The dirty secret about clothes is broadcast

Instead, due to the pandemic, it was closed in Brooklyn when news broke that dozens of major mass-market clothing brands were refusing to pay factories for completed orders. The orders represented billions of dollars and the livelihoods of hordes of poor, mostly women.

“In the midst of this horrific crisis were these really huge and profitable companies — their instinct was not to protect the people working for them, but to destroy them,” Klein says. “It was too much.”

A campaign called #PayUp has started, along with activists and other people who follow the fashion industry, demanding that brands including H&M and Zara pay what they owe. Klein says the factory owners have been extraordinarily open with the press about the scale of the problem. They rarely speak ill of their customers, whose whims control the fate of the factories. But in this case, what do they have to lose?

#PayUp has gone viral. More than $22 billion of those unpaid bills have been paid since then. But the bad taste in Klein’s mouth did not go away. For years, I’ve written extensively about brands’ efforts to do better on labor rights and the environment. But as fashion has largely escaped the formal regulations on pollution and waste that governments apply to industries like oil and agriculture, clothing companies have been watching and reforming themselves. Klein now could not muster even the skeptical optimism.

I felt it was time for more than self-regulating fashion. And she wasn’t alone. In the past few years, awareness of fashion problems has broken like a wave across society, especially among young people. The pandemic has only speeded up the process, as injustice and environmental degradation have received attention they never had before. Now Klein and other voices – activists, writers, NGOs – are calling for change, with real rules on the industry.

A glimpse into the future

Social problems in the garment industry, which depend on low wages and long working hours for workers, is no secret. But what you may not know is the depth of the fashion sustainability problem. Along with little black dresses and trendy sneakers, clothing manufacturers produce endless tons of waste and oceans from polluted waters. Apparel production doubled between 2000 and 2014, and many pieces are now worn only a few times. Every second, the clothes of the garbage truck are disposed of or incinerated. The fashion industry is a conveyor belt that carries natural resources to landfill at dizzying speed.

The solutions that clothing brands themselves are exploring generally look like using a dropper to put out a forest fire. Recycling cotton makes more use of the material, but recycling shortens its fibers, which must then be combined with fresh cotton to make clothes.

The best ideas include the concept of rotation. “This means moving to a system where we are no longer extracting any new materials from the earth,” says Elizabeth Segran, a journalist who covers fashion for The Fast Company.

If the fashion is circular, the materials of the garment can be used to make a new garment once the first has been worn. They must be chosen from a select list of materials that can be recycled infinitely. This is tricky at the moment, since the most common examples are glass and aluminum, and they’re not likely to be used much in clothing. There is almost no infrastructure to do this: there are few supply chains for recyclables and no good way to get the materials back from the consumer.

However, if brands are using materials that can be recycled multiple times, but not indefinitely – such as PET plastic used in water bottles, which can be used to make polyester – and if they can invest in the infrastructure and logistics needed to recover and reuse Products, just as they have adapted to e-commerce in the last 15 years, may be a way forward.

Chloe Songer and Stuart Ahlum, founders of athletic shoe brand Thousand Fell, are considering their company as a pilot project for this potential future. Both worked for a number of years for large clothing brands and monitored research into new types of materials.

“Textile sellers and factories were hearing that the consumer wanted something more sustainable,” Ahlum says, and he and Songer saw enough textile innovations to launch an early product that fit the bill. “I mean it better [use of] More carbon, water and energy across the entire supply chain than traditional leather, traditional rubber, or traditional foams, he says. And “we can actually recycle a lot of this stuff.”

They chose a simple white sneaker, the kind that nice people would wear every day for months until it really wears out and then throw it in the trash, and designed it so that it could be disassembled and many components recycled at the end of its life. .

The way Songer and Ahlum talk about materials, you can start to look at a future in which companies have endless plastic, synthetic cork or vegetable leather fodder entering the market in finished products and back again as raw materials. (The company’s name reflects the founders’ interest in new types of “fallen,” an old term for hides or hides.) At the end of this month, the company will launch an online recycling process system that will allow consumers to track the fate of their shoe materials and use credits when buying new ones.

This initial circular economy is a tempting vision, but it’s not enough to rely on companies alone to make it real, especially huge ones like Gap and Inditex, which owns Zara. “What we risk is: They are doing enough to prevent us from demanding real change,” Klein says.

In other words, they won’t go away unless they are pushed. We don’t have time to wait for them to move on their own.

Elizabeth Klein, author of “Overdressed” and “The Conscious Closet.”Keri Wigginton

real accountability

In February, Segran wrote an article for Fast Company calling for Biden to appoint a fashion czar. “The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions,” she wrote. “It should be organized like other large sectors.” The story sparked a movement: Activists penned a letter signed by more than 80 groups, including fashion brands and nonprofit organizations, urging the president to choose someone to take responsibility for this high-speed disaster, someone to engage in policies that make brands responsible for environmental burdens. and social for their products.

Klein was one of the signatories to the letter. “despite of [the United States has] A huge fashion industry and a trendsetter in terms of design, we don’t have a lot of success in Washington. “We are now lagging behind in these policy conversations,” she says. “We believe that every conversation that the White House has about climate, energy, sustainability, or domestic manufacturing should include people from the fashion industry.”

Elsewhere in the world, there are indications of what could be. When brands misjudge demand, they often burn or destroy unsold clothing en masse – a practice now banned by France. The EU’s cyclical action plan includes another idea Klein hopes will have legs: an expanded requirement for producer responsibility. This will force companies to take back and recycle or otherwise handle their products once they reach the end of their useful life. “This would be something that would be easy for the United States to embrace,” she says. The European Union is also planning to put in place rules encouraging manufacturers to use recyclable materials.

In addition, the EU is adopting human rights laws that require companies that do business in the EU – whether that is simply having a shop there or based there – to ensure their supply chains, no matter where they are located in the world, adhere to certain standards. If they fail to do so, there will be financial consequences. “This is a huge step away from self-regulation and back to true brand accountability,” Klein says.

In the past few months in the United States, Klein has campaigned for the California Garment Workers Protection Act, which would hold fashion brands legally responsible for ensuring workers receive at least minimum wage. She was director of policy and advocacy for Remake, an organization focused on reshaping the fashion industry, and has campaigned for the renewal of an international agreement to protect garment factory workers on the job.

Nearly 10 years after Klein helped launch a grassroots consumer movement to extend the life of clothing, the movement has picked up speed. People are now vowing on social media not to buy anything new. Younger generations are showing a growing awareness of the waste problem in the fashion industry. In June, online reseller ThredUp and research firm Global Markets reported that sales of used clothing are expected to grow fivefold over the next five years. This is a good thing, Klein says, but changing consumer behaviors is only a small part of what is necessary.

“My business has changed a lot over the past year,” Klein says. She now believes that rather than just making people buy smarter or buy less and expect brands to reform from within, change is needed in the public domain. “Instead of putting a lot of pressure on ourselves consumers, we have to look again at what our citizens can do,” she says. “That’s a lot.”

Veronique Greenwood is a science writer who contributes frequently to ideas. Follow her on Twitter Tweet embed.

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