Can the industry be trusted to protect our oceans?
Back in 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron and Kering Group chairman and CEO Francois-Henri Pinault teamed up at the G7 Summit to present the most ambitious climate protection agreement that the fashion industry had ever seen, The Fashion Pact. Over two hundred brands signed the treaty, promising to limit their impact on the environment through three specific goals. These are: a commitment to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, restoring biodiversity by protecting habitats with endangered species, and addressing ocean pollution by eliminating the use of single use plastics by 2030.
It is up to the individual to decide whether they see this as an authentic declaration of affirmative action against climate change or another instance of corporate posturing in order to appeal to an increasingly green-minded consumer.
Life in plastic
Single-use plastic has recently become the poster child of sustainability, with brands in all industries committing to reducing their carbon footprint by eliminating plastic straws, water bottles, and packaging. Images of dying turtles and choking seabirds have been ingrained in the public understanding of ocean pollution as a way to attach a sympathetic face to the damage being done to an ecosystem that seems utterly removed from so many people’s daily life. A study done by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with The World Economic Forum hypothesises that by 2050, plastics in our ocean will outweigh fish. Though this may not be enough to make some see our oceans as anything but a potential landfill site, more individuals are committing to real change by investing in reusable alternatives.
The Fashion Pact highlighted the elimination of single use plastics by 2030 as its one commitment to preserving the integrity of our oceans and marine life. Though this may seem like an honest declaration, visible plastics like straws and bottles actually only make up around 1% of plastic waste in the oceans. Moreover, a simple change like removing polybags and plastic tags from clothing would not take a decade to implement, leading some to see the promise as a self-gratuitous and overly generous one.
River deep, pollution high
Despite promises to declutter our oceans and protect wildlife and habitats, The Fashion Pact makes no reference to the vast environmental and human damage done by wastewater and water pollution on behalf of the fashion industry. A recent report done by the State’s Environmental Protection Administration in China declared that almost a third of their rivers are now “too polluted for any direct human contact”. The eastern superpower is well known to be the largest exporter of clothing on the planet, and despite claims that products are ‘Made in Italy’ or ‘Made in France’ many of The Fashion Pact’s signatories manufacture their goods in China then ship them to ateliers in Europe where the last touches are added.
This becomes problematic for consumers who are paying astronomically inflated prices for pieces created by unregulated labourers in East Asia whilst believing them to be the product of European artisans. This disingenuous practice is prevalent throughout the industry and prevents buyers from engaging in ethical consumption and attributes the hard work of underrepresented workforces to the few privileged enough to be employed by luxury houses. Furthermore, the reckless pollution of local ecosystems has unimaginable impacts on the indigenous communities, such as the concentration of dyeing chemicals in India’s waterways being linked to a rise in disease in those areas.
Perhaps most damning is the Saint Laurent SS20 Menswear show, which took place on a Malibu beach after being denied a permit by local authorities and violating a whole host of environmental regulations put in place to protect the local ecosystems. The label set up a boardwalk along the surf of Paradise Cove using illegal plastic sandbanks on the same night that an endangered species of fish called the grunion was supposed to spawn on the very same beach. Although Saint Laurent did not sign the Fashion Pact, parent entity Kering was the driving force behind the agreement yet refused to comment on the actions of its subsidiary company.
Down the drain
Above all else, the most destructive side effect of the fashion industry are microplastics. They derive from synthetic textiles like polyester and nylon and are broken up into miniscule particles of plastic which find their way into our water systems through washing clothes and refuse disposal. In fact, by washing a synthetic textile once, 700,000 particles of microplastic find their way into our oceans to join a million tonnes of their peers each year. The effect that this has on marine life is astronomical, one statistic shows how 63% of all shrimp in the North Sea now contain microplastics as they assume the fibres are food. As we ingest these same animals, we are inadvertently poisoning ourselves for the profit of our clothing manufacturers. Although not all microplastics in our oceans come from textiles, a whopping 35% of them do, leaving no room for the industry to avoid accountability.
Yet, The Fashion Pact makes no reference to microplastics in its thorough report of its effects on the industry. The same document is full of trendy buzzwords like ‘transparency’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘positive action’ which appeal to the casual reader but provide little hope for genuine change being made by these conglomerates. One signatory label, Prada, is famous for its use of the synthetic textile nylon in its ranges of apparel and accessories. The brand recently unveiled its rebranded textile Econyl, which is developed from recycled nylon but nevertheless releases microplastics into the oceans.
For future reference
Although it’s promising to see those in positions of power within the fashion industry taking accountability for their impact on the environment, their green-washed approach seems to lack the radical, practical action needed to reverse the damage done before it’s too late. All we can suggest is to; buy better, buy less, and buy green.