Fashion is a big business. The global fashion industry is worth $1.2 trillion. This should not be surprising considering the population of the world – there are more than seven billion people on earth with varying fashion needs. What should be alarming is the extent to which the fashion industry threatens the existence of the planet.
The Chinese textile industry, which accounts for about 65 percent of global textile production, creates about 3 billion tons of soot each year. Also, the global fashion industry is often noted as the number two polluter of clean water – after agriculture. About 17 to 20 percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment.
However, it is not only pollution that the world should be worried about. The fashion industry’s consumer-driven growth model has encouraged frequent overhaul of designs to psychologically induce impulse purchase. Production levels have, therefore, increased in response to increasing demand which the world’s resources are struggling to keep up with. Cotton, the raw material used in the apparel industry, is responsible for 2.6 percent of the global water use. Other parts of production such as washing and dyeing, also consumes huge volume of water. Sadly, with the current imbalance in demand for water vis-à-vis the supply, by 2030, demand may exceed supply by 40 percent.
The global fashion industry has also been found guilty of modern slavery and child labour, with unfair labour practices and poor working conditions leading to the death of several workers in the industry. One that sparked the collective conscience of investors in the fashion industry as well as consumers, retailers, and governments to know more about the people producing the clothes we wear and how they are treated was the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. The event which led to the tragic death of 1,100 factory workers is now recorded as the second worst industrial accident of all time.
The several ills associated with the fashion industry as well as the need to preserve the environment have given rise to a design philosophy and trend of sustainability called ecofashion or sustainable fashion. The goal of this new thinking is to create a system which can maintain its productivity indefinitely bearing in mind the environmental and social impact it may have throughout its total life span.
Designers are increasingly incorporating sustainable practices into modern clothing. One of the first African designers to do this is Hazel Eki Aggrey-Orleans, the creative force behind the high-end London-based fashion-label Eki Orleans.
Aggrey-Orleans’s work and that of other designers with similar belief is fostering the growth of eco fashion, with the world market for textiles made from organically grown cotton worth more than $5 billion in 2010.
“I think it [ecofashion] is the way forward,” she told The Nerve Africa. “Anyone can make clothes or knows someone who can make clothes for them but it takes a more conscious brand to incorporate an ethical practice into their brand. It means you as a designer have values and you will not accept anything below that.”
She explains that eco fashion produces garments that are less harmful to the environment and also last longer.
“Ecofashion will also look to employ workers in under-developed countries to give back to a community in need. It is a less selfish way of designing garments, as you are thinking about your surroundings.”
The designer who was born in Germany but raised in Nigeria and educated in London said her design aesthetic has been strongly influenced by the diversity of cultures she has lived in. But her inspiration comes majorly from her West African heritage. Her love for nature ensures the environment is first on her mind whenever she designs clothing.
“When it comes to printing, we decided to opt for digital printing, as there is less water wastage,” she says, stressing her passion for ethical fashion. “Our patterns are designed in a way that causes the least fabric wastage. We recycle a lot of our textiles.”
With fast fashion growth spiraling out of control and disposable luxury taking over the rapidly growing fashion industry, ethical designers struggle to compete with top companies. But some of them are working hard to challenge the status quo through creativity, hard work, collaboration and creation of emotional bond with their customers. However, the prices of ethically produced apparel often discourage customers from leaving the cheaper mass production they are used to.
What many forget, however, is that materials used for ethical designs are high quality, combining a great look and feel to endure through many years of wear.
According to Cri de Coeur, maker of ethical shoes, “It’s also important to keep in mind that the cost of a product isn’t solely what’s on the price tag. Everything has a carbon footprint that it impacts upon our planet. While buying the sustainable, organic or fair-trade product may be slightly more expensive in the short-term, its long-term benefits are more than worth it.”
While arguments about sustainable fashion, mass production and how these affect consumers is expected to continue, especially with reports like THIS putting big labels on the spot, some designers have found their place and feel strongly committed to what they do.
“I personally have always been a believer in buying a few good pieces of clothing rather than fast throw away fashion, so it was only natural for me to develop an ethical and quality fashion brand with pieces that would last,” says Aggrey-Orleans. People who appreciate quality would agree.