The global clothing and textile industry
The global textile and apparel industry, more commonly though less inclusively known as the fashion industry, involves almost everyone on the planet. We all wear clothing. This is an industry that supports designer brands and mall stores – the glitz and glamour of catwalks, the red carpet, and fashion magazines. But it is also the industry that accounts for every pair of socks, every tee shirt, every work or school uniform. This is the industry that produces running shoes and work boots, wallets and handbags, as well as bed linens, towels, even the fabric that covers your couch. Every day, when we get dressed to go to work, when we come home to do our laundry, we are participating in the greater lifecycle system of the textile and apparel industry.
This industry is hugely complex. The ‘textile and apparel industry’ is a cold and technical term; it does not, perhaps, evoke the artistry of high fashion, to say nothing of the farmers and chemists who produce natural and synthetic fibers; the factory workers who turn these fibers into fabrics, who dye and finish these fabrics, who sew these fabrics into pants and coats and duvet covers; the many people who oversee the movement of fiber or finished garment between countries; or the people who travel the world shopping for suppliers; the ad agencies who try to sell these items; the brand executives; the models and photographers; the retail managers and salespeople; the academics, teachers and students who study supply chain management or trend forecasting or the history of dress…
This is a vast industry that encompasses everything from business to art, from technology to entertainment, from farming to advertising. It is an industry that is truly global, and that links us together as global citizens, from the cotton farmer in the United States to the pattern cutter in China to the initial consumer in Turkey to the second-hand market in Uganda.
The importance of clothing
As humans, we have a special relationship to clothing. Though we cannot know exactly when and why humans began wearing clothing, there is ample evidence that our prehistoric ancestors were fabricating garments as long as 100,000 years ago and possibly up to 500,000 years ago! Moreover, it is believed that the first garments that humans created would have served ritual or ceremonial purposes – would have been costumes, in other words – and the byproduct of keeping a body warm and dry would have been a happy accident. Clothing has evolved since its prehistoric beginnings. Some people continue to consciously ‘costume’ themselves in specific looks for the purpose of overt self-expression – a punk in her green mohawk and leather jacket, a goth in his platform boots and black eyeliner, a fashionista in carefully curated avant-garde and vintage outfits. But even beyond the purview of those actively involved in expressing themselves through clothing, we all respond to the symbolism of clothing.
Clothing contains social messaging, whether we are aware of it or not. A suit communicates a different message from sneakers and sweatpants; a doctor’s white coat, a police uniform, a mechanic’s coveralls – these are all uniforms that are instantly recognizable, and that mean something to us. (In some cases, the social messaging is universal – like a suit – and in some cases it is more culturally specific – like a sari.) Even the uniform of jeans and tee shirt adopted by many people who claim no interest in clothing is a statement in itself (jeans and a tee shirt being the working class anti-fashion popularized by rebel icons Marlon Brando and James Dean).
Fashion, in contrast to clothing in general, has a long history of association with decadence and waste; fashion is often seen as trivial, superficial, mutually exclusive to all that is serious and important. Today, with the commercialization and omnipresence of luxury brands, the world of fashion can seem to be a blatant example of the materialism that permeates the global north – conspicuous consumption of designer name brand jeans, sunglasses and bags, the wastefulness of disposable clothing bought with the intention to be worn once and sometimes not worn at all, the explicit elitism of advertising to the 99% for brands that sell clothes that rarely start below the $400 mark and can go up to the tens of thousands. In many ways the fashion world, bent on selling intangibles such as happiness, professional success, love, and community through non-essentials like trend driven clothing and accessories, would seem to epitomize consumer culture.
The social and environmental impacts of the clothing industry
Today, the global textile and apparel industry is worth over $3 trillion USD, and employs almost 10% of the global population. It is also one of the most polluting industries in the world, and is a significant contributor to human caused climate change. The majority of clothing is manufactured from cotton (a water dependent crop that has already led to the desertification of various regions around the world, and is also heavily pesticide dependent) or polyester (a synthetic derived from petrochemicals). Most textiles are dyed using synthetic dyes, many of which are derived from petrochemicals. Approximately 85% of no longer wanted textiles and apparel go to landfill. Increasing expectation to lower the cost of clothing and textile goods for consumers, and to provide company shareholders with growing returns, has created a ‘race to the bottom’ scenario in which most manufacturing has been exported to the global south. Although countries must agree to international standards of environmental responsibility and human rights to engage in global trade, it is generally understood that this is merely lip service – complying to these standards translates to higher costs (the cost of paying living wages, the cost of audits and regular maintenance to buildings and equipment, and so on), which can render a manufacturer uncompetitive against the manufacturers who do not comply to international standards. It is often made clear that if manufacturers raise their costs, the client (the brand) will take their business elsewhere. These circumstances translate to unsafe and sometimes abusive working conditions, and to employees who are paid such low wages that they have no chance of ever rising out of poverty and yet are dependent upon the meager wages that they do make. Factories that produce textiles and clothing release toxic effluents into the air and local watersheds, affecting the health of nearby communities and ecosystems; factories, retail spaces, the production of textiles, the process of shipping textiles and clothing back and forth across the globe, and laundering all consume vast amounts of energy, much of which is powered through fossil fuels.
This is a vast and voracious industry which, despite prerequisite statements regarding sustainability and labor rights on brand webpages, is contributing daily to the destruction of the biosphere and the exploitation of human lives.
The destructive impact of the global textile and apparel industry has been recognized by a great number of people who are working to raise consumer awareness, to promote ethical supply chains, to support labor rights, and to innovate in the realm of sustainable textiles. This work is necessary, and critically important. However, to achieve a truly sustainable and ethical global textile and apparel industry requires identifying and tackling root issues. The environmental degradation, the abuses of human rights and social dignity, the overconsumption and waste that are rife within the textile and apparel industry (understanding that this ‘industry’ involves not just producers but consumers as well) are symptoms of a larger, systemic problem.
We have created this system, therefore we can change it
So long as we support an economic system that prioritizes profit above all else – above the health and wellbeing of all ecosystems and living beings, above respect and dignity for all people – our major industries will continue to be sources for environmental and human exploitation. Until we demand a reckoning of how and what we collectively value, ‘sustainable’ solutions that offer alternative ways to continue to uphold the same models of production and consumption are but simple solutions to a complex problem. Even organic cotton pants or a recycled polyester shirt require energy to be produced; even these items will eventually make their way to landfills. As long as profit, and in particular the expectation of predictable and exponential growth in profit, is the only measure of success, shortcuts will always be taken. And these shortcuts will always be at the expense of the environment and the world’s unprivileged.
Despite, or perhaps more accurately in addition to, the role that fashion plays in supporting and upholding a system that profits from environmental destruction and human injustices, fashion holds within it the ability to inspire. Fashion, particularly high fashion, is about fantasy, imagination, and innovation. Fashion is creative, supports self-expression, and provides a space to dream, to play and be playful. Fashion allows for experimentation. Fashion embraces change. Fashion has a foot in the art world, and as a result is positioned to be open to thinking differently, to being challenged and challenging, to offer creative solutions. Most importantly, for many people, fashion is a source of pleasure.
Fashion, therefore, as the figurehead to the global textile and apparel industry, contains within it the potential to reimagine a system that recognizes and prioritizes the value of human and environmental wellbeing in equal measure to the value of economic profitability.