Instead, due to the pandemic, she was in detention in Brooklyn when news broke that dozens of major mass-market clothing brands were refusing to pay factories for completed orders. The orders represented billions of dollars and the livelihoods of legions of impoverished people, mostly women.
“In the midst of this terrifying crisis, these really huge, profitable companies – their instinct wasn’t to protect the people who work for them, it was to screw them up,” Cline says. “It was too much.”
She launched a campaign called #PayUp, alongside activists and others following the fashion industry, demanding that brands, including H&M and Zara, pay what they owe. Factory owners have been exceptionally open with the press about the extent of the problem, Cline says. They rarely speak ill of their customers, whose whims control the fate of factories. But in this case, what did they have to lose?
#PayUp has gone viral. Over $ 22 billion of those unpaid bills have since been paid. But the bad taste in Cline’s mouth hasn’t gone away. For years, she had written extensively on brands’ efforts to do better on labor rights and the environment. But because fashion has largely escaped the official pollution and waste regulations that governments apply to industries such as petroleum and agriculture, clothing companies were monitoring themselves and reforming themselves. Now Cline couldn’t muster even skeptical optimism.
It was time, she thought, for fashion to stop. And she was not alone. In recent years, awareness of fashion issues has surged like a wave in society, especially among young people. The pandemic has only accelerated the process, with injustice and environmental degradation attracting the attention they rarely received before. Now Cline and other voices – activists, writers, non-governmental organizations – are calling for change, with real rules on the industry.
A glimpse of the future
The social problems of clothing manufacturing, which relies on low wages and long working hours, are no secret. But what you might not know is the depth of fashion’s sustainability problem. Along with little black dresses and trendy sneakers, clothing manufacturers are producing tons of trash and oceans of contaminated water. Clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, and many pieces are now only worn a handful of times. Every second, clothes from a garbage truck are thrown away or burned. The fashion industry is a conveyor belt transporting natural resources through landfill at breakneck speed.
The solutions explored by the clothing brands themselves typically resemble using a pipette to put out a forest fire. Recycling cotton makes more use of the material, but recycling shortens its fibers, which must then be combined with fresh cotton to make a garment.
The best ideas involve the concept of circularity. “This means moving to a system where we no longer extract new materials from the earth,” says Elizabeth Segran, a fashion reporter for Fast Company.
If fashion were circular, the materials of one garment could be used to make a new garment after the first one is worn. They should be chosen from a list of materials that can be recycled endlessly. That’s a tall order at the moment, as the best-known examples are glass and aluminum, which are unlikely to be used much in clothing. And there is almost no infrastructure to do it: there are few supply chains of recyclable substances and no good way to recover the materials from the consumer.
Still, if brands are using materials that can be recycled multiple times, but not endlessly – like the PET plastic used in water bottles, which can be used to make polyester – and if they can invest in it. infrastructure and logistics to recover and reuse their products, just as they have adapted to e-commerce over the past 15 years, there may be a way forward.
Chloe Songer and Stuart Ahlum, founders of sneaker brand Thousand Fell, see their company as a pilot project for this potential future. Both had worked for several years for major clothing brands and kept an eye on researching new types of materials.
“Textile vendors and factories had heard the consumer want something more sustainable,” says Ahlum, and he and Songer had seen enough textile innovations to launch a first product that matched the bill. “By that I mean better [use of] carbon, water and energy throughout the supply chain than traditional leather, traditional rubber or traditional foams, ”he says. And “we could actually recycle a lot of that stuff.”
They chose a simple white sneaker, the kind that people could wear everyday for months on end until it really wore out, then tossed it in the trash, and designed it so that at the end of the day. its life, it can be disassembled and many of the components recycled.
The way Songer and Ahlum talk about materials, you can start to see a future in which companies will own endless foods of plastic or synthetic cork or vegan leather that enter the market as finished products and come back as raw materials. . (The company name reflects the founders’ interest in new types of “scraps,” an old term for leather or hides.) At the end of this month, the company will launch an online system for its recycling process that will allow consumers to track the material fate of their shoes and use credits when purchasing new ones.
This proto-circular economy is an appealing vision, but relying on companies alone to make it real is not enough, especially huge ones like Gap and Inditex, which owns Zara. “What we risk is that they are doing just enough to stop us from asking for real change,” says Cline.
In other words, they will only leave if they are pushed. We don’t have time to wait for them to move on their own.
In February, Segran wrote an article for Fast Company calling on Biden to appoint a fashion czar. “The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions,” she wrote. “It must be regulated like the other major sectors. The story sparked a movement: Activists wrote a letter signed by more than 80 groups, including fashion brands and nonprofits, urging the president to choose someone to take charge of this disaster at high speed, someone to inaugurate policies that make brands responsible for the environmental and social burdens of their products.
Cline was one of the signatories of the letter. “Although [the United States has] a huge fashion industry and is a leader in terms of design, we don’t have a lot of breakthroughs in Washington. And at the moment, we are late in this political conversation, ”she said. “We believe that every conversation the White House has on climate, energy or sustainability or domestic manufacturing should include people from the fashion industry.”
Elsewhere in the world, there are signs of what could be. When brands miscalculate demand, they often burn or destroy unsold clothing en masse – a practice France has now banned. The European Union’s Circular Action Plan includes another idea Cline hopes to have legs: a demand for extended producer responsibility. This would force companies to take back and recycle or otherwise treat their products once they have reached the end of their useful life. “It would be such an easy thing for the United States to adopt,” she said. The EU also plans to establish rules encouraging manufacturers to use recyclable materials.
In addition, the EU passes human rights laws that oblige companies operating in the EU – whether it is simply having a store there or having their headquarters there – to s ” ensure that their supply chains, wherever they are in the world, meet certain standards. . If they don’t, there will be financial consequences. “This marks a big step forward from self-regulation towards real accountability for brands,” says Cline.
In recent months in the United States, Cline has campaigned for the Garment Worker Protection Act in California, which would hold fashion brands legally responsible for ensuring workers earn at least minimum wage. She took on the role of director of policy and advocacy at Remake, an organization focused on overhauling the fashion industry, and fought for the renewal of an international agreement to protect factory workers from tailoring at work.
Almost 10 years after Cline helped revive the consumer staples movement to extend the life of clothing, the movement has gathered pace. People are now committing on social media not to buy anything new. Younger generations are more and more aware of the problem of waste from the fashion industry. In June, online resale firm ThredUp and research firm Global Markets announced that second-hand clothing sales are expected to quintuple over the next five years. That’s fine, says Cline, but changing consumer behavior is only a small part of what’s needed.
“My job has changed a lot over the past year,” says Cline. She now believes that instead of getting people to buy smarter or less and expect brands to reform from within, there is a need for change in the public sphere. “Instead of putting so much pressure on our consumers, we need to review what our citizens are capable of,” she says. “Which is a lot.”
Veronique Greenwood is a science writer who frequently contributes to Ideas. Follow her on Twitter @vero_greenwood.