Fashion Entrepreneurs and Sustainability

Rana Plaza

(This article follows the 1st part of my entrepreneurial journey.)

During the past 15 years, I have launched several businesses. Today I’m training and coaching other entrepreneurs and business owners, in various industries but mainly in Fashion. I won’t say that I have become an expert in Sustainability nor in Fashion, but I would better define myself as a learner since I’m still experimenting with the principles of Sustainable Development in the business world and improving by increments.

The fashion industry must change

I see many new initiatives in my primary field of work, which includes textile, fashion, and clothing. This industry is often pointed as the second most polluting industry in the world. Although I am no scientist I have seen enough waste, pollution, and exploitation of all kinds, to disagree with the above statement.

Our world is consuming more clothes than ever before. This phenomenon has been made easier with the end of the Multi-Fiber Agreement. On January 1st, 2005, the quotas imposed on developing countries on garment export to developed countries has been phased out. This led to an increase in the import of cheap clothes mainly from China (which economy was far less developed at that time) and later from other developing countries. 

Low-priced fashion was abundantly available, and suddenly the world was junked with a massive amount of cheap clothing. This phenomenon triggered (among other consequences) 1) an increase in the consumption of fibers, of chemicals, of water, of energy…etc. 2) the creation of more waste (during production and final disposal) 3) the exploitation of cheap labor 

Images of the disappearing of the Aral Sea and photos of the collapse of the Ranya Plaza give a glimpse of the bleakness of the situation propelled by the fashion industry.

The ARAL SEA, once the 4th largest lake in the world has now been renamed ARALKUM DESERT. Nested between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the shrinking of the Aral Sea has been called "one of the planet's worst environmental disasters" and considered as an example of ecosystem collapse.⠀
How did it happen?⠀
The Aral Sea has been shrinking since the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects in an attempt to grow cotton, so much so that in 1988, Uzbekistan was the world largest cotton exporter in 1988.⠀
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The disappearing of water has led to the destruction of the fishing industry that was once prosperous, bringing unemployment and economic hardship for the nearby populations. The area is also now heavily polluted creating severe public health issues.⠀
The sad news is that the Aral Sea is not the only dying lake in the world. Whether it is due to climate change or diverting river flows for irrigation, a number of lakes are being dried out or are already dry.⠀
What can we do about it as a fashion business owner and entrepreneur? ⠀
According to the WWF cotton is by far the most popular natural fiber used in clothing. A single cotton t-shirt can use up to 2,700 liters of water to make (=about the volume of water the average person drinks in 2.5 years).⠀
We will not stop designing and producing apparels and accessories because it is a human need to get dressed, but we could do things in a better way. Actually, there are many better ways... Maybe produce less but produce pieces that will last. Maybe recycle. Maybe repair. Maybe encourage more bartering. We need to be innovative! ⠀
There must be a solution because we only have one planet.⠀

Blooming new initiatives in the Fashion business

Luckily things are changing. For the past few years, new businesses are launched all around the world, on the promise that they are more ethical, green, responsible, sustainable, conscious, fair, natural, organic, environmentally friendly, ecological…etc. Other brands focus on upcycling, recycling, swapping, bartering, repairing…etc. and sell pre-owned, pre-loved or repurposed items. 

While these promises could alleviate the guilt of some consumers partly, it would be wrong to believe that the products are sustainable and would solve the environmental crisis. Sure, I believe that these companies do their best to improve one or more areas of their production chain, but the whole value chain needs to be considered and assessed. 

What can we do?

We all need to get dressed for social and …physiological reasons, but the simple act of creating, producing, marketing, selling, and shipping a piece of apparel would generate negative environmental impact. How do we tackle this dilemma? 

As consumers, it is our duty to go deeper and understand what lies behind the label, the certification, or the terminology used to designate a specific type of product or processing methods. As a designer and business owner, it is our job to create products that are the least damaging for the Environment and for the people and to be as transparent as possible with the people that love our products, our customers.

Naming an “ethical” or “sustainable” brand?

I’m often challenged to name an “ethical” or “sustainable” brand. It is tricky for me to come up with a straight answer. First, we need to define the terminology: What does “ethical” or “sustainable” mean? Then: which are the stakeholders that are included in the scope? And what are we seeking to achieve, improve, or save?

The first question would lead to endless debates. There’s is no simple answer. The other questions might lead to answers provided a consensus could be found. But when we try to map out all steps, going as detailed as possible in the value chain, including sourcing, sales, delivery, disposal…etc., we need to face the fact that any human activity would cause an environmental impact. 

Solutions lie in innovation

Does that mean we need to stop production and consumption? That our civilization has reached a point we need to aim for “degrowth”? Personally, I don’t believe so because I have great faith in the power of science and technological advances as we live in an era of exponential innovation as never before.

There are already many alternatives to the use of fossil fuel, solutions to provide clean water or better dispose of our waste. And I am hopeful that we will find technologies to address most issues of the environmental and social crisis. The implementation of the innovations and solutions are a question of the paradigm shift supported by strong political will. It’s a matter of choice, of adaptation, of commitment, of making the change happen. 

Entrepreneurs must ensure inclusivity

We need to make sure that the change will happen for all. Our biggest challenge is then to make the change inclusive. If we fail to do so, our world will be more and more divided, and Sustainable Development cannot be achieved.

As Business Owners, whenever we make a decision and take action, we need to consider environmental, economic and social impacts as these lead to more significant consequences than when we decide and act as an individual. 

There’s no other way

In addition to building a sound and resilient business, it is also our responsibility to pursue the objectives of Sustainable Development and to ensure these are inclusive and does not negatively impact the development of future generations. It’s the only way.  

The complexity in the Fashion business

How does that all translate in practice? I think there’s no binary approach as there’s not one unique solution. It is all the more difficult in the Fashion industry, like in all creative industries, as the value resides highly in the creativity, in the artistic expression, in the originality of the designers. This diversity in the product translated into the creative and production processes makes the sustainability aim more complex.

We need to understand the possible options and make the right choices. We need to define the analytical framework, the stakeholders involved, and/or included. We also need to think in terms of externalities, ecological footprint, environmental justice, political ecology…etc.

It’s not a marketing gimmick

All participants in the fashion industry are exploring new ways. For emerging designers, many are trying to use new materials. High street brands are launching new lines or setting up recycling programs. Even at the industry level, the change is happening as the Swedish fashion council has recently announced the cancellation of the fashion week while they look for an alternative to better stage the event.

As mentioned before, we are all accountable for our actions and impacts. For Entrepreneurs like us, we need to align sustainability goals with the imperatives of managing a business in the physical creative field of a highly competitive and global industry. Each business needs to define its own strategies into building a more sustainable world and translate them into the creative and business processes.

It’s a must that requires authenticity.

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