Is sustainable fashion possible? A social responsibility question
Updated: May 11, 2019
Social Responsibility and me...
In this post, I want to share with you a topic that is really dear to me and, hopefully, to exchange on it together.
The topic in question is social responsibility and sustainability in the fashion sector.
Before being introduced to social responsibility in fashion, I used to know Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). In my previous life in Moscow, I happened to apply the Group’s position on that theme I was working for. At that time, it was promoting diversity and parity in the corporate world. The Group communications and marketing director even wrote a book, “A Women’s world, a better world?” gathering the testimonies of 33 women around the world and their thoughts on the question “if you had the power, what would you change?”.
I helped gathering testimonies from influential Russian women, translated the book into Russian, found a publisher and organized a road show in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and Irkustk to discuss the question of women empowerment and parity with a Russian audience.
This was my first experience with CSR and I really enjoyed it. I felt the power the corporate world had the change the world into a better place by educating the people.
Then I moved to Istanbul and I switched from the service sector to the fashion one.
And I met a person that soon was to become one of my best friends and who helped develop my “social consciousness”. Anastasia organises each year a documentary green film festival in Moscow, ECOCUP, to sensibilize the Russian audience to environmental issues.
Some time after we met, I started my first experience in the fashion sector ever. I just became international marketing manager for a Turkish leather footwear brand. And I, soon, understood that I could develop a corporate social responsibility manifesto for this company and, maybe to contribute to change the production practices in that sector.
Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world after oil and gas. It touches all the areas of our society, from agriculture, workforce, social and politics to logistics.
Most of the fashion products we consume come from “fast fashion” brands such as Mango, Zara, H&M… The particularity of these “fast fashion” brands is that they can produce clothing items fast and cheap. And, as they are also good in marketing, they are able to make you want to kill to have their products.
But, did you ever ask yourself at what prices come all these lovely and cheap tops and shirts that you buy for nothing and throw away 2 weeks later?
Because they may cost nothing for you but they cost a lot to the Earth and to the people who produce them.
The first movie I watched which really had a big impact on my way of consuming fashion was “The True Cost”, a documentary directed by Andrew Morgan. I left the movie literally crying. And I decided that, as an individual, I had a role to play to make the fashion sector a better place, a place enabling art and technology to meet, a place enabling creativity to express itself, but also a place preserving the environment, preserving secular know-how and enabling people working in that sector to live decent lives as human beings and not as slaves for the pleasure of a world elite.
My first decision was to reduce my clothes buying from fast fashion retailers. Then, I tried to buy less new clothes or shoes and to buy locally, always checking the country where the product has been made. And then, I tried to buy more “natural” products, that is to say products made with natural materials and not synthetic ones, in case my clothes end their lives in a landfills.
Back at my days in the footwear industry, I spent some times to understand the production processes (in the fashion sector, I am more interested in all these backstage topics than in the strass and bling bling part you see everywhere). I thought that if I knew all the products entering in the shoe making composition, I could help finding natural and less toxic for the environment alternative materials to help recycling when the shoes are too used to be repaired. One of my big plans was to have a recycling unit at the production unit so that people who bought a pair of shoes from the brand I was working for at that time, could give their used ones back to us, thus preventing the shoes to end up somewhere in the nature.
My director thought the idea good but it required too much investments to review the production and materials system and to create a recycling unit. And then I have been fired from that company…
My second experience in the sector led me to the high end and luxury fashion. There, alongside with the materials and design questions, I came face to face with the appearance question. Models who are hired for shootings and runaways are soo skinny that I felt really bad. And the first time I had to deal with a casting by myself, I thought I was at the agricultural trade show in Paris, looking at some cows. These girls were so skinny, I wanted to give them food, to tell them to eat something. How can we promote this skinny appearance as a beauty canon when, in some countries, people don’t eat enough? Not even speaking about the consequences these images have on teenager girls and their development…
Yes, fashion is a dirty world in many ways and makes you pay the high price for the dreams it sells you…
Thus the question, is a sustainable fashion possible?
After the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in April 2013 and the discovery of the fashion brands’ dirty face, a certain consumer’s consciousness appeared and developed. People want more transparency on the ways their shirts have been produced.
They now want to know the impact their clothes have on the people and on the environment.
This is how the Fashion Revolution movement was born. People want to know. They ask the brands and they want answers. And, with the power of social media, they don’t hesitate to directly solicit ate the brands…
Who made my clothes?
From where the materials were sourced?
What is the environmental impact of the materials used and of the logistics?
The first guilty are, of course, the fast fashion brands. But, as I said a bit earlier, they are good at marketing and, feeling that the sustainability sector was a profitable one, they all started to launch “sustainable” or “conscious” lines, of course produced according to their former schemes…
Mind the power of marketing and how marketers have also their shares to play in the educational part for a more sustainable fashion…
Beginning of June I attended a workshop organized by the newly created Surdurebilir Moda Platformu in Istanbul. This initiative aims at gathering all the actors of the city implied in fashion, sustainability and environment. There were academicians, students in fashion and design, architects, fashion professionals and individuals interested in the subject and wondering how they could participate.
We first watched a documentary movie, Unravel. I encourage you to watch it to understand the illogical side of the fashion sector.
Most of the clothes we wear are produced in India or Bangladesh, right? But did you know that all the clothes we discard are sent back to India for recycling? Until that movie, I didn’t know…
And I was puzzled by the naive yet so right comments of the workers regarding the huge quantity of clothes they were receiving every day.
One of them, trying to explain the quantity, said that in Western countries, there was a shortage of water, meaning that people can’t wash their clothes and threw them away after wearing them only a few time. Another added that, there was maybe a shortage of water, but not a shortage of money as people could buy so much new clothes.
Hearing their comments, I felt ashamed, as an individual who buy new clothes and as a marketer who puts in place strategies to make people buying and consuming more…
From the discussion and exchanges that followed the projection, I made the following conclusions on how fashion could be more sustainable and respectful of the environment:
Our society is based on capitalism and production and consumption at any price with the creation of products that won’t last. It seems difficult to change this scheme in one day. However, we could keep producing trying to use already created materials and not taking new from the planet. Don’t forget that we are living on credits on the Earth resources. This means, more recycling and less producing from scratch.
To be able to recycle old products into new ones, it means to know each material used and the many different ways they can be used again without harm to the environment
It means to train every aspiring fashion actor to know by heart all the materials available, the way they are created, their impact on the environment and to encourage them to use environment friendly materials in their designs.
It also means to train them to design their clothes having in mind the recycling part, to design them using the least possible materials, to rentabilise every millimeter of materials.
It also means to encourage fashion retailers to develop recycling units so that people can give their used items back.
And it also means to educate people to repair used clothes instead of throwing them, to recycle them, to repurpose them, to buy 2nd hand clothes, to swap clothes…
There are solutions as for any problems. And, after this workshop I hope won’t be the last, my answer to the question “is sustainable fashion possible?” is "yes"!
And I am convinced that, we marketers, have a big role to play in that matter. If we are able to make people buy, pardon my French, “shit” clothes, we are able to make them buy less but better.
Do you agree?
To go further on the sustainable fashion topic - My Marketing Toolbox list
Sweatshops deadly fashion, a Norwegian reality show sending young fashion bloggers to Cambodia experimenting the reality of the garment industry
"Eco Fashion", by Sass Brown (2010)
"Naked fashion: the new sustainable fashion revolution", by Safia Minney (2011)
"To die for: is fashion wearing out the world?", by Lucy Siegle (2011)
"Overdressed: the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion", by Elizabeth L. Cline (2013)
"Stitched up: the anti-capitalist book of fashion", by Tansy E. Hoskins (2014)
If you have any other suggestion, movie, books, blogs, websites and so on to add, please, feel free to send them to me :)
Looking forward to read your comments on that topic!