Ethical fashion, a fake solution?

The textile industry is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases and one of the most polluting of all sectors. It is also often the source of disastrous working conditions. Faced with this system, alternatives are being developed: eco-responsible brands, recycling, second-hand clothes, etc. But are they really more ecological and social?

To better understand the negative impact of the textile industry on our environment, we have to go back to the production chain. All the way back to the very beginning. And at the origin of the materials from which we make our trousers, shirts or other T-shirts, we find three raw materials. Synthetics, such as polyester or recycled fibres from plastic bottles. Natural vegetable materials, such as cotton or linen. Animal materials, such as wool or leather.

All have serious limitations. Synthetics are made from 70% oil, a non-renewable energy source. Cotton is the most widely used plant-based raw material, but its cultivation requires a lot of water. The Aral Sea, located between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, has lost half its size and three quarters of its volume to irrigation.

Raw materials of animal origin pose obvious ethical problems. The repeated scandals concerning the breeding of fur-bearing animals such as rabbits and minks bear witness to this. In addition, tanning, which consists of transforming the material into leather or fur, is a process that uses chemical products. The wastewater discharges then pollute rivers, such as the Buriganga River in Bangladesh, which is still used by the inhabitants.

The fashion industry has an impact on the people who live near its sites, but also on those who work there. The methods used to dye or fade clothes are very harmful to the health of the workers. Employed by subcontracting factories, they generally have no social protection. And very often, they are located in countries where the labour code is not the same as in France. Wages are low and working conditions are harsh. The world opened its eyes to this phenomenon in 2013, after the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. The building housed several garment factories for major international brands such as H&M and Zara. The result: 1,134 dead and 2,500 injured.

« 12,000 brands claim to be ethical. Less than 1% can claim to meet our specifications »

Once the garment is finished, it is transported to another country, to be sold in a shop. The environmental cost of transport adds to the long list of disasters in this industry. But that’s not the end of it, there is one more step, which will be repeated often, and which pollutes our oceans again: washing in the washing machine. The plastic micro-particles in clothes are not filtered by the machines or the sewage treatment plants, because they are too small. They therefore end up directly in the oceans. It is estimated that 500,000 tonnes of plastic micro-particles are released into the seas each year – the equivalent of over 50 billion plastic bottles. They are so small that fish ingest them – and by extension those who eat the fish as well.

Ethical brands, a positive impact and important limitations

In this context, some brands have decided to produce differently. Each year, more and more of them define themselves as « eco-responsible » or « ethical ». These are commitments that are dear to the French. For 65% of them, this is an important criterion in their purchasing decisions. But the lack of information and trust are persistent obstacles to making a decision. To help consumers find their way around, Thomas Ebélé and Éloïse Moigno have created Sloweare, a label that references eco-responsible brands.

« Today, 10 to 12,000 brands claim to be ethical, and I think that less than 1% can meet our specifications. For example, a group of friends who decide to make t-shirts to save the giraffes. They’ll contact a supplier to get organic cotton t-shirts, they’ll do a little embroidery, a partnership with an artist, etc. That’s nice, but they’re not going to do it. It’s nice, but they don’t own a value chain. They don’t know the origin of their raw material, nor the most important parts of the transformation process: ginning, washing, spinning, dyeing the cotton. Nowadays, there can be up to 17 intermediaries, » explains Thomas Ebélé. Over the past three years, Sloweare has labelled 70 brands. But the certificate is not acquired, and with each new collection, the brands must take the tests again. They answer 250 questions on average, and must provide supporting documents. « We don’t validate a product but an approach, » says the founder.

But under what conditions is an approach considered ethical?

Kevin, creator of the shoe brand N’go Shoes, prefers to use the term eco-friendly. The use of leather in some of their products is not ethical for vegan people, the slider differs according to one’s values. Kevin and his partner, Ronan, decided to make their trainers in Vietnam because the country is a specialist in shoe production, and Ronan knew the country well, having worked there for two years in an NGO. He then went back to the country to find the different suppliers. They work with the White Thai. « They are an ethnic minority in Vietnam, of which there are about fifty in the country, each with their own culture and traditions. We bring them the rolls of fabric, which also come from the country, and it’s the artisan cooperative and its workers who set the price.

Thanks to this system, they are fairly paid and have been able to develop their business by creating new looms and training new women in this skill. Today, 2% of their quarterly turnover is donated to a local association. They have thus been able to finance four schools in the provinces of Vietnam, the last one at 75%. The brand is also a partner of Zero Waste Shoes, which recycles shoes when they are no longer in use. The approach is sincere but Kevin admits that he has not yet found alternatives to everything, and sometimes favours « questions of solidity and comfort » to the detriment of certain commitments.

There remains the transport to bring the finished shoes back to France. This is equivalent to 2% of the environmental cost of a garment. A low rate, but one that could have been avoided with French production. Is this possible nowadays? According to the regulations, « the product takes the origin of the country where it underwent the last substantial transformation ». We could then use flax, our country is a very large producer, but there is no spinning factory on our territory. So we have to go to Italy or Poland. In the end, the garment travels through Europe.

Moreover, an organic cotton t-shirt made in France can be made with cotton from another country. Whose brand designer has no idea of the working conditions of the workers. There is only one cotton producer in France. Located in the Gers, he uses his own production to create his polo shirts, 100% made in France. The price is set at €95, which is the main obstacle to buying. « It’s hard to explain that a 20€ t-shirt is still not expensive enough. When you want durable, well-finished, well-cut materials that fit you, you have to increase the weight, employ staff with real skills and find a workshop that agrees to produce only 300 units, » explains Thomas Ebélé.

Major brands and greenwashing

A production system that goes against the grain of the major fast-fashion brands – which are to fashion what fast food is to food – which produce up to 24 collections a year, with basic T-shirts at €5. But at a time of growing ecological awareness, their brand image is at stake and each one is trying to become « green », even if it means falling into greenwashing, and working around a communication that does not reflect reality. Thomas Ebélé fights against these practices that mislead and discourage the public from changing their consumption patterns. « It is important to deconstruct the discourse. Last September, H&M communicated that their Conscious collection was made with eco-responsible materials. What does that mean? Just because the yarn is organic, the cotton is organic, doesn’t mean it’s responsible. If the farmer was not well paid, if the people who did the spinning, dyeing and knitting were not well paid either, I don’t see how the material can be eco-responsible.

The founder of Sloweare also insists that « brands should not just say they are going to do better, but must do better. Communicating for a long time about a potential future improvement is greenwashing. Zara, for example, has announced that all its collections will be made from 100% sustainable fabrics by 2025. A distant horizon that does not allow us to know if these commitments are sincere…

In the meantime, the government is planning to introduce an environmental rating on clothing, like the Nutri-Score in the food industry: from the least impacting products (A) to those that are most harmful to the environment (E). The only problem is that this labelling will not be compulsory… In France, Décathlon has signed up as a pilot brand to test the project. 61% of products have a rating, which only takes into account the impact on the environment. The social aspect is absent. This is one reason why, according to Thomas Ebélé, the project, which started 18 months ago, is far from being completed. At present, the government explains that it has no established criteria for integrating the social component into the rating.

Government acts slowly

Creating such rating systems on such a specific and complex issue takes time. Laws have been made in France to ensure that the industry limits its negative effects. In February 2020, Brune Poirson, Secretary of State to the Minister of Ecological and Solidarity Transition, met with washing machine manufacturers, the objective? « To compulsorily equip the 2.7 million washing machines sold in France each year with micro-particle filters by the end of 2024. »

In 2017, following the Rana Plaza tragedy, France also passed a law on the duty of vigilance of multinationals. It obliges large companies to ensure the good social and environmental practices of the actors in their production chain on pain of a fine. But the results in 2019 are not considered convincing. The government has also committed itself « by the end of 2021, or the end of 2023 depending on the case » to ban the disposal of non-food products, of which textiles are one. « The law will require producers, importers and distributors to donate, reuse, re-use or recycle their unsold goods. »

Finally, at the G7 in Biarritz in 2019, a « Fashion Pact » was signed by 30 major textile groups. It calls for achieving zero net CO2 emissions by 2050, and moving to 100% renewable energy in the supply chain by 2030. The groups will have to be accountable, but there are no penalties for non-compliance… If the dates seem far off, it is above all because these changes involve long and complex processes for companies with branches in different countries.

This is at least the explanation of Laetitia Hugé, who after a long career in the fashion industry, left the classic circuit a few months ago and created Pando, to support brands in an environmental and societal approach. « This means rethinking the business model. In today’s world, a company is only considered to be profitable when it makes a large profit. Is that the only thing to take into account? That’s what we need to think about. It is not necessarily only financial profitability that we should look at, but also the impact that the company has on its territory and on the environment. If we value these criteria as the profitability of a company, if we integrate them into the way we look at a company, the data will be very different. It’s a long way off, we’re not there yet and it takes time, but there are many initiatives underway, » she concludes.

Second-hand: eco-responsible practice or new market?

Making new out of old is also possible at home. Many blogs and Youtube videos are available to allow everyone to reuse old, forgotten textiles, whether they are clothes, sheets or curtains. The French no longer seem inclined to throw away their clothes, half of them have already returned clothes to the shops or deposited them in a collection point, and the same proportion has already given clothes away instead of throwing them away.

But this has to be qualified, because on the other hand, since the 2000s, sales of clothing have doubled while its use has halved. Disposable fashion, where consumers buy to use the product little or not at all, is also common.

In parallel, the second-hand market is flourishing. The vintage trend is booming. Thrift stores have become the new trendy shops and clothing sales are organised every weekend. Even the rental of clothes is starting to develop. Online, too, second-hand clothing is working at full speed, particularly via applications for selling items between individuals. The success in France is such that the country has become Vinted’s largest market, with almost 11 million members. On average, 2.2 transactions are made every second.

Lise, a 21-year-old photography student, has been using the application for two years. She started because, as a « compulsive shopper », Vinted allowed her to sell her clothes and thus make some money. Soon, a whole business developed. « I buy clothes from second-hand shops, Emmaus or second-hand stores and sell them. When I give it my all, I can make €800 in a month. A second-hand market that borders on professionalism for some users.

« Some raid the shops during the sales to resell them on Vinted at higher prices. »

The application is sometimes criticised for being nothing more than a machine to consume more. If individuals sell fast-fashion clothes on Vinted, and then use the money earned in the same stores, then the effect is nil or even worse. Lise has noticed these deviations. « Personally, I only go to department stores to buy underwear or shoes. But some people raid the shops during the sales to sell them on Vinted at higher prices. Second hand also has its drawbacks…

But the market has a bright future. In 2018, it represented 24 billion dollars in the United States and should reach 64 billion in 2028. A trend that brands have also noticed… Ïdkids, for example, has developed its own resale tool between individuals, but the system is vicious. Users have to pick up their purchases at retail outlets (and are therefore likely to buy new) or are paid in vouchers (again, to buy new in shops).

The second-hand market is therefore not just about eco-responsible practices. Especially as the figures for fast fashion are increasing, the market was estimated at 35 billion dollars in the United States in 2018 and should reach 44 billion in 2028.

The luxury sector is innovating. For Serge Carreira, head of the emerging brands initiative within the Federation of Parisian Haute Couture and Fashion, « in terms of reputation, the luxury houses are setting the trends ». This specialist in the history of fashion has great faith in the new generation of designers. « They are setting an example and taking action, they are proving that there is a way to create and develop in a different way while maintaining a strong creativity and an important identity while being responsible.

And even the old-timers have understood this. Last January, Jean-Paul Gaultier organised the last fashion show of his career, relying on upcycling. The practice consists of using old clothes to make new ones. On the invitation card, he explains. « I think fashion has to change. There are too many clothes, and too many clothes that are useless. Don’t throw them away, recycle them. A beautiful garment is a garment that lives.

These statements may be smiling when we know that the words of designers and brands are too rarely aligned with their actions. But one thing is certain: no one can ignore the social and environmental impact of textile production.

Data sources: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: redesigning fashion’s future, 2017. C&A x IPSOS study, The French and sustainable fashion, September 2019. Exhibition, Le revers de mon look, ADEME, November 2019, Challenges, NY Times.