Companies are certainly more aware of the issues surrounding sustainability, but the path ahead for fashion is still a long one.
“Sustainability in the [fashion] industry is about the environment and treating people well. But we’re not doing that well,” Scott Miller, director of business development at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), told attendees at a Sustainability Summit co-hosted by LIM College and Fashiondex.com.
SAC is a global alliance of retailers, brands, suppliers, and industry stakeholders focused on turning fashion into an industry that doesn’t adversely impact the environment or the people in the communities producing the clothes consumers wear. As part of its efforts, SAC also created the Higg Index for companies to internally evaluate how the improvements they are making are resonating in the protection of factory workers, the local communities and the environment.
While Miller said the industry has evolved from 14-hour work days and six-day work weeks, “wages are still not high enough to be sustainable.”
And fashion is a heavy contributor to pollution in the environment. A section of the Yangtze River in China is red. Why? Water pollution, according to Miller, who added that the manufacture of apparel “produces an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions.”
Despite the industry’s efforts to date, fashion is still in bad shape when it comes to environmental impact. The world still “throws away about 4,500 pounds of textiles in a landfill every day,” Miller said, adding that there are resource limits on what is needed to “maintain human life on this planet, and we’ve already surpassed earth’s ability to survive going forward.”
So with all this information and the push for sustainability, what has the industry done wrong?
According to Miller, fashion’s answer has been to audit, though that is not the answer. He talked about an Indian factory where there were two fire extinguishers at different heights. One customer wanted it at one height and another at a different one. “Each company created its own audits, but there was a huge redundancy. So the supply chain became better at audits, but not necessarily safer,” he explained.
SAC’s work focuses on standardizing the questions to ask. And its Higg Index is a suite of tools, whether for products or facilities, that measures the environmental, social and labor chains. The environmental tool measures the impact of certain fibers. That means one can research a particular fiber and see the different ways that textile or component can be used that lessens the impact it has on the environment. Upcoming are tools to measure recycling and end-of-use,
“The assessment empowers the end user, or factory, which is different from [the traditional] audit,” Miller said.