The cotton growing and harvesting process may not be the first thing on consumers’ minds when they purchase clothes, but sustainability expert Lisa Heinze is keen for this to change, and for the real ‘value’ of garments to be revealed, from cotton production to the creation of clothing items.
She said: “Once we start looking at garments not just as a garment, but as a collection of stories about people who created that garment, we increase its value.”
This approach could lead to consumers approaching fashion in a more conscientious way, taking an interest in the chain of events leading up to an item’s creation, and whether it has been fair for both people and planet.
Lisa Heinze said: “Learning even a little about garment production can help us gain an appreciation of how much time and effort people put into making the clothes we wear.”
The sustainability expert highlights a number of environmental and social issues related to fashion production, including water use, water pollution, worker safety and garment waste. She said that the issue is exacerbated as the fast fashion cycle becomes faster.
According to Wrap (otherwise known as the Waste and Resources Action Programme), 30% of textiles in the UK end up in landfills.
Water usage is one particular area of environmental concern, and according to conservation organisation WWF, it can take up to 2,700 litres of water to make a single t-shirt. While more sustainable farming practices could reduce the pressure, so too could slowing down the pace of fashion.
According to Safia Minney in her book Slow Fashion, the clothing industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, and an estimated £100 million worth of used clothing goes to landfills in the UK every year - 350,000 tonnes worth.
The organic cotton story
The ethics woven into clothing are not always visible to consumers. The label tells only a fragment of the story, leaving people to decipher the state of factory conditions based on the country of origin alone. Beneath all that, information about where the materials have come from is completely obscured.
On an organic farm in Indore, India, rich black soil plays the perfect host to cotton. In some areas of India, like this one, farmers receive government subsidies to make the move to organic cotton growing. They are given free electricity, free water, and subsidised food staples. It takes a farmer four years to transition the soil to organic.
Each farmer knows their own land, and treats it in a different way from the next. Drawing up water from the Namala River, some flood the land, others drip feed it, using bare feet as tools to test saturation levels. Every 15 days, a crushed neem leaf and water mix is sprayed on the crops, acting as a natural pesticide. After 120 days, the cotton is ready to be plucked.
When harvesting season comes round from September to November, It takes around six people eight days to pick the cotton, on an average smallholding of four hectares.
Once the land is clear of cotton, mung beans and pigeon pea will take its place. A diverse range of crops keeps the land enriched with nitrogen, and acts as another source of both income and food. Chillies, wheat and sugarcane are planted at different points in the year, and biodiversity plays an important role in organic farming.
The cotton is loaded up, and taken to the ginners. Women sit cross-legged among mounds of cotton, sorting through the harvest by hand, removing any damaged or immature cotton. Deseeded, separated and baled with a range of machinery, the cotton is ready to head off to the spinners.
Through the organic cotton growing process, both people and the planet receive fairer treatment.
The consumers wearing their hearts on their sleeves
The time and effort that goes into growing organic cotton is only part of the story. However, many top brands are encouraging a situation where ethics in itself is fashionable and wearing sustainably produced fashion is a trend in itself.
Sustainability expert Lisa Heinze argues that this is not enough. She wants to see a world where ethical fashion becomes the norm, not just an alternative. She said that consumers can go some way to making this a reality, with education and awareness the building blocks for making that happen.
She said: “We vote with our wallets. When we buy fashion that is produced sustainably we send a message to fashion labels that we care about the planet and the lives of the people who grow the cotton and make our clothing.”
She said consumers should focus on buying fewer but better quality pieces, “to remove themselves from the fast fashion cycle”.
Alongside the work of consumers, she said that the fashion industry itself has a responsibility to drive change. To begin with, she encourages labels to trace their supply chain, so that they can fully understand each step in the process.
She said that consumers, designers, retailers and activists all have a role to play in the drive for sustainable fashion.
Sustainable fashion in action
While garments race from wardrobe to landfill, some companies are working hard to bring sustainability to the everyday.
Wrap has launched the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) to minimise the environmental impact of clothes. They have set ambitious targets for 2020, including reducing waste to landfill, water footprint and carbon footprint by 15% each. More than 80 organisations have voluntarily agreed to join their commitment.
Clothing brand People Tree is also putting sustainability at the heart of fashion. Safia Minney, the brand’s founder and author of Slow Fashion, dreamt of producing fashion that was free from child labour, did not harm the environment, and did not exploit adult workers. Now, the 100% Fairtrade, organic cotton used by the label means that farmers are earning 30% more. The company is going one step further, and supporting clean water facilities, schools, seed banks and training.
Another brand leading the way in sustainability is Dirty Velvet. Setting out to create a successful and profitable company, they also wanted to limit their environmental impact, which is why all their products are made from 100% organic cotton.
The clothing brand’s managing director Mark Hurst said: “It is nonsensical to create profit, if in doing so you damage your own ecosystem. It’s not real profit. In our view this is a truism, but the corporate world generally disagrees.”
For sustainable fashion to become mainstream, he said there needs to be “momentum created from the top down and demand from the bottom up.”
In the linear model typical of the fashion industry, cotton is grown, then clothes are made, worn, and thrown away. Now, some companies are making the move to a circular model, where unwanted garments are turned into something brand new. In a journey one step closer to zero waste, less strain is put on the cotton industry, and considerably fewer clothes are sent to the landfill.
Other organisations are recognising the power of consumer pressure. UK-based, not-for-profit company Fashion Revolution is one of those groups, and recently launched the Who Made My Clothes? Campaign. Consumers are encouraged to dig deeper into the ethics behind their clothes, and hold fashion brands accountable in a public discussion about where garments come from. All across the internet, people are contacting fashion labels and asking about the story behind their item of clothing. The court of public opinion can then decide how they feel about those practices.
While many brands are doing what they can to make fashion more sustainable, there may be a long way to go before ethical fashion is a staple piece.
The stories behind fashion production could be what drives that change, and as Lisa Heinze said: “All the clothes we are wearing were touched by multiple pairs of human hands.