Can sustainable fashion save the world?

Will the sustainable practices of New Zealand companies, and others around the world, be enough to buck the effect the fashion industry has on our environment?

As a cool US$3 trillion global industry, fashion has a high turnover of revenue as well as resources. It accounts for 10 percent of all global carbon emissions and is the second largest industrial polluter, second to none other than the oil industry. Not surprisingly, many commentators are concerned of the effect this industry has on climate change.

Jennifer Whitty both researches and sews sustainable fashion as a senior lecturer at Massey University and as director of sustainable fashion brand Space Between (who Idealog caught up with here). She says the current system is bloated and old-fashioned. “An industrial system that was set up almost 200 years ago,” she says.

Company of Strangers.

Whitty can rattle of staggering statistics on all forms of fashion waste, from nasty chemicals to human exploitation.  “In 2006 the fashion industry produced 17.8 billion items, which is enough to clothe the entire population of the planet three times over. But the system isn’t clothing the planet and resources are not distributed equally and people that are in need of clothing from that.”

And to keep up with the times, a fast fashion mentality is as inevitable in New Zealand as globalisation. “New Zealand players are producing far less, but are trapped in that cycle of relentless change,” says Whitty. “It used to be seasonless, but now we have the perennial drop - with new drops every two weeks. That, for me, is the issue.”

Company of Strangers.

We seem too wrapped up in a cycle of consumption that doesn’t want to lose momentum – but is this as shallow as it seems?

Author and sociology lecturer at Auckland University, Ciara (also known as Colin) Cremin says: “Fashion is a perfect exemplar of what it means to be human. It’s not something that is superficial – it is the very thing that defines us… But it’s something that is easy to manipulate.”

The professor is weary of ethical brands, who she says relieves consumer of guilt but do not create positive change.

And there are examples of this emerging. Organic clothing, for one, is still stripping resources. It takes more than 5,000 gallons (almost 19,000 litres) of water to make a simple organic cotton tee and jean combo, according to Eco Watch.

Company of Strangers.

Cremin says individual purchasing actions cannot help the issue of global warming. Lobbying governments is what is needed instead, “which probably, in this day and age, requires a revolution”.

Yet New Zealand brands are concerned about our current consumption patterns. “The over consuming greedy monsters we have become – it’s quite worrying,” says Sara Munro of Dunedin-based fashion label Company of Strangers.

Munro and her team’s design process is based around usage for each garment. “We make high quality, long lasting non-trend driven clothing, intended to last as long as you want it to, or be able to sell it, hand it down.”

The company’s Diane Rohtmets and Amelia Hope say the brand’s focus on craftsmanship is refreshing, even though they do not push a sustainable image to consumers per say. However, the company wishes its offering could be at a more accessible price point, to be “appreciated by a wider range of people.” And Rohtmets suggests consumers may be more concerned about sustainable food and other disposable products before they focus on sustainable fashion.

“People don’t think about this very much, that we aren’t sustaining our economy making out of New Zealand,” says Munro. “We choose to use local manufacturers, rather than sending our money overseas. Our manufacturing industry needs the work, our local economy needs the work.”

Company of Strangers.

A recent leather bag range by the company used locally sourced leather, was embossed by the binder down the road and was marketed with the help of local talent.

Munro is also educating her daughter, who has just turned 13, on why she needs to think about where her clothing and food comes from.

“There are lots of ways to teach the next generation about this,” she says. “They are getting it taught at school; sustainable lunch boxes, zero waste, food miles, sustainability. Hopefully if they start young they can save us from the waste of our generation.”

With large, global fashion brands H&M and Zara opening their doors in New Zealand we are welcoming a new era of unprecedented choice and competition in our fashion industry. Our smaller, sustainable-focused brands have their work cut out for them if more consumers are to realise they don’t need five skinny jeans in five different colours.