The New Standard: Why Now?
Pollution, climate change and its impacts, global poverty and the domestic economy are constantly in the news. As one recent post put it: “The rise in atmospheric temperatures from greenhouse gases poses the most dire threat to humanity, measured on a scale of potential suffering, since Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany launched near-simultaneous wars of conquest.” The stories all seem to follow the same base script: the problems are serious, and not enough is being done.
As citizens, we’re just told to recycle, turn the lights off. We’re not given any other tools.
But we discovered that we do hold enormous power. And we wear it everyday. It’s our clothing.
While average gas emissions in our cars are going down, our clothing consumption just keeps going up. We bought 40 garments on average in 1991, 62 garments in 2012 and 70 garments in 2015.
It’s going up in large part from the rise of a business model called “fast fashion” (you know, all those stores that appeared in the early 2000s that have taken over the retail landscape, which are based on a never ending cycle of I-can’t-believe-it’s-that-cheap pricing.
Our clothing is cheaper than ever, but that lower sticker price comes with enormous environmental and social costs.
Fashion is one of the biggest industries in the world—it’s $2.5 trillion with-a-capital-“T”-big. It’s making a few people very, very rich. On the Forbes’ annual list of billionaires, more than 200 came from the fashion and retail industry, together they hold 15% of the list’s total net worth - that’s more than technology (11%), finance (5%), and sports (1%). Of course success is a wonderful thing, but it’s worth taking a look at the other side.
Out of every six people on the planet, one works in some part of the apparel manufacturing industry. They are some of the lowest paid workers in the world, almost all (98%) are not receiving a living wage, making moving out of poverty nearly impossible. And it’s impacting women the most, 85% of all garment workers globally are women. But with production happening in far away places, these workers are lost in the shadows.
What does it mean to be lost in the shadows? It turns out, that one of the biggest challenges facing the industry is that companies themselves have very little insight into their own production. So it’s not even that brands are trying to hide their supply chains from you, they don’t even know them themselves. They have no idea what oil rigs, or farms are creating their material, they have very little insight into the factories that turn those raw materials into usable fibers and they even have a very hard time keeping track of the factories that convert the yarn or fabric into clothing. It’s because of this that when over 1,100 garment workers were killed in the Rana Plaza building collapse, because their boss told them to keep working despite visible cracks to the building’s foundation, the brands whose tags were found there didn’t even know they were working with that factory.
But this is not just a story about basic human rights, it’s the story of our planet.
Because today apparel is the second most polluting industry in the world. Let’s let that sink in for a second.
If we are not talking about fashion when we talk about climate change, we’re not going to be able to tackle the issue.
How have we gotten here? We moved from natural production to cheap and very dirty fossil fuel-based fibers. Yes, polyester, the king of all fibers today is made from refined oil. The production, which is in over-drive (remember those 70 pieces of clothing we get every year that we wear on average only seven times before discarding) is from factories with the lowest environmental standards plugged into mostly coal-powered factories. Coal of course is the dirtiest form of energy.
And as the factories send their smokestacks to the sky, our forests, the earth’s natural lungs, are getting cut down to be converted into yet another type of synthetic fiber, rayon (also referred to as viscose). Enough trees are being cut down for this fiber to circle the earth seven times. And our soil, rivers and oceans get contaminated with toxic chemicals and tiny pieces of plastic that comes off when we wash our favorite fiber, polyester.
Our own rivers are so contaminated from our chemical farms that we have created an area the size of Connecticut at the end of the Mississippi River, The Mississippi Dead Zone, which is devoid of any form of life. And in the low regulated areas of the world that does the dyeing and processing of all our cheap clothes, the rivers run the color of the latest season’s trends.
What if it could be different?
What if the brands we purchased our clothes from took responsibility for their supply chain, and told you what they were doing down to the very last detail.
That’s the project we are working on.
We’ve been digging into every piece of research on all aspects of the fashion industry to understand just how we have gotten here and what we can do as an industry to clean up our act.
It’s why we launched The New Standard, a compendium of all of our research and an invitation to be informed. Of course, no one person, brand, research organization or company has all the answers. So we’re hoping by making The New Standard transparent we invite input and further research.
There is a lot of misinformation out there. Companies claiming to have 100% sustainable this, radically transparent that. Many of them, we’re sure, are trying to do the right thing, but don’t actually know how deep and complex the issues are. Having a renewable fiber like bamboo is great, but the process to convert bamboo into fabric is a chemically intensive process, which undermines the redeeming natural qualities of bamboo. Or having a picture of a factory without naming it or showing what is being done to ensure that production is not actually being farmed out to lower-standard shadow factories, which is one of the principal endemic problems in the less regulated countries, doesn’t help us solve that enormous issue. By sharing our findings and our approach based on those finding, we hope to bring us as consumers and us the industry together to have the same conversation.
We are developing our own Zady product around the principles derived from The New Standard: design for longevity, choose the highest quality fibers that also have a lowest environmental footprint, choose and work with partners throughout the entire supply chain to ensure a low impact from farm to final factory, and support American factories and excellence in production with domestic cut and sew.
We hold enormous power in the clothing that we choose to wear every day. Businesses respond to what we, the consumers, demand. It’s up to us to show brands, by asking them questions and voting with our hard earned dollars that we will not accept cheap, dirty clothes. Today we demand a new standard.