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Fashioning A Better World

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From the farm to the factory to the retail floor, the fashion industry is known for being a top polluter, and in many cases still lacking in workers’ rights. Creative and exciting solutions exist and more are needed. As consumers, we can all play a role in fashion’s journey toward creating a better world.

An estimated 60 percent of our personal carbon footprint comes from the things we buy and use: our consumption. In many cases, the carbon footprint and other environmental and social impacts happen on the product’s journey before it reaches you. For example, for every pound of fabric produced, an estimated 23 pounds of greenhouse gases were created. Producing synthetic fibers and conventionally-grown natural fibers both require tons of water and fossil fuel-derived inputs. Water-intnese fabric dying can also be highly polluting. And tragically, we don’t have to look far to find evidence of modern day slavery in the apparel supply chain.

The need for clothing will not go away. In fact, today we purchase 60 percent more items of clothing each year and use them for half as long as we did just 18 years ago. If this trend continues, by 2025 the climate emissions from clothing production alone could increase by 77 percent.

We live in an age of profound creativity, and there is no shortage of solutions to solve our greatest social and environmental challenges. More companies today than ever before operate by considering their triple bottom lines, driven by missions make a positive difference in the world.

Take for example the denim-maker pioneering an indigo dyeing process that uses 98 percent less water and 70 percent fewer chemicals than the usual method, or the company paying Haitians a living wage to harvest ocean plastic that is recycled into sunglasses. Or the company that makes shoes as a way to offer opportunity and hope to young men turning away from gangs in the largest urban slum in Central America. Or the company using low-impact dyes, creating zero waste and planting a tree with the sale of every tee.

Consider the brand extending their mission to “empower women and girls to achieve their limitless potential” not just to the women who wear their clothes but to the women making them, by using Fair Trade Certified labor; the retailer raising the bar on sustainability standards for products it sells; the brand that decided to go on a fashion fast, producing no new collections for nine months in 2018 as “ an effort to help reduce the alarming rise of clothing production around the world.”

Companies like these with world-changing and industry-transforming potential give me hope, but they are still in the minority, both in number and in market share. More mission-driven companies, more innovative solutions, and more transparency are still urgently needed.

As consumers, we have a voice and a choice in creating a better world. Whenever possible, we can choose durability and classic styles over fast fashion. We can consider how products are made, from what, by whom. We can use our consumer voice to ask companies to be more transparent about their production and labor practices, and participate in campaigns like Fashion Revolution’s #whomademyclothes. And we can align our purchases with our personal values, being the change we want to see and creating the future that we want to live in.

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Sheila Ongie lives in Iowa City and helps companies around the country work toward sustainable and resilient futures. She’s a board member for Environmental Advocates of Iowa City and is on twitter as @sheilaongie.