Environmental issues and sustainability in the fashion industry. A realistic chance or just an illusion?

Pre-University Paper, 2020

11 Pages, Grade: 13



1. Introduction

“The fashion industry creates a larger carbon footprint each year than all international airlines combined.”

“A single pair of jeans requires about 8.000 litres to be produced”.

These are facts I was confronted with at a youth seminar about ‘sustainable consumption' by UK-German Connection, a bilateral government initiative with the aim of bringing young people together. Subtopics of the seminar were food, transport and fashion.

Within a group of about 20 students from Germany and the United Kingdom, I focused on fashion and the supply chain of the fashion industry, even though I had not really been interested in fashion before. However, the different discussions, expert lectures and excursions changed my mind as the fashion industry has such a great influence on everyone's daily life. People use clothes to protect oneself from elements but despite the fact that everyone in the world uses clothes the fashion industry has considerable impact on the environment.

2. What does fashion mean to our society?

The way people dress is different from person to person. Some use their clothes to set statements and other just wear clothes they like.

In the past decade, a new phenomenon called fast fashion has commanded the attention of the consumers, managers and investors. Clothing has become increasingly, affordable especially for young consumers. Fashion brands seize opportunities they are provided with in a globalized world. The supply chain can be split around the whole world without having high costs. On the contrary, companies can produce their goods in countries where people must work for low wages without having any rights. Gradually, fashion brands have created responsive supply chains and efficient decision-making processes. The average number of new collections by garment producers has grown from two collections in 2000 to five ones in 20111.

The pioneer of the concept of fast fashion is ZARA. ZARA offers about 24 collections each year which means they realise a new collection every second week. From the first sketch of a piece of clothing until it can be bought in the shop by the consumers, it sometimes only takes about two weeks.

The marketing strategy of brands like ZARA is minimizing the stock of products. Thus, the consumer feels that he has to decide on a purchase quickly. Due to fast fashion, the consumers can frequently visit a shop and always have new clothes to look for.

According to the European Research Service about 5 % of the household expenditure in the EU is spent on clothing and footwear2. The average German buys 60 items of clothing a year of which they do not wear 18% more than twice at all. 20 % of the items are not worn more often than four times a year.

However, the wish of wearing fair fashion has constantly increased in the last few years3 because consumers have become aware of the problems of fast fashion. These changes have triggered a different approach with some consumers. They look for clothes that are produced sustainably.

3. Sustainability in the fashion industry

The term ‘sustainability' comprises three terms ‘social sustainability', ‘economic sustainability' and ‘environmental sustainability' which are defined as follows:

"Social sustainability occurs when the formal and informal processes; systems; structures; and relationships actively support the capacity of current and future generations to create healthy and livable communities. Socially sustainable communities are equitable, diverse, connected and democratic and provide a good quality of life. 4 "

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainahility 10.03.2020)

Only if all these criteria of sustainability are met, we can talk about a sustainable product. Nevertheless, as a label can only set social and environmental standards, only these two aspects will be discussed.56

3.1 Environmental issues of the garment industry

3.1.1 Raw material

Despite the fact that the demand for sustainably produced clothes has increased, the fashion industry still causes serious environmental problems. It is responsible for 10% of all carbon emissions and 20% of all industrial water pollution7. More than 70% of our clothing is made of synthetic fibres. These are cheap non-natural fibres, which are responsible for a high use of chemicals, energy and water. Another 25 % is made of cotton. Even though less than 3 % of agricultural area is used to grow cotton, the growing process uses 25% of all pesticides worldwide8. Diverging numbers concerning the amount of water used to produce cotton per kilogram can be found. To the lower end the International Cotton Advisory Committee states 1.214 litres per kilogram, of which 60 % should return into the environment without having any further impact on the environment9. Other sources mention completely different numbers. On the other side of the scale is the WWF stating the amount of water to produce one kilogram of cotton is 20.000 litres. Considering that the average German uses 124 litres of water per day. We can live for up to a third year using the water which is used for the production of just one kilogram of cotton.

3.1.2 Production process

After the production of the raw materials the process of sewing, dying and washing begins. The production, including the production of the raw material devours one-fourth of all chemicals used worldwide10. The chemicals are used to give fibres certain characteristics or dye these. Not all the chemicals used by fashion companies have a negative impact on our environment but some of them put consumers, workers or the environment at risk. For example, chemicals like NPE, a component of detergents which are used to clean clothing repeatedly during production, are hormonally effective and have been shown to influence the reproduction of fish negatively. Because NPE can have such an influence on our ecological system the EU prohibits the use of the chemical, but traces of this chemical can still be detected in imported goods and waters. Many lakes where the factories are located take the colour of new collections of well-known brands. That implies that even though many factories have sewage treatment plants, the factories often direct their wastewater into the rivers because it is cheaper than using the sewage treatment plants. Over time the ecological system of these bodies of water collapses. Often, the water does not contain enough oxygen for the species living there. That obviously has a direct effect on the population living in these areas or making their living by, for example, fishing.

The washing by the factories and the consumer can release microfibers of which up to 40 % end up in rivers, lakes and oceans. This has been revealed by the Global Microplastic Initiative is an initiative which takes sample all over the world. They published the number of 90 % out of 2.000 samples which contained microfibres11 and Greenpeace have even found microfibres in waters of the Antarctica, an area without any factories and only few people who live there.

3.1.3 Overproduction

Later in the process when putting fashion to market 20% of the goods stay unsold and go to waste or to the shredder. With about 100 billion items of clothing being produced per year this means that 20 billion items do not serve their original purpose12.

3.2 Social issues of garment industry

According to the latest data of the International Monetary Fund available Bangladesh has a GDP per capita of 5.030 Int$13. This means that they are number 137 of all the countries in the world. Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries and the consumption in the western countries is one of the reasons for that. Because of many environmental disasters inhabitants of rural regions are forced to move to the big cities like Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Particularly women and children are that desperate about their situation that they do not care about their workplace. They must earn money to survive so they cannot negotiate wages or working conditions.

Bangladesh is the second largest exporter behind China and exports garments worth 32.93 billion US$ (2018)14. Thus, the garment industry is directly and indirectly responsible for 20 million people who live in Bangladesh and is also a major tax contributor for the government. Nevertheless, the government does not aim at influencing the working conditions because companies always look for cheaper production prices. The fashion industry moves slowly to African countries because some of the African companies can afford even cheaper prices than Bangladesh can. For that reason, only small pay raises and less working time for the workers could lead to a withdrawal of companies like H&M or ZARA from Bangladesh. Despite this, the government had to arrange a pay rise after a string of fatal factory accidents in 2013 which highlighted the poor working conditions of the workers in the garment industry.

One of the most widely known accidents was an accident in a factory called Rana Plaza. The building had been closed by the police before the accident happened. But because of high time stress, the head of Rana Plaza forced the employees to work even though the factory was closed. They were told that they would not be paid for the whole month if they did not come to work. On 24th April 2013 the factory collapsed, and 1127 people died.

As a reaction to this, the pressure of the people all over the world led to a pay rise of the minimum wage per month of 71% from 3,000 Taka (28€) to 5,300 Taka (51€) and was later raised to 8000 Taka (74€)15 in 2018. This pay rise is by far not enough to ensure a good life. The employees of the garment industry have to work up to 16 hours a day up to seven days a week even on Fridays, the sacred day of Muslims. That means that some of them work more than 90 hours a week with an hourly wage of about 22 Taka (0.23€).

For western companies, the image of poor working conditions and extremely low wages is not favourable. Factories which want to work together with western companies have to be part of the so-called Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). This association stands for compliance with environmental standards and working conditions.

Journalists of a German documentary by the WDR called “So zerstören unsere Klamotten unsere Umwelt” started an experiment. They pretended to be interested in producing 5000 pairs of jeans in a factory which had officially already been closed by the government. To legalise their purchase the factory owner advised the journalists to contact a factory called Sha Makdum Garment, a factory which is listed at the BGMEA and meet all the criteria of the association. The journalists wrote an e-mail to Sha Makdum and mentioned the factory that had already been closed. Sha Makdum answered that they wanted to sew the pants, but that the dying could be sourced out to the requested factory13.

Even though no big garment companies like Primark and Kik would admit that they used a detour of the supply chain like that, to reduce their costs, the growing price pressure14 of the big companies lead some green factories to outsource some steps of their production process to unlisted factories who can produce for lower costs.

4. Labels in the fashion industry

4.1 GOTS

Global Organic Textile Standard, short GOTS, consists of four different organisations, OTA from USA, IVN from Germany, the Soil Association from the UK and JOCA from Japan. All these organisations are respected organisations in the fight for sustainable conditions in the textile industry. Every one of these organisations contributes their knowledge about organic farming and environmentally and socially responsible textile processing18. Together with other organisations and experts GOTS has created criteria for the GOTS label. GOTS is an independent label which is accepted all over the world. It has the goal of providing transparency and product security for the consumers and the sellers. The label concentrates on all different steps of the supply chain including the cultivation of cotton or the animal husbandry, the cleaning, spinning, weaving, sewing, dyeing, and finishing. But the standards of the label concentrate on social aspects and the quality of the products as well.

GOTS stands for the sustainable production of clothing and textiles made from organically grown fibres just as organic cotton and bio wool as a gold standard. At least 70% of the used textile fibres have to be organically grown. Moreover, GOTS prohibits the use of chemicals that are often used in textile processing and can cause cancer, birth defects and other diseases. Only tested chemicals are allowed to be used. In addition, the organisation has strict requirements for wastewater treatment and procedures for reducing wastewater and energy.

Social criteria are based on the core principles of the International Labour Organisation. These criteria include the obligation to allow workers to work under fair working conditions and a workplace without discrimination and child labour and with the right to get organised. The wage of the workers has to be much higher than the minimum wage to allow the workers a more or less carefree life and the opportunity to send their children to school.

Regular checks of independent auditors control all different steps of the supply chain and make sure that the criteria are met by the companies at all the times. To support the transparency of the supply chains for the consumers GOTS keeps a database of all certified companies.

If the GOTS label is compared with other textile and garment labels, it sets very strict standards which are frequently checked.

4.2 Grüner Knopf

The German fashion label Grüner Knopf was introduced by development minister Gerd Müller on 9th September 2019. The label is an answer to questionable conditions in the garment industry which have been covert by the media and to the consumer's demand for full transparency. According to the website of the Grüner Knopf 19 too many sustainable labels on the market lead to confusion. For that reason, the label intends to unite all of these labels by its 46 requirements for environmental and social standards. The social standards include the ban on child and forced labour, minimum wages and occupational safety. The ecological criteria include the ban of plasticizers, hazardous textile chemicals as well as natural fibres tested for harmful substances. Besides, wastewater limit values were set to avoid environmental consequences.

Different to other labels Grüner Knopf examines the whole company and not only single products. The label has started by certifying the standards of factories. That includes cutting and sewing as well as bleaching and dying. The goal of the label is to expand their criteria that the whole supply chain from the fibre extraction process to the shop where the consumer can buy the product is included.


1 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2019/633143/EPRS BRI(2019)633143 EN.pdf (07.03.2020)

2 https://www.euroDarl.euroDa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2Q19/633143/EPRS BRI(2019)633143 EN.pdf (07.03.2020)

3 https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/299493/umfrage/umsatz-mit-fairtrade-textilien-in-deutschland/

4 https://www.esg.adec-innovations.com/about-us/faqs/what-is-social-sustainability/ (10.03.2020)

5 https://sustainability.umw.edu/areas-of-sustainability/economic-sustainability/ (10.03.2020)

6 http://www.thwink.org/sustain/glossary/EnvironmentalSustainability.htm (10.03.2020)

7 Thomas, Dana: Fashionopolis, p. 7

8 Umweltbundesamt, https://youtu.be/EYoz-3No-54, min 0:56-1:32

9 https://icac.org/TruthAboutCotton/Details?Id=38&MenuId=13(09.03.2020)

10 Thomas, Dana: Fashionopolis, p. 7

11 https://www.adventurescientists.org/microplastics.html(03.09.2020)

12 Thomas, Dana: Fashionopolis, p. 8

13 https://youtu.be/pXGr8qX4eNE, min 24:40

14 https://youtu.be/pXGr8qX4eNE, min 14:11-16:44

Excerpt out of 11 pages


Environmental issues and sustainability in the fashion industry. A realistic chance or just an illusion?
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Fashion, labels, fashion labels, bangladesh, GOTS, Grüner Knopf, Sustainablity, Overproduction, garment industry
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2020, Environmental issues and sustainability in the fashion industry. A realistic chance or just an illusion?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/918688


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