Eco-fashioning a toxic trade

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Cotton farming has caused the Aral Sea to shrink to 15 percent of its original size

Recent trends for “sustainable fashion” will not be sufficient to transform an industry inherently tied up with polluting practices and wasteful mass production from its inception, writes Rena Niamh Smith.

Fashion is a product industry, and as such, requires enormous amounts of resources to produce, distribute and dispose of what is sold. Typically, textiles and garments are mass-produced in the Global South, shipped to Western countries for consumption, and vast quantities of those which are not dumped in landfill are shipped to Africa and beyond to the vast second-hand market.

The world’s second most polluting industry after oil, fashion’s specific crimes against the planet are too numerous to list here, but cotton production provides a snapshot.

Cotton farming uses vast quantities of water: 2,700 litres per cotton tee shirt — that’s three years’ drinking water for a single person. The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan was the world’s fourth-largest lake, roughly half the size of England. Since the 1960s, water from a lush landscape has been used to irrigate the country’s 1.47 million hectares of cotton fields. The lake has shrivelled to 15 percent of its original size. Saline levels have increased by 600 percent, and cotton is now Uzbekistan’s biggest earner.

The 25,000 square miles of former sea bed forms an arid desert of carcinogenic dust from generations of agricultural run-off from the same cotton fields. Decimated fishing villages and lakeside tourist retreats leave an unemployed population facing poverty-related diseases such as malnutrition and TB.

Not only is a particular form of oesophagus cancer abnormally high from an air pregnant with death, in 2004, the BBC reported that scientists had found damage in the very DNA of local people: “This means not only that people are more likely to get cancer but also that their children and grandchildren are too.”

Cotton has a bloody history. In Empire of Cotton, Sven Beckert describes imperial expansion beginning in the 16th century as “war capitalism”. Cotton was an artisanal specialism in Mexico, China and India, but was appropriated by European entrepreneurs. “As the modern world came of age, cotton came to dominate world trade. It was in cottons that new modes of manufacturing first came about. The factory itself was an invention of the cotton industry. So was the connection between slave agriculture in the Americas and manufacturing across Europe.”

Western profiteers continue to pillage the world’s resources. The decentralised nature of the fashion industry means single companies wash their hands of responsibility, as from field to factory, brands use third-party suppliers.

Greenpeace has found that many fashion brands rely on factories using toxic chemicals in their manufacture which are banned in Western countries. Nike, Reebok and Tommy Hilfiger were all clients of a company accused of installing secret water pipes in China in order to dispose of highly toxic waste water into a main river. Disease is rife for nearby inhabitants robbed of clean water.

Many blame fast fashion retailers like Primark and H&M. Indeed, the fast fashion model is built on selling products so low in quality that disposability is stitched into their very fabric. This Christmas, high street retailers are marketing millions of must-have single-use sparkly dresses almost identical to the ones they were selling last year.

As Tansy Hoskins argues in Stitched Up, the snobbery in vilifying fast fashion implies that the problem is greedy consumers who can’t afford to consume properly. “Fast fashion must be critiqued as a product of corporations’ drive for profit, not the fault of the poor”.

Designer labels use the same polluting factory conditions for much of what they sell. Many specialise in products particularly exhaustive to resources, such as crocodile skin handbags using animals raised in cruel farming conditions in one part of the world and skins treated with viciously toxic chemicals in another.

There is a growing trend for eco-fashion. Issues such as pesticides, organic fabric, animal welfare and recycling are being taken on by labels like Bethany Williams, People Tree or Bonnie Fechter, whose founders wish to see a better world. There are limits to the project. Many of these garments are expensive, because producing with ethical standards is costly under capitalism. Not everyone has the means to buy them. Many eco-fashion brands promote ecological or animal issues but forget to champion workers’ rights.

The corrupting practices of larger corporations need to be halted, and no number of new garments, however ethically made, will do that. Corporations such as ASOS and H&M have been accused of “green-washing”, using eco-fashion as a trend to market a few ranges of organic garments while maintaining a scorched earth strategy in wider business practice.

Sustainability is a phrase oft used in eco fashion, meaning to produce clothing in a way which is sustainable environmentally, and therein lies the problem. Sustainable fashion aims to set up a new kind of business that preserves the planet but with it, the basic structures of capitalism.

Fashion luxury conglomerate Kering sponsors the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Design research. Kering is certainly interested in sustainability, but only if it means guaranteeing the profit line into the future. Owners of Balenciaga, Gucci and Alexander McQueen, they are unlikely to back any research which proposes a radical economic overhaul of the system so corrosive to planet and people that is creating a time bomb for future generations.