Sustainable Development – a Question of Changing our Beliefs and Attitudes

by Maher Anjum 2 years ago
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‘Black Friday’ 2015 is just around the corner. Traditionally it is the day after Thanksgiving in the US when shops do an all-out sale giving the customers a chance to stock up for Christmas. Well that’s what it used to be about. Be it the US or UK, in recent years, ‘Black Friday’ has come to symbolise something more interesting, our insatiable appetite to consume. We all remember seeing the images on TV, hearing the news update on radio and saw the news headlines of the incidences which marred this day. So much so that this year leading UK superstore have announced that they will not be participating in this year’s event even though all other major super stores are[i].

One may well ask, what Black Friday has to do with ‘sustainable development’? One word………..everything! Research after research has found that our demand for goods will soon out strips the natural resources available to make them. We know that in the UK garment workers are earning as little as £3 per hour for their work (University of Leicester Feb 2015[ii]). And those in faraway lands like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Myanmar and even Ethiopia are getting paid approximately £25-30 per month[iii]. But as consumers, we close off part of our thinking mind and all queue up, physically and on-line, waiting for that deal on Black Friday.

Sustainability in the fashion industry has been addressed right through its value and supply chain. In the manufacturing sector of garments, there are all kinds of machinery that optimises water usage for washing and drying of textile and therefore has a knock on effect on the level and amount of electricity and gas used. Buildings are more ‘green’ by using solar power or alternative sources of energy and reuse and recycle rain water amongst other things. More and more manufacturers are also looking more intently on how they engage with their labour force and the provisions that are available for them. Manufacturing factories in Bangladesh are actively pursuing ‘green manufacturing’ starting with the factory space and also the environment and support for their workers[iv].

Worn Again is working with H&M and Kerring[v] to not just recycle or upcycle but create new textile based on a ‘circular resource model’ from old or ‘end of use’ clothes. New materials are also being produced from natural fibers like pineapples or banana and from seed to harvesting all aspects of the plant/ fruit is reused. M&S’s ‘SHWOP’[vi] or Patagonia’s ‘Worn Wear’[vii] are two high profile schemes which promotes and advocates ‘longer-life’ for our clothes. There are workshops on knitting in groups bit like ‘Book Clubs’. Critiques of the schemes say that these schemes are destined for the wardrobes of the rich and middle-classes. Not for the mass public. Also that dropping of our ‘worn’ clothes to the ‘poor’ of the developing nations can actually cause problems for local brands, retailers and manufacturers[viii].

In a recent BBC documentary programme, ‘Hugh’s War on Waste’, the host looks to engage with individuals who do not believe that waste is truly recycled. They are taken to a local recycling processing plant and the sceptic recyclers are still not convinced by the argument for recycling waste. It is only when they are shown actual everyday products made from recycled material that we see the recycling sceptics change their outlook.

Leggings-Bangladesh April14-141115MA

But if it is facts we are looking for there is plenty out there in the form of research, films, images, case studies and much more. For instance the recent film ‘The True Cost’[ix] has given a very detailed breakdown of how the fashion supply chain is set up and is costing. It has been distributed in cinemas, is available online and through social media platforms. So very easily available and accessible and we still have the situation of people not following through and buying less or not queuing for ‘Black Friday’.

So far I have concentrated only on the consumption habits of developed countries. However it is the with consumers of China, India and elsewhere that brands and retailers are trying to establish a relationship with. And that is because in emerging countries material consumption lead the way as more people have disposable income and also want to have the opportunity consume or at least aspire to consume as their counter parts in developed countries[x].

So what we see now is brands, luxury brands and every day retailers positioning themselves in these new markets. It is quite normal to see nappies for babies being sold in main cities and towns of these new territories. Long gone are the days when people would use ‘terry cloth’ nappies for their babies not only because they are time consuming to maintain but also they are seen as being ‘traditional’ and not representative of the ‘modern life’ that they now live.

So attitudes are changing everywhere. It’s cyclic. In that the developed world have started thinking about ‘sustainable development’ in all walks of life. They are exploring how corporations, supply chains and individuals can make a difference. The emerging and developing countries with a growing number of people with spending power and disposable income now aspire to consume and become active participants in this global consumer market. Internet has increasingly made everything accessible within a click of a button. Social media shows you trends on a daily, hourly, minute by minute basis to satisfy ones desire.

So the notion of ‘sustainable development’ is admirable but seemingly unachievable. Unless of course as in the case of fashion you have groups like Fashion Revolution Day and their mission to connect consumer to their clothes through the ‘#who made my clothes?’ FRD asks the consumer to do the following:

  1. Be curious – Look at your clothes with different eyes. Ask more than “does this look great on me?”. Ask “#who made my clothes?”.
  2. Find out – Get to know your clothes even better.
  3. Do something – tweaking the way your shop, use and dispose of your clothing

Be curious is the start point of looking at our personal shopping habits. Before we go get the latest design at a cut price from the shop, the question we must ask is ‘do I really need to buy this?’, ‘Will I wear it more than once?’, ‘do I know how to take care of it?’ and what will I do when I have had enough of it?’. These questions are alongside asking the brand ‘#who made my clothes?’ Fashion Revolution has run a very successful global campaign in 2014 and 2015 with consumers, celebrities turning their clothes ‘insideout’ taking a selfie of it and asking the brand ‘#who made my clothes?’

This new curiosity will lead us to the next step ‘Find Out’. If we do not know exactly what is happening then it is difficult to change our behaviours and attitudes. There are various organisations who work on specific issues like living wage, organic cotton or on themes ‘Fair Trade’. They are a good start point for any search[xi]. There are also apps available which will assist you whilst you are shopping to find out more about the social and environmental impact of the item[xii]. New apps are coming are being developed and trialled and aims to provide more detailed information on the item of clothing origin.

Do something’ is personally my favourite. It can be you ask the brand, #who made my clothes? Or look at projects like set up by WRAP which gives you tips on how to manage your clothes, revamp it and much more. As mentioned earlier, high street stores like M&S or brands like Kerring have also tried to inspire their customers with alternatives to just throwing our clothes away. What is possible is sometimes difficult to choose, so a helpful list is available from Fashion Revolution’s booklet, ‘How to be a Fashion Revolutionary’[xiii]

As discussed earlier, the consumer at present is detached from what they consume be it the clothes we wear or other products. We have seen that it is only when they come face to face with evidence, is it that they start to explore further the issues on hand. So that we can move away from the future of diminishing natural resources and an un-sustainable environment we need to change attitudes through curiosity, finding out and doing something.


Author – Maher Anjum – Sustainable Sourcing and Supply Chain (Garments, Textiles and Fashion) Consultant, Operational Director Oitji-jo Collective (Part-Time), Associate Lecturer, London College of Fashion and Member, Global Advisory Committee, Fashion Revolution.

















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