July 25, 2021

Why we are still part of the problem

6 min read

The new year is already in full swing. Time to reflect briefly on whether you have already kept your good resolutions for the new year. According to the statistics, a new addition to the list for some is to consume more sustainably and conscientiously.

The most common list (as probably every year) looks like this: Less stress, more exercise, healthier eating, more time for family, enough sleep. But topics such as sustainability and social responsibility have also become more important in recent years. In a survey conducted by the British market research institute YouGov and the German online portal Statista, one in six respondents said they would be even more environmentally conscious in 2021. In the current “The State of Fashion 2021” report by BoF and McKinsey, the authors write that consumers will continue to advocate fairness and social justice in the fashion industry.

Yes, that sounds good, one might think. The word sustainability has long been used as a selling point, especially in the fashion sector. Conscious and sustainable consumption is an ongoing trend. Perhaps awareness of this has never been greater. Issues such as climate change, social injustice, exploitative working conditions in the global South and the ongoing destruction of the environment have been part of the social discourse for some time. So, brands are falling on open ears with consumers when they approach them with sustainable claims. It’s good that sustainable issues are increasingly being heard in the commercial (fashion) market segment as well.

The Corona pandemic has also led to massive changes in consumer behavior. Thus, topics such as sustainable fashion consumption are becoming even more important, but economic reasons such as unemployment are also having an impact on consumer behavior. At the same time, the pandemic has further accelerated trends such as digital shopping. According to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, the assumption that Covid-19 has led to a slowdown in the fashion sector has not come to pass. Although the pandemic has had devastating consequences for brands in the mid-price segment and, above all, in brick-and-mortar retail, there are also beneficiaries of the crisis.
For example, e-commerce players such as Asos, Farfetch UK, Revolve and Zalando consistently outperformed in 2020 as customers have turned to digital channels to shop. In August, these “digital-first” companies saw an average share price increase of 35% compared to December 2019, according to the “State of Fashion 2021 Report” by McKinsey and BoF. So, it is obvious that there is a big gap between the awareness of sustainability and the actual active implementation.

A recent study by DHBW (Deutsche Hochschule Baden-Württemberg) shows that of the 2,017 participants surveyed, only 9% said they paid any attention at all to fairly or ecologically produced clothing when shopping. At the same time, more than 69% of respondents said that they do not buy sustainably because it is difficult to see in the store which clothing would be produced ecologically or fairly. For over 70%, a certification seal plays a role in the purchase decision, but only 16% could even name a textile seal. More than 80% stated that industry and retail do not provide sufficient information about the sustainability of their products.

The results of the study are not surprising but reveal the sad reality that consumers do not feel responsible to inform themselves. Sources exist. Reports on television, videos on the Net, newspaper and blog articles reporting on the practices of the textile industry and the devastating consequences for people and the environment–with all this access to knowledge, it is a hypocritical endeavor as a consumer to place the blame solely on industry and commerce. I am not excluding myself here, by the way. Our knowledge about precarious conditions in the textile and fashion industry usually has no direct consequence on our consumer behavior.
Why? Because we close our eyes to realities that have nothing to do with our living environment? Because we are too comfortable? Because we are seduced to always chase after new trends? Because we don’t want to be strained while consuming?

According to the BMZ (German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development), around 80 billion new garments are bought worldwide every year, and around 90% of the clothing bought in Germany is imported from China, Turkey and Bangladesh.

The current “Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report,” by the non-profit initiative Global Fashion Agenda in cooperation with the Boston Consulting Group, states that global clothing consumption will increase by another 63% to 102 million tons by 2030.

The Labfresh study by the Amsterdam-based start-up label of the same name evaluated that Europe produces more than two million tons of textile waste annually. Of this, only 10% of all textile waste continues to find use in the market as used clothing, while 8% can be added back to the production cycle through recycling. The majority (24.3%) of all textile waste is therefore incinerated in a CO²-intensive process, and more than half of the clothing waste (57.1%) ultimately ends up in environmentally harmful landfills.

It is therefore also largely up to us consumers to bring a change in these developments. With our purchasing decisions, we are significantly involved in maintaining existing systems. It is urgently necessary to become aware that our consumer behavior has a direct impact on people and the environment, and education about this cannot be expected exclusively from industry, especially since the question arises here as to what extent major brands or fast fashion suppliers have an interest in making their entire production conditions and supply chains transparent (as far as they are at all aware). Far too often, we as consumers allow ourselves to be fobbed off by the fashion industry’s greenwashing arguments and settle for that. It’s enough if the tag on the T-shirt says Organic Cotton. A few beautiful, lush green image pictures and a few claims like “We create a sustainable world” or “long live fashion” and our conscience is soothed for the moment.

But we should start to care where, how and under what circumstances our clothes are produced. And what costs others pay for the fact that we can purchase in such a carefree way. According to the McKinsey report “State of Fashion 2021” and a report by the Worker Rights Consortium, the top 20 most profitable brands increased their market value by 11% during the Corona pandemic. Garment workers’ wages fell 21% during the same period. The Clean Clothes Campaign estimates that workers were not paid at least $3 billion in legally due wages and severance pay in the three months ending May 2020 alone.

While it may sound radical, only a visible consumption cut (not forever) can lead to a widespread rethinking by brands and industry. By sending e-mails and messages via online social networks, consumers can also get in touch with brands directly and ask questions about production and working conditions. We should not underestimate the influence that consumers have in the digital age–buzz word swarm intelligence. We just need to start making a difference. Being aware of the environmentally harmful and inhumane conditions in large parts of the textile industry is no longer enough. Critical questions, participation in campaigns such as #PayUp Fashion that call on profitable brands to fund the unpaid workers forgotten in the supply chain, and targeted renunciation would be more effective. Perhaps this all sounds insanely utopian, but a paradigm shift in the fashion industry is urgently needed.

Clearly, other guidelines must also take effect. Political measures are also needed to bring about change in the global textile industry. The Supply Chain Act is a good example. It was only recently announced that the EU Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee voted almost unanimously in favor of a strong supply chain law at the EU level. While it will be some time before such a law comes into force, the vote in favor is groundbreaking.

The year 2021 will continue to be challenging for the textile industry. Covid-19, falling demand, changing consumer behavior, the continuing e-commerce boom and the call for sustainability–these are issues that the industry will have to deal with intensively.

As consumers, we could do our part. It doesn’t take much.

[Note: Our editor and author of this story Juliette Tafreschi moved with her family from Frankfurt/Germany to Hanoi/Vietnam in October 2020.]


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