The most of you probably know one or two things about the current fashion industry. You know it runs in a fast pace and that in enables you to shop a new wardrobe according to the latest style, every month. You probably (hopefully) also know of the collapse of a garment factory called Rana Plaza, which happened in Bangladesh, April 2013. If not, the collapse killed 1,135 people and deferred maintenance of the building was the cause behind it. Global Trade Unions called it ‘mass industrial homicide’. Predictably, the maintenance of the building was postponed because of the absence of financial resources. The Rana Plaza disaster introduced many people all over the world to the true cost of their clothing. Therefore, it is even more ridiculous that the fashion industry hasn’t slowed down despite of many people knowing the consequences of it. In this post I will discuss the second part of our cradle to grave series; fabric and garment production. This is the process after the materials have been gathered and made ready to use. During this process a lot of chemicals and water are used for textile treatments and processes. Furthermore, fabric and resource wastage is common and working conditions often questionable.
Use of chemicals in textile treatments
When I think of chemicals used during textile processes, an image from The True Cost pops up in my mind. In this clip a city in India called Kanpur, also known as the capital of leather export from India, was shown. The city, which has a holy river running through it, is struggling with pollution produced by leather factories in that area. Every day more than 50 million litres of wasteful water pour out of local tanneries (where the leather is treated). Chromium, a chemical used for the treatment, flows into public waters and the soil. As a result of this, the local agriculture industry is struggling because the soil can’t be used and locals have serious health issues because (drinking) water is contaminated. This is one of the many examples of how harmful chemicals are used and discarded by factories in an immoral way.
Water use for textile processes
Since it is a bit difficult to tell you in all certainty how much water the textile industries uses per year, some smaller facts will follow.
- The dyeing process of a kilo textile uses around 100 liters of water on average.
- A dark colour uses a lot more water than a light colour.
- To make a cotton t-shirt it takes 2700 liters of water.
- For jeans even more water is used. 7500 liters comes from the production and use of cotton and 500 liters of water is used for the production. Dyeing 142L, bleaching 30L, printing 188L and finishing 136L.
Logically, in countries where there is a water scarcity, these numbers can lead to big issues.
Fabric and resource wastage
The textile industry creates around 22 billion kg of unused materials per year. Luckily, many (small) companies turned this negative into something positive by starting to upcycle. Upcycling is basically reusing scrap fabric or vintage materials and adjusting them until they can be used. TRMTAB is one of these companies that sells leather bags, shoes and accessories by using dead stock (unused fabric) and scraps generated from factories.
Working conditions in factories
After the Rana Plaza collapse, an accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was signed by several global and Bangladeshi trade unions and 200 fashion brands from over 20 countries. Brands that signed the accord were amongst others: H&M, Primark, Adidas, Esprit, Puma, HUGO BOSS, G-Star and Abercrombie & Fitch. Three and a half years after the collapse, not much has changed. In July 2016, 1401 of 1646 factories inspected in Bangladesh were behind on schedule in implementing a corrective action plan. Only 15 factories have completed the plan, which theoretically means that only 15 of the 1646 garment factories have safe working conditions in terms of fire and building safety. Every day, millions of workers are in serious danger because we want our clothing as cheap as possible. Big retailers are looking for the biggest profit while staying affordable for their customers. This leads to high competitiveness between factory owners and are eventually forced (otherwise they have no income) to offer the lowest price possible. To offer these low prices, costs must be cut. As a result of this, workers are underpaid and maintenance of the factories is postponed to a point when it is too late.
What can I do?
Now you know how damaging the production process of clothes can be for both the earth and its inhabitants, you probably feel a bit sad. Hopefully this also makes you wonder about the ways you can contribute to change. Here are some possible solutions.
- If you want to limit the use of harmful chemicals, you could look for brands that have the OEKOTEX certificate to ensure that no harmful chemicals have been used. This certificate does not only protect nature from pollution, but also yourself from health issues.
- There are substitutes for traditional dyeing, such as natural dyes, dyes made by bacteria (more about this soon), waterless dyeing and low-impact dyes you could search for.
- Changing the working conditions and wages for the factory workers won’t be an easy process. It is part of a system that is regulated by multinationals. However, you are the one buying from those multinationals! This means you actually do have a bit of influence. What to do? Stop buying from them and buy more from local and sustainable brands! That’s how easy it is.
- Last but not least, buy less, less, less! Just like over-eating, over-fishing, drinking too much, etc., buying too many clothes too often causes issues as well. Like my mother always says: ‘alles met mate’ (everything in modesty). If everyone would buy less clothing, less water and resources would be wasted, our environment would be healthier and hopefully a lot of people would have a better life. Not to mention having more money left at the end of each month.
I know we might sound a bit too idealistic sometimes, but in the current world where there is a lot of negativity going around you just need to be optimistic. Otherwise, what’s the point right?