Ethical Issues in Fashion: Eco Friendly Fabrics, Sustainability & More
With the advent of social media and news outlets reaching the most remote corners of the world, the ethical issues of the fashion industry are no longer mysteries or theories. On the contrary, as of late, many are advocating for ethical fashion as opposed to fast fashion. Moreover, those concerned for the environment, human rights, and social ethics are also supporting eco friendly fabrics in the detriment of the ubiquitous plastic that seems to eradicate life as we know it.
Today, we will touch some very ardent issues regarding ethical fashion, human rights, sustainable practices, eco friendly fabrics and a new perspective on a style that we should all embrace more.
Ethical Fashion and its Key-Issues
By ethical fashion, experts coin the entire process of plant cultivation/fabric production, transportation, design, production, retail, and purchasing of clothing and accessories. It is an umbrella term, covering anything from working conditions and workers’ wages to sustainable production and exploitation, human rights, the environment, animal warfare, and fair trade practices.
Here are some of the direst problems the current of ethical fashion and the rise of eco friendly fabrics try to solve on a global scale:
It is related to the farming of certain crops, exploitative working conditions (in the factories making cheap, serialized clothes), and human rights violations.
Despite international standards, many ethical fashion advocates warn that in some parts of the world (with Bangladesh being in the limelight these days) people work in seriously dangerous conditions, lacking the benefit of health and safety measures.
Moreover, farmers, producers, factory/supply chain workers in the fashion industry also face inhuman working schedules, forced overtime, denial of working rights, exhaustion, sexual or racial harassment, denial or lack of fundamental human rights. If you think remote places such as Bangladesh are facing such issues, you should also consider Western nations such as the U.K. or the U.S.
Even if we do not want to think about it, slavery still exists. According to the Global Slavery Index of 2014, around 36 million people were living in a type of modern slavery, many of them being part of fashion brands and retailers’ supply chains. Countries such as Argentina, China, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and the Philippines are “of risk” regarding forced and child labor and human rights violations.
Child laborers are often the victims of violence and abuse; they also face unsanitary working conditions, improper nutrition, and abysmal wages. The cheaper the clothes you buy, the less these children make or eat.
This world has reached that point where we genetically engineer and chemically treat plantations to yield more and more crops, faster and faster. The use of hazardous chemicals (for crop fertilization, weed, and pest control), the overproduction of waste, and the damage we cause the environment to manufacture, transport, and sell fashion are taking a severe toll on our environment.
The focus eco friendly fabrics and ethical fashion practices are mandatory. We all know that cotton represents the majority of the world’s used cloth.
However, pushing its growing practices also increases the world’s consumption of insecticides and pesticides (chemicals that can harm – in a cascade – wildlife, insects, other crops, and the farmers who grow it).
The textile practices we employ today can easily fall under the “unsustainable” label because they cause direct damage to the environment. The vast quantities of water the industry requires to produce and dye cotton, for instance, led to the shrinking in seawater volumes.
We rarely wear the textiles as we get them from a factory. The industry uses plenty of chemicals and industrial processes to soften and dye fabrics. Experts warn that many of these chemicals can harm the people wearing treated clothes and accessories. Among the most dangerous substances used in the fashion industry, we can count lead, nickel, and formaldehyde.
Our high street fashion – cheap clothes and accessories, those of low quality in particular – are subject to waste. In other words, many of our garments end up in landfills. In other words, the fast fashion creates waste that the world cannot handle. While charities and NGOs encourage people to donate clothes and thus limit the waste while helping developing nations, it seems we find it more comfortable to throw away millions of tons of clothes and accessories each year, without wondering what happens to them.
A long and robust problem in the fashion world, we all still have to tackle animal cruelty and prevent the further harm we pose to wildlife as we use animals to wear. Some fashion designers, such as Stella McCartney does not use fur or leather in her creations, encouraging people to take stock of the animals the fashion industry farms exclusively to supply runway show materials. However, as she stated not so long ago, the industry’s and the consumers’ mindsets are changing, and we may see a better world soon enough.
Unfortunately, consumers know little about the issues at hand when it comes to ethical fashion. Sometimes, unwillingly, they can participate in the escalation of such problems. We are all happy to buy cheap clothes, but have you stopped to wonder what the price reflects?
Even canceling an order may cause troubles in the supply chain:
- Workers may have to work overtime without getting paid;
- Workers may face unrealistic demands to deliver changed purchase parameters or adapt fast to newer customers’ requests;
- The supplier may cut plenty of corners (many of them relying on interfering with people’s lives or wages) to keep providing you with cheap clothes, etc.
Mindful shopping is the way to go in the future. In fact, according to some recent surveys, the young generation shows an increased interest in brands adopting ethical fashion principles, using eco friendly fabrics and showing transparency and humanity in their industrial and commercial practices.
Eco Friendly Fabrics: The Future is Here
When it comes to ethical fashion, it seems that some of the most concerning issues stem from the textiles we farm to wear as clothes and accessories. While we have talked about sustainable materials before, a quick reminder does not hurt. Today, we will go through some of the most eco friendly fabrics we can wear, with an emphasis on innovative textiles that can change the face of fashion shortly.
It is a renewable natural resource. This grass needs few chemicals to grow. It is hardy and features antibacterial properties. After processing, it delivers a breathable, plush, and biodegradable fabric. Today, we use bamboo fibers to make home-based items, such as high-end towels and bathrobes. However, bamboo is a versatile textile, and it can go into a myriad of fashionable clothes, accessories, and even footwear.
The infamous hemp plant got a bad reputation, but in truth, nations all over the world use the industrial hemp for a handful of purposes. They use it to produce fabrics, food, constructions, natural beauty products, medical products, and more.
In its fabric shape, hemp is highly breathable and comes with antibacterial properties. Today, the fashion industry uses it due to its warm and moisture wicking properties. Besides the fact that you can easily blend it in superior fabrics, hemp itself is extremely durable. Moreover, it becomes softer and smoother as you wear and wash it. At the end of its life, it is also biodegradable.
From a sustainability perspective, hemp is a fierce competitor to jute (we will discuss in a minute). It does not need a lot of water or chemicals to thrive, and it yields more prosperous crops per acre than cotton. Instead of depleting the soil of nutrients, it replenishes it. Some big brands are now introducing hemp in their collections, making a denim-like fabric work very well as jeans and overalls, travel bags, and jackets.
We already know that the fashion industry – especially the accessories’ department – is in love with jute. The burlap/jute fashion office bags and JuCo street totes are anything but new IT bags these days.
But is jute sustainable? Indeed it is! A while ago, we highlighted the crucial aspects of jute as one of the best environmentally friendly fabrics in the world, but for those who missed that article, here are some things you should not forget:
- Jute is a breathable and resilient material, able to handle weather conditions, wear, tear, transport, and more with no problems;
- Just like hemp, it is a renewable textile, aiding the soil health and not depleting it from its nutrients;
- Besides increasing soil’s fertility, jute needs little irrigation or chemical processing;
- It is biodegradable and has a wooden core we could further exploit instead of cutting trees.
Jute is a slightly rough, rustic material. For this reason, we use it more for tote bags and gift bags, but historically speaking, people can wear jackets and clothes made of jute or blends of cotton and jute.
Linen comes from flax, and it has become the ethical fashion’s staple and poster boy as of late. It is a durable, versatile, breathable, fresh, and antimicrobial fabric. It is also resilient to moths. Lightweight and absorbent, it made its way into our wardrobes and home cabinets as well. Besides being biodegradable, it also requires little water, fertilizers, or pesticides to grow and yield bountiful crops.
5. Cotton and Canvas
There is no doubt that cotton and canvas are the fashion industry’s long-term relationships. Cotton and canvas come with their fair share of sustainability issues, but fortunately, we can tackle them all efficiently. In the accessories department, we all know that cotton, canvas, and jute make the most sustainable tote bags, purses, office or school bags.
Organic cotton is all the rage right now and for all the right reasons. While it can be more expensive, remember we urged you to consider the meaning of a higher price. Usually, it means that ethical fashion principles are in motion, people receive humane treatment and good wages, and the environment suffers a lot less.
Cotton and canvas will never go out of fashion. What it is important to notice is this field is the rising concern for the increased use of natural and healthy fibers in the making of clothing and accessories. After all, reusable cotton grocery bags (together with cotton ones) represent one of the first and most comfortable steps you can take to reduce the consumption of plastic in your life.
6. Recycled polyester
The world dreads polyester, but many companies are trying to solve some issues related to it. One trend is the use of recycled polyester in fashion and accessories items – it has a 75% lower carbon footprint than virgin polyester. Nevertheless, recycled polyester presents itself with a difficult problem: it contains antimony, which is toxic. Luckily, some brands are working on new technological processes to remove the antimony from their fabrics.
This fabric comes with its controversy luggage. A type of polymer resin, this plastic fiber should not, at first glance, appear on a list of eco friendly fabrics or become a topic of ethical fashion practices. However, as we said on other occasions, polypropylene has plenty of uses in a vast number of fields, including fashion.
The truth is, polypropylene is more sustainable than its other plastic brethren are, it is safer and cheaper to produce, and since it comes with high degrees of re-usability, it compensates easily for its environmental impact. Non-woven polypropylene is a dear friend to the accessories’ industry: the non-woven poly tote bags (and other items) are resilient to wear, tear, weather, heavy loads, and more.
The Eco Friendly Fabrics of Tomorrow
We cannot know for sure whether the fashion industry will adopt these innovative fabrics shortly, but we must present them to you as novelty ideas and technologies. Moving away from resource-intensive crops and embracing ethical fashion principles and practices means looking with a fresh eye at fabric alternatives. Here are three of them we found most exciting:
- Pinatex: it represents the leftover leaves from pineapple trees, turned into a non-woven textile that simulates leather’s properties and features. The fabric works best for footwear, accessories, and even clothes. It is biodegradable and consumes almost no resources since it comes from pineapple fallen leaves.
- Eucalyptus Yarn: this is lyocell fabric in a deconstructed form; the yarn comes from eucalyptus trees’ fibers. It may very well be the next best replacement for yarns, wool, and other knittable fabrics.
- Cafe: a fabric made of coffee grinds? Yes, please! Big brands like North Face, Puma, and Timberland, started using this recycled coffee grinds fiber in their collections, and everything seems to work just fine. Since it is more eco friendly to turn coffee grinds into threads, it seems they can make the next best thing in the ethical fashion world!
We have to process a lot when it comes to ethical fashion issues and eco friendly fabrics. However, mindful shopping and fashion-centric education will take us all a step closer to achieving beauty and practicality without harming people or the environment in the process. What else do you know about eco friendly fabrics, innovative textile technologies, and social issues related to fashion?