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Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their fashion choices; From microplastics entering the water system, to the conditions of clothing factories, the conscious consumer is on the rise.

A UK study by Morgan Stanley showed that, when choosing apparel retailers, 51% of respondents said that ethical credentials were somewhat or very important, compared to just 13% who said they were somewhat unimportant or not at all important. Google trends indicates that searches around ‘ethical fashion’, ‘sustainable fashion’ has more than doubled over the last five years.

As awareness of the environmental impact of the fashion industry grows, customer spend on sustainable and ethical brands will continue to rise. The consumer now has the power to influence a more sustainable fashion future and so creating an environmentally friendly supply chain should be high on the agenda for retailers to design, manufacture and distribute fashion in a sustainable and ethical way.

Some of the biggest sustainability and ethical issues in the fashion industry are around resource consumption, pollution and protecting workers. Let’s take a look at some of the facts and figures…

Resource Consumption

 The fashion industry is a huge consumer of water and other resources. In fact, 1.5 trillion litres of water are used each year, which is unsurprising as 200 tons of freshwater are needed to dye just one tonne of fabric. Other natural resources such as trees are involved in clothing production too – 70 million trees are cut down each year and 30% of rayon and viscose comes from endangered and ancient forests.

And it’s not just water which are consumed in huge quantities – fossil fuels are also involved in the production of clothing, with 70 million oil barrels used each year to produce polyester, a material which is used extensively in clothing.

The figures speak for themselves – there is a compelling case for brands to make a change. There are already brands out there adopting innovative ways of reducing resource consumption , such as  turning to agricultural waste products like  leaves and rinds to create more eco-friendly textile alternatives as well as exploring alternative bacteria-based dye source. These changes might seem small, but on a large scale they can have a huge impact.

Environmental Pollution

The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter in the world next to oil. So as the industry grows and with the rise of fast fashion, the environmental damage will also increase. 90% of industrial water pollution comes from textile treatment and dying, not to mention the 190,000 of textile microplastic fibres that enter the oceans every year from washing clothes. For every kilo of fabric produced, 93kg of greenhouse gases are generated. It is quite overwhelming to think about the scale of the impact the industry has.

It is unsurprising that the health of the environment has an impact on our own health. Water and air pollution all trickles down into our food systems, so there is an urgency to not only help the environment but ourselves too. Fortunately,  brands and retailers are in an influential position to help preserve the environment. By investing in environmentally friendly materials, monitoring and reducing energy use, reducing the use of chemicals, retailers can reduce their carbon footprint. In the age of the conscious consumer, brands and retailers also have a responsibility to become more transparent about their environmental processes and policies.

Employee Protection 

Clothing manufacturers are usually based in less developed countries to lower the cost of production. In some areas, factory workers are exposed to unfair labour terms, unsafe working environments, with high incidence of work-related accidents, and high risk of developing occupational diseases. In 2013, the Rana Plaza tragedy, factory collapsed in Bangladesh which killed over 1500 people and injured more than 2500, it caused outrage at the fashion brands who manufactured there.

It is brands’ responsibility to protect its workers, to ensure fair labour practices, treat workers in an ethical and moral manner, and implement appropriate safety measures. Retailers also have a responsibility to ensure that their suppliers engage in ethical manufacturing processes and be transparent with their customers about where their clothing comes from.

Conclusion

With the rise of the conscious consumer, retailers and brands have a responsibility to ensure that they are adopting ethical and sustainable practices. And it shouldn’t just be about making more money and gaining more customers – it should be about creating a better future and minimising the impact on the environment for the greater good and passing this mindset onto their customers.

The fashion industry has an opportunity to  lay the groundwork for a less wasteful, cleaner future. Industry players must work together to raise  awareness of the environmental issues. There is a long way to go, but if everyone comes together and makes small changes, the long term impact can be considerable.

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