Op-Ed: The Substance of Sustainable Fashion
Zara's recent dive into environmentally friendlly fashion may not have been the splash that I expected but I hope the influence of their Join Life collection is felt in the long-term and becomes a staple in the brand's portfolio.
It is not a secret the enormous impact the clothing industry has on the environment. Fashion is only second to Big Oil as the second dirties industry in the world and its negative effect reaches all links in the production chain: from textile production or garment manufacturing to the sourcing of raw materials.
Dramas regarding the working conditions in outsourced manufacturers in the Third World are a more popular topic, especially after the tragedy at the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh that killed over 1,100 people in 2013. Even only a few days ago at least 13 people were killed after the explosion of a boiler in a garment factory also in Bangladesh but it seems we are oblivious to effects the current fashion business model has in the world as these stories barely make it to the news.
The same iron curtain has been drawn upon Fashion's impact on the environment, from the extreme pollution and hazards to humans the leather and tanning industries generate to even the disappearance of 90% of the water supply that once filled the Aral Sea in central Asia. Irrigation canals built to sustain the growing cotton production in Uzbekistan are to blame for the vanishing of what once was the fourth largest lake in the world.
I believe it is of tremendous importance that the big Fashion companies embrace not only policies towards better pay, fairer working conditions and thorough inspections at their outsourced manufacturing plants, but also that they start to implement cleaner and more eco-friendly production systems.
This is why efforts like Zara's Join Life collection are pointing in the right direction, however small compared to the bulk of their production. This goes even beyond H&M's Conscious line that is more about the very honest use of organic cotton than ensuring recycled materials and sustainable fabrics are used in a fashionable way. I want to be optimistic and think making the effort to use these fabrics can still be a commercial success and show that a change in the industry is not only possible but also necessary.
Materials like Lyocell (a fabric made from cellulose and wood residue sourced at sustainable forests that ensure reforestation), organic cotton (farmed using natural fertilisers), recycled polyester (made from recovered plastic bottles) and recycled cotton (up-cycled from the residue collected during the cutting process and that uses less water and natural resources) are the main ingredients in Zara's Spring/Summer 2017 Join Life collection.
The pieces are simple, based around basic staples reworked in these sustainable fabrics. It uses a controlled palette of forest greens and navy blues combined with white and grey. It is relaxed, almost unfinished in its uncomplicatedness. With a campaign shot in New York's East River the collection maintains a symbolic distance to the other, more upscale lines.
Still, one can probably judge the whole idea as a drop in a very polluted ocean, a piece of well-engineered, hopefully well-intended propaganda. And I would not argue that much against that assumption.
If you would like to know more about these issues I would recommend the 2015 documentary "The True Cost". Written and directed by Andrew Morgan, it focuses on the impact of Fast Fashion on the environment and demystifies a lot of our pre-conceived ideas.