The Fashion Industry Is on the Cusp of a Major Evolution

body shaming

Get ready for a more diverse, ethical, eco-friendly fashion industry.

If you could change one thing about the fashion industry, what would it be? Reasonable answers to that question range from making fashion more environmentally friendly to allowing for more inclusion of diversity in terms of sizing or ethnicity. One answer that doesn’t make sense, however, is “nothing.”

Whether you work in the fashion industry, simply enjoy shopping and reading fashion blogs, or barely even shop at all, the fact is that the fashion industry affects all of us in many ways. It is almost impossible to disengage oneself completely from the fashion industry, which is why it’s vital for everyone to be aware of aspects of the industry that are at best archaic and at worst unethical.

Happily, there has been a stirring of awareness of late. Brands and individuals have been trying to figure out how a love for fashion can coexist with respect for our environment and fellow human beings. With any luck, this will lead to actual change within the fashion industry — specifically when it comes to making eco-friendly clothing, ensuring safe working conditions in factories, and representing diversity in fashion.

One of the biggest issues that the fashion industry currently faces is its destructive effect on the environment. Consider the amount of resources that one five-dollar cotton shirt gobbles up: first it must be grown in a cotton farm, which harnesses natural resources and involves pesticides; next it must be manufactured, using gallons of water as well as chemicals for the dye; and finally it must be transported to the store, using fossil fuels for the ship or truck. After all that, you buy the shirt, use more water to wash it, and finally dispose of it in a landfill. Now consider the amount of clothing that is manufactured, purchased, and discarded annually in the United States alone, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how destructive our fast-fashion addiction can be for the environment.

Everlane- Fashion IndustryEverlane About Page

What can be done about it? This is a change that needs to happen both on an individual level and a corporate level. On an individual level, it’s important to raise awareness so that consumers will make a conscious choice to buy less fast fashion and instead support small businesses, ethically minded brands, and secondhand stores. On a corporate level, businesses can choose to research and implement ways to be more eco-friendly. Just a few good examples of eco-friendly fashion brands are Everlane, Stella McCartney, Litke, Study NY, Elroy, Freedom of Animals, SVILU, Riyka, Kowtow, H&M Conscious Collection, Urban Renewal, Amour Vert, and 100% NY. It’s likely that as more consumers create a demand for sustainable clothing, more brands — small and large — will find that it’s in their best interests to cater to this demand.

Another change that many fashion brands need to make is the ethical treatment of workers. When a clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed and killed 1,000 people in 2013, filmmaker Andrew Morgan was inspired to explore the issue in his documentary The True Cost. Not only have there been tragic deaths from factories collapsing like the one in Bangladesh, but workers also suffer from low pay (one worker made only $10 per month) and generally unsafe working conditions.

The True Cost of the Fashion IndustryStill from The True Cost by Andrew Morgan

Although we still have a long way to go to completely eradicate such shameful working conditions in the fashion industry, awareness is spreading and many brands are committing to making their manufacturing processes more ethical and transparent.

Everlane is a great example of this: not only do they reveal the true cost involved in every clothing item they make, but they also take a very hands-on approach to all the factories they use and even allow you to learn more about each factory on their website. As for large fast-fashion brands like H&M and Zara, they’ve acknowledged their responsibility to create fast fashion as ethically as possible by committing to certain practices. H&M uses recycled polyester and organic cotton and had factory building contractors sign contracts promising safe working conditions. Zara (or more specifically its parent company Inditex) claims to follow the guidelines of the United Nations’ Global Compact and the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories program and has implemented procedures to monitor the conditions of its supply chain. The hope is that eventually these sort of practices will be the norm, not the exception. Consumers can pressure brands into implementing ethical, transparent manufacturing processes by being vocal on social media and patronizing only brands that listen.

Consumers can pressure brands into implementing ethical, transparent manufacturing processes by being vocal on social media and patronizing only brands that listen.

The good news is that the fashion industry has been making great strides in changing one of its least savory aspects: the lack of diversity. For a long time, diversity of any kind was suspiciously absent from every part of the fashion industry: the runway, magazine spreads, advertisements, and so on. While perhaps not quite as pressing as the industry’s effect on the environment or factory workers, the lack of diversity is still an important issue because it creates a ripple effect in society. The images that we see on a daily basis in fashion — usually that of thin, white, and young models — permeate the public consciousness to create an unattainable standard. If you never see yourself on the runway or in a fashion magazine, it’s easy to feel like an entire industry is telling you that you don’t meet that standard — or perhaps that you don’t even exist. This is particularly demoralizing for young girls, who are already susceptible to self-esteem issues that can lead to eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide.

Madeline Stuart- Fashion IndustryCourtesy of Madeline Stuart

That’s why it’s heartening to see the fashion industry finally starting to embrace models of all sizes, ethnicities, and backgrounds. A few great examples of late are Madeline Stuart, an 18-year-old model with Down syndrome who walked the New York Fashion Week runway; Andreja Pejić, the first openly transgender model to be profiled by Vogue; Ashley Graham, the first size-16 model to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated; and Daphne Selfe, the world’s oldest supermodel at the age of 83. Many fashion brands are also making efforts to be more inclusive, whether by expanding their plus-size clothing options or by thinking outside the box for disabled consumers, such as the Toronto brand IZ, which makes clothing that is accessible for people in wheelchairs.

The fashion industry isn’t perfect. It has many flaws that were created by modern-day greed and consumerism. When corporations focus only on their bottom line and consumers demand a constant stream of new clothes at rock-bottom prices, it’s easy to lose sight of our ethical obligations to the planet and the people living on it. It’s unfortunate that it takes a tragedy like a factory collapsing to get the world to sit up and pay attention, but a delayed change is better than no change at all. Corporations and consumers are realizing that we can no longer be shortsighted when it comes to fashion’s impact on our environment, our workers, and ourselves. The first tentative steps have been taken to correct the course that the fashion industry has been on; now it’s up to each one of us to harness that momentum and make the fashion industry something that we can actually be proud of. end


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