I keep hearing about how expensive sustainable fashion inevitably is and that since we are used now to so-called fast fashion, it’s just not practical to think we will easily give up cheap apparel. But is greener fashion really more expensive? And how can we educate consumers on this topic? These were two issues discussed during a panel I moderated last week as part of the Redress Forum in Hong Kong.
Among other featured topics during the day of presentations were, the business of sustainability, eco-labelling, best practice and inspiring the next generation. The sense after a day of conversation was that there is still far to go in terms of really producing apparel that is truly sustainable for a mass audience and that the myriad eco-labels are often confusing to the buyer, designer AND the consumer.
In terms of waste, there is little that helps a consumer understand the recycled content of clothing and Hong Kong-based Redress announced it was introducing a new consumer-directed label that would help. A major fashion brand will be introducing this label shortly along with a new eco collection that includes a high percentage of recycled textiles – an exciting development here!
Although in the UK, for example, the sense among younger designers is that sustainable is the future, in Hong Kong, whether to wear fur even in summer seems more of a concern than sourcing green clothing, according to HK Tatler fashion editor, Arne Eggers. In the land where luxury is king and brands are everything, even the Tatler Green issue struggles for advertising, he said.
Still, also on my panel, “Educating and Engaging Consumers” was Tobias Fischer, regional CSR manager Far East for H&M and he said that for his company sustainable equalled cost-saving. He became irritated every time sustainable fashion was described as more expensive, pointing out that sustainable involves saving costs on energy, water, chemicals, textiles etc.
“Current manufacturing is not factoring in the true cost of production,” said Filippo Ricci of UK’s From Somewhere and co-founder with Orsola de Castro of Estethica, established five years ago to showcase young designers committed to working eco sustainably as part of London Fashion Week.
And of course he’s right. In developing nations with few enforced regulations, the factory dying process causes untold damage to rivers and downstream populations when waste is simply pumped into waterways. Meanwhile, excessive chemicals used to grow cotton pollute the topsoil, groundwater and again damage the health of agricultural workers.
Heavy use of energy, often from coal, to produce apparel that satisfies our seemingly uninsatiable appetite for clothing means power plants must pump out waste emissions that pollute our air. Excessive consumption of water, particularly in already water-scarce regions (many of these in China) further limits supplies for future generations.
With consumption of clothing 60 percent higher over the past decade and the cost of clothing lower than ever, it just is not realistic to think that factories can continue to pump out product that doesn’t factor in any of the social or environmental costs of production. Already, with labor prices in China rising as living standards improve and regulation there tightens, inevitably costs even of fast fashion will have to rise.
Meanwhile, however, many brands are simply taking their business elsewhere – looking to Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia among others to maintain the rock bottom prices we have come to expect, particularly from discount stores such as Target and TJ Max in the U.S.