Is expensive fashion more sustainable?

You might, as I once did, think that you avoid the sustainability issues in fashion because you don’t shop at H&M, Gina Tricot, Dressman etc.

The short answer is no, expensive fashion is not necessarily more sustainable. Luxury production in Europe should guarantee better working conditions and less chemicals, but only a few luxury brands still produce in Europe. Those who do might only produce certain parts of the collection in Europe. And ‘Made in Italy’ can these days mean made by Chinese in Italy. Even when something is made in Europe, the fabric may be imported. Luxury brands often source their materials from outside of Europe and then we have the issues with conventional cotton and synthetic fibre etc.

There are also environmental issues with the chrome and heavy metals involved in tanning of leather. If you do want a new luxury bag, check where the leather came from, that it can be tracked to sustainable farming, and for vegetable tanning. I found that Swedish brand Palmgrens had a longstanding relationship the Italian farm the leather derived from and used vegetable tanning processes for a certain bag. Thus it’s the last bag I’ve bought, before my current year of no-shopping, and I don’t feel I compromised on design just because I focused on sustainability.

Another issue with luxury brands is that they don’t consider the environmental impact of care. Many put dry cleaning on the care instructions (as on this Ralph Lauren jacket, made in the Philippines) which isn’t environmentally friendly. And, in many cases, the items are better cared for by hand washing. I don’t know how many times the dry cleaner couldn’t remove stains and when I try at home, as a last resort, it works perfectly. Money and chemicals wasted.

The luxury conglomerates seem to lack a thorough understanding of sustainability issues. For example, when LVMH reports on biodiversity, they write about how they finance biodiversity research rather than how they take biodiversity into account in their sourcing of raw materials. Now I am all for funding research, of course, but certain issues we already know a lot about, such as pesticides and biodiversity. We can act on these today.

Similarly, it is admirable that Kering has developed the Environmental Profit and Loss account (which I often teach to students) but more important is how they handle their everyday sustainability challenges. I searched for organic on Kering’s website and only found ‘organic growth’.

Taking the opposite road, many cheap brands are not as diligent about working conditions and where things are made* but are instead rapidly increasing their share of ‘better’ or organic cotton and renewable fibre. They hardly ever prescribe dry cleaning. But then again they don’t make clothes that should last.

Thus while some brands are working on social issues and others focus on some of the environmental, few brands cover all the necessary issues. Those who do are generally those that started their business with a sustainability focus. These brands are generally slightly more expensive than fast fashion but usually much cheaper than luxury brands.

So the answer is no: price is not a good indicator of sustainability.

* The Inditex group (Zara, Massimo Dutti etc. ) is an interesting exception. Around 60% of their suppliers are located in proximity to the headquarters in Spain.

How businesses handle legal but toxic chemicals

Some might believe that the use of manufactured chemical substances is tightly and safely regulated. Unfortunately it is not necessarily the case. In many cases we do not know yet if something is toxic (for example hormone-disrupting chemicals). In other cases we think it is safe and later find out that it is not. A famous example is the insecticide DDT that not only affected the environment but turned out to be an endocrine disruptor and likely carcinogen. It is prohibited since the 1970s but still found in our bodies and the environment. In certain cases, the company using the substance knows it is dangerous but conceals the information. The latter seems to be the case of Monsanto and glyphosate.

Sometimes businesses are in fact allowed to use substances that are toxic to us and the environment. One current example is PFOS and PFOA. They are water and stain repellent fluorosurfactants, used in all kinds of products. I found it in my water proofing spray for shoes and bags (that I am consequently handing in as toxic waste). They are legal to use. Today, however, we know that they do not degrade and thus accumulate in the environment: in the air, water and our food. They are commonly found in breast milk. In large enough doses it’s toxic and carcinogenic to us. While we are all exposed to it to some degree, the inhabitants of Swedish Kallinge were unknowingly exposed to large doses in their drinking water. Similarly, inhabitants close to DuPont’s factory in West Virginia were exposed to large doses too and developed all kinds of diseases (and successfully sued the company that was aware that it poisoned the water). Dupont has also contaminated the air around a factory in Holland for many years with a similar substance. Swedish environmental radio show Klotet made a very good reportage about these substances this week (in Swedish).

What can we as individuals do? When the substances are out there (and they travel far, for example to the Arctic) we cannot stop them on our own.

However, we can support the companies that voluntarily limit their use of the legal but proven, or potentially, toxic substances.

We can also avoid items that contribute to this pollution, such as teflon, ski wax, stain and water repellent textiles. If we worry about our drinking water, a charcoal filter absorbs PFAS (charcoal filter made a difference in Kallinge ).

Businesses, on the other hand, can learn from the DuPont lawsuits that concealing information about toxicity and contamination is unethical business practice. Even if the substance is legal, they now have to pay for the contamination and health consequences.

When pollution comes back to haunt us

You might remember the cadmium in imported rice scandal or lead in imported rice scandal. These are examples of heavy metal contamination of imported foods. ‘We import foods from countries with too low environmental standards’, you might think. And that’s true.

But how did the heavy metals end up in the foods? How did a fifth of China’s farmland become contaminated? Countries like China and India have for quite some time been producing for our consumption. It has been attractive because of price, but it has also been done under lower environmental standards. One example is the dyeing of clothes. Another example is the production of pharmaceuticals. We know that these industries pollute the water and soils (and there are of course further industries in this category). We also know that residuals of the toxic waste may remain in what we import.

So, ironically,  when these countries produce for our consumption, the resulting pollution comes back to haunt us in the foods we import.

Even more ironically, while contamination of soils in India and China is spreading, we are in Scandinavia placing buildings on uncontaminated good soils that used to be farmland. The national strategy is to rely on imports, both of foods and other kinds of manufacturing. When this is the strategy, we have an interest in the countries that we are now dependent on. It is in our interest that their farmland and water supply remains uncontaminated so that they can continue to produce for us. There is only so much farmland in the world. If our strategy is to rely on imports, then we need to be concerned with the pollution in the countries we import from. Because it is not only the local population’s food supply that is contaminated, it’s ours too.

What we pay workers in developing countries

On Wednesday night, I was out talking about my research. Since the fashion industry had been on my mind lately, I decided to use it as an example of how we can measure companies’ sustainability. When I was about to speak I realised the audience was, apart from two women, only men. On average 50+. A crowd that might not be so concerned with fashion.

In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t adjust my examples to the audience.  I suspect 50+ men do not get preached to about environmental problems and working conditions in the fashion industry so often. They were surprisingly interested. I was asked about child labour, so there is some awareness in this crowd too.

This time, I used working conditions in the supply chain as one indicator of how ambitious a company is in regards to sustainability. These issues are of course not limited to the fashion industry. A recent Swedwatch report shows that the tobacco industry might be worse. Child labour in combination with hazardous argochemicals is a  very bad combination (smokers- choose organic and Fairtrade!). While wine production might not be equally bad, there’s still good reason to consider how certain wine stays so cheap.

There are many components to working conditions but one of the most important ones is wage. There are certain key terms or certifications that we can look for as they indicate what the company is paying the workers.

Many companies simply pay minimum wage. This is the legal minimum in a country and part of what lures companies to start production in a ‘new’ developing country. But these ‘new’ low wage countries come with problems, as HM recently learnt (again!) when it got out that they (again) had child labour in the supply chain earning less than the minimum wage. Getting labour in Myanmar as cheap as a third of the hourly rate in China must have been very tempting.

Paying the minimum wage is, in many cases, not sustainable as it is not necessarily enough for workers to support themselves. Consequently, the companies get trouble over time because workers have to work overtime to support themselves.

Recognising that they have to go beyond minimum wage, some companies then decide to pay a ‘fair wage’. It is sometimes unclear what this exactly entails, but it is should be more than minimum wage. Norwegian Varner (Dressman, Bik Bok, Cubus, Volt, Solo etc.) is in the process doing something in this area but we don’t know what they will eventually decide on.

A little more ambitious and well defined is the concept ‘living wage’. According to most, a living wage should at least be able to support the worker and a child or half a family. If you’ve seen documentaries where female workers send their children away because they cannot take care of them, then living wage sounds pretty good. HM has said that they will pay a living wage for ‘strategic’ suppliers from 2018. It’ll be interesting to see if they achieve this goal.

A decently ambitious standard that requires companies to pay living wage is SA8000, used by for example Aiayu.

Some companies go further and adopt some kind of Fairtrade certification. This generally means that the community of workers get paid a little extra in order to invest in the community. Two examples are  Patagonia (American Fairtrade) and Serendipity Organics (FLOCERT).

Even more ambitious are, from my point of view,  artisan collaborations. Rather than putting people in factories, when working with local artisan groups and communities companies support people in their existing traditional craft skills. This has a cultural value of its own. One fashion example in this category is People Tree. Within furniture there’s American West Elm. IKEA also has occasional collections in this category.

It is always important to check how big part of the production any of these initiatives apply to. Sometimes companies announce these initiatives so boldly that it seems as if it concerns the whole company when in fact it is only a pilot project.

A final note on poverty. Many chains argue that by placing orders in developing countries they help alleviate poverty in that country. It would be worse if they closed production (as if paying minimum wage or closing production are the only two options). However, if companies wanted to alleviate poverty there are many other ways to do so. Putting people in factories for long hours and paying minimum wage (and sometimes failing at that) is arguably not the best way. 

Another thing we often hear is that Western companies pay more than local companies. So Western companies are already doing something good by being slightly better than these companies. But that’s why our companies placed the production there, because its among the lowest wages in the world. How difficult is it to be ‘good’ when you are comparing yourself to producers acting at the bottom?