Elizabeth Cline is a journalist whose books “Overdressed” and “The Conscious Closet” revealed the environmental and human costs of fashion — an industry that puts out as much greenhouse gas emissions each year as the economies of France, Germany, and the UK combined, McKinsey researchers estimate. But last year it hit her: Things had reached a new low.
Cline had been hearing whispers for a while that fashion’s efforts to be more sustainable were hurting factory owners in the developing world. Rather than paying more for clothes made from greener materials in more efficient ways, brands were demanding producers work for less. In the spring of 2020, Cline was supposed to be reporting in Bangladesh, getting the story of what it was like to be a factory owner in the age of greening fashion.
Instead, owing to the pandemic, she was in lockdown in Brooklyn when the news broke that dozens of major mass-market clothing brands were refusing to pay factories for completed orders. The orders represented billions of dollars and the livelihoods of legions of impoverished people, most of them women.
“In the middle of this terrifying crisis, these really huge, profitable corporations — their instinct wasn’t to protect the people that work for them, it was to screw them over,” Cline says. “It was too much.”
She started a campaign called #PayUp, alongside activists and other people following the fashion industry, demanding that the brands, including H&M and Zara, pay what they owed. Factory owners were unusually open with the press about the magnitude of the problem, Cline says. They rarely speak badly of their clients, whose whims control the factories’ fates. But in this case, what did they have to lose?
#PayUp went viral. More than $22 billion of those unpaid bills have since been paid. But the bad taste in Cline’s mouth didn’t go away. For years, she’d written extensively about brands’ efforts to do better with regard to workers’ rights and environmentally. But because fashion has largely escaped the official regulation of pollution and waste that governments apply to industries such as oil and agriculture, clothing companies were policing and reforming themselves. Now Cline could not muster even skeptical optimism.
It was time, she felt, for more than fashion regulating itself. And she wasn’t alone. In the last few years, consciousness of the problems with fashion has broken like a wave across society, especially among young people. The pandemic has only accelerated the process, with injustice and environmental degradation getting attention they’ve rarely had before. Now Cline and other voices — activists, writers, nongovernmental organizations — are calling for a change, with real rules on the industry.
A glimpse of the future
The social problems with clothing manufacturing, which relies on low wages and long hours for workers, are no secret. But what you may not know is the depth of fashion’s sustainability problem. Alongside little black dresses and trendy sneakers, clothing manufacturers produce untold tons of waste and oceans of tainted water. Clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, and many pieces are now worn only a handful of times. Every second, a garbage truck’s worth of clothing is dumped or burned. The fashion industry is a conveyor belt bearing natural resources into the landfill at dizzying speed.
The solutions explored by clothing brands themselves generally sound like using an eyedropper to put out a forest fire. Recycling cotton does get more use out of the material, but recycling shortens its fibers, which then must be combined with fresh cotton to make a garment.
The best ideas involve the concept of circularity. “It means moving to a system where we are no longer extracting any new materials from the earth,” says Elizabeth Segran, a journalist who covers fashion for Fast Company.
If fashion were circular, a garment’s materials could be used to make a new garment once the first was worn out. They would need to be chosen from a select list of materials that can be endlessly recycled. That is a tall order at the moment, since the most familiar examples are glass and aluminum, not likely to be used much in garments. And there is almost no infrastructure to do this: There are few supply chains of recyclable substances and no good way to get the materials back from the consumer.
Still, if brands use materials that can be recycled many times, though not infinitely — such as the PET plastic used in water bottles, which can used to make polyester — and if they can invest in the infrastructure and logistics required to retrieve and reuse their products, just as they’ve adapted to e-commerce in the last 15 years, there may be a way forward.
Chloe Songer and Stuart Ahlum, founders of the sneaker brand Thousand Fell, think of their company as a pilot project for this potential future. Both had worked for a number of years at large clothing brands and kept an eye on research into new kinds of materials.
“Textile vendors and mills had been hearing the consumer wanting something more sustainable,” says Ahlum, and he and Songer had seen enough textile innovation to launch an early product that fit the bill. “By that I mean better [use of] carbon, water, and energy across the whole supply chain than traditional leather, or traditional rubber, or traditional foams,” he says. And “we could actually recycle a lot of this stuff.”
They chose a simple white sneaker, the kind people might wear every day for months until it’s truly worn out and then toss in the trash, and designed it so that at the end of its life, it can be disassembled and several of the components recycled.
The way Songer and Ahlum talk about materials, you can start to glimpse a future in which companies own infinite feeds of plastic or synthetic cork or vegan leather that go out into the marketplace in finished products and come back again as raw material. (The company’s name reflects the founders’ interest in new kinds of “fell,” an old term for leather or hides.) At the end of this month, the company will launch an online system for its recycling process that will allow consumers to track the fate of their shoes’ materials and use credits when buying new ones.
This proto-circular economy is an alluring vision, but it is not enough to rely on companies alone to make it real, especially enormous ones like Gap and Inditex, which owns Zara. “What we’re running the risk of is: They do just enough to keep us from asking for real change,” Cline says.
In other words, they won’t go unless they are pushed. We don’t have time to wait for them to move on their own.
In February, Segran wrote an article for Fast Company calling for Biden to appoint a fashion czar. “The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions,” she wrote. “It needs to be regulated like other big sectors.” The story sparked a movement: Activists drafted a letter signed by more than 80 groups, including fashion brands and nonprofits, urging the president to choose someone to take charge of this high-speed disaster, someone to usher in policies that make brands accountable for the environmental and social burdens of their products.
Cline was one of the letter’s signatories. “Even though [the United States has] an enormous fashion industry and is a leader in terms of design, we don’t have a lot of inroads in Washington. And right now we are behind in this policy conversation,” she says. “We think every conversation the White House has about climate or energy or sustainability or domestic manufacturing should include people from the fashion industry.”
Elsewhere in the world, there are signs of what could be. When brands miscalculate demand, they often burn or destroy unsold clothing en masse — a practice that France has now banned. The European Union’s Circular Action Plan includes another idea that Cline hopes will have legs: an extended producer responsibility requirement. This would force companies to take back and recycle or otherwise deal with their products once they’ve reached the end of their useful life. “That would be such an easy thing for the US to adopt,” she says. The EU also plans to establish rules encouraging manufacturers to use recyclable materials.
Additionally, the EU is adopting human rights laws that require companies that operate in the EU — whether that’s simply having a store there or being headquartered there — to ensure that their supply chains, no matter where they are in the world, adhere to certain standards. If they fail to do so, there will be financial consequences. “This marks a huge step away from self-regulation back to true accountability for brands,” says Cline.
In the last few months in the United States, Cline has campaigned for the Garment Worker Protection Act in California, which would hold fashion brands legally responsible for ensuring that workers earn at least the minimum wage. She’s taken on the role of director of policy and advocacy at Remake, an organization focused on reshaping the fashion industry, and fought for the renewal of an international agreement to protect garment factory workers on the job.
Nearly 10 years after Cline helped jumpstart the grassroots consumer movement to extend the lifetime of clothes, the movement has picked up speed. People now pledge on social media to buy nothing new. Younger generations show increasing awareness of the fashion industry’s waste problem. In June, the online resale company ThredUp and research firm Global Markets reported that secondhand clothing sales are expected to grow fivefold over the next five years. That’s good, Cline says, but altering consumers’ behaviors is only a small part of what’s necessary.
“My work has changed a lot over the last year,” Cline says. She believes now that instead of just getting people to buy smarter or buy less and expecting brands to reform from within, change is needed in the public sphere. “Instead of putting so much pressure on our consumer selves, we have to look again at what our citizen selves are capable of,” she says. “Which is a lot.”
Veronique Greenwood is a science writer who contributes frequently to Ideas. Follow her on Twitter @vero_greenwood.