The fashion industry and the international development arena seem worlds apart. One is focused on trend-setting and design, the other on poverty alleviation, peace and security. For a long time, it’s been hard to find synergies between them. More recently however, there has been visible collaboration on the sustainability agenda.

Fashion spoiler

The $2.5 trillion fashion industry supports more than 60 million workers throughout the value chain, and is a significant engine for global development. It’s the second biggest consumer of water, according to the UN. And you may not be aware of it, but the textile industry has a dark stain. Textile dyeing is the second-largest polluter of clean water globally. Polyester microfibres add to ever-growing volumes of plastic in the environment. Most garments are not biodegradable, and present serious threats to our oceans and wastelands. Growing cotton increases the impact of toxic chemical use in agriculture. Let’s not even touch upon gender, human and labour rights.

Most alarmingly, consumer behaviour has shifted, and consumer purchases have increased by 60% in the past 20 years. Eighty percent of discarded textiles end up at landfills. Only 20% of clothing globally is reused or recycled, and less than 1% of collected clothing is recycled.

Image: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future

Walking the walk, talking the talk

It is obvious that the fashion industry should redesign its social and environmental footprint. It should be more mindful of diminishing natural resources, environmental pollution and the exploitation of nature, people and animals, and it should tackle unequal distribution of commodities.

Here are three ways fashion houses can be more sustainable.

1. Ethical fashion

People often use the terms eco-fashion, slow fashion and ethical fashion interchangeably. However, ethical fashion encompasses a broader and more rigorous set of criteria for meeting sustainable standards. Ethical fashion brands adhere to human rights and embrace International Labour Organization (ILO) standards, fair compensation to workers, and healthy, safe working environments, and reject sweatshops, child labour and slavery.

In addition, ethical fashion takes fair treatment of animals into consideration. After much criticism from environmental groups, notable houses including LVMH, Furla and Michael Kors have substituted fur and leather with alternative animal-friendly materials. Stella McCartney, an industry leader, has shown commitment to disruptive fashion innovation. Her brand has shifted to 'vegan fashion', using fungi instead of leather, and replacing silk with yeast proteins.

2. Transparent fabric

Transparency is on trend. Consumers are putting fashion houses on the spot, demanding they report and share their policies, supply chain, business models and labour and environmental practices. Increased transparency is crucial - it will lead to more accountability and ultimately push for change in the way fashion business is conducted.

Thomson Reuters Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) data reveals that the sustainability practices of many fashion houses are not up to par. And in Burberry's latest annual financial report, it stated that "the cost of finished goods physically destroyed in the year was £28.6 million". The brand admitted destroying raw materials in order to fight counterfeit goods (and probably also to avoid having their products end up in a discount pile, which would tarnish the brand’s image of exclusivity).

Image: Fashion Transparency Index 2018

3. Design out waste

We live in an age where people want to look good, feel good and do good. But we are also guilty of participating in the ever-growing ‘take-make-dispose’ goods economy, and in a hyper-consumption, hyper-waste world. Sustainable fashion should move away from the linear system of production, to a circular approach focused on restorative, reformative and transformative design. Nomad magazine describes the circular economy as the “upcycling, recycling, decomposition, re-assembling, conversion, repair, composting or smelting of products and materials which have served their purposes”.

Various fashion houses have been looking into cradle-to-cradle (C2C) initiatives to close the product lifecycle loop for sustainability. Recently, Adidas partnered with Parley to create shoes using ocean waste from beaches. Due to the products’ overwhelming success, the companies have decided to ramp up their eco-friendly collaboration with a long-term sustainability framework.

While the fashion industry has been talking the talk on transparency, ethical standards and reducing environmental degradation, it has not always been walking the walk. If fashion houses really want to remain avant-garde, they must redesign their thinking beyond next season, and take part in the sustainable fashion revolution.