Lim X Charlotte McCurdy is a collaboration between Lim, a designer, and McCurdy, a researcher. The Phillip Lim Algae dress was the product of this cross industry collaboration. Lim and McCurdy examined fashion and science together to create a solution for fashion use for sequins, which are made of plastic. This resulted in researching algae and its immense potential to become a carbon neutral material for more sustainable design. The collaboration left a tangible impact on the infrastructure of the fashion industry by refusing to work with a plastic sequin producing factory and choosing to work with PYRATES, a research and development company which focuses on innovative eco-friendly materials, instead. By opting for a sustainable supplier for the base of the algae dress, Lim’s work serves as an example to designers worldwide to choose their suppliers with intention.This particular collaboration is exciting because of how it encourages designers and scientists alike to consider the intersection between their work.
Underneath the glitz and glam of the fashion industry are people working in hazardous conditions and a planet being poisoned. Innovation is not just scientific—it is just as exemplified in the creation of new leather or an algae dress as it is by social innovation such as creating an equitable workplace for all actors in the fashion supply chain.
Hawa is a sustainable and ethical fashion consultant, and a member of Seeds Platform as a leader. When Hawa is not talking about fashion, she is either thinking about fashion or devouring romance novels.
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