According to figures from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), it takes 3,781 liters of water to make a pair of jeans. From the production of cotton to the delivery of the final product in stores, it is now clearer than ever that the fashion industry faces very demanding challenges along all three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental, and social.
Besides making intense use of chemical products and natural resources, the fashion industry experienced a dramatic relocation of factories towards the Far East, in the past twenty years. The search by brands for lower production costs led indeed to a significant structural change in fashion supply chains.
But when have they started to outsource everything up to this point? If we go a bit through recent history, there is a big crucial date in 2005. It’s the elimination of the Multifiber Arrangement (MFA) on January 1st 2005 by the World Trade Organization. Under this agreement, the United States, and the European Union restricted imports from developing countries to protect their domestic textile industries. Each developing country signatory was thus assigned quotas (numerically limited quantities) of specified items that could be exported to the U.S. and EU.
But from the 1st of January 2005 onwards, there has been a flood on the European market of products, mostly coming from China, with very low prices and high human and environmental costs. The nature of supply networks became more and more dispersed with an increasing exploitation of social and environmental resources which became a growing concern in the fashion industry.
Furthermore, the termination of the MFA not only created a strong social and environmental dumping of countries which produced fairly and ethically -since the EU legislation is way more strict than other countries’- but it also created a new generation of consumers with a cheaper lifestyle, where the real price of clothes has been completely lost from sight.
As fashion changes every season, it is tempting nowadays to load up on the cheap must-haves everyone is wearing. This switch in world trade has contributed to the establishment of a highly-fashion-victim-society. According to Versace, someone becomes a fashion victim when he or she alters his or her look too much from season to season. Haven’t we all at least once in our life experienced a period like that?
The fast-fashion’s operating model is exacerbating the problem even more by stepping up the pace of design and production. Collection launches are no longer seasonal; the replacement of clothing inventories has become much more frequent. We now see many low-cost fashion stores offer new designs every week.
What is certain is that to preserve our environment and upgrade labour cost, the mainstream fashion industry must invert this trend. Instead of filling our wardrobes with clothes that need to be replaced every year, it’d be beneficial to shop for ethical alternatives that will stand the test of time.