There are a litany of big, worldwide issues competing for our attention. There are droughts and wars, political turmoil – both domestically and internationally, exploitative systems that negatively affect workers, animals, and the environment.
I know that these are important things and, in some cases, these are things that I have a part in. I use water, I have political beliefs and a vote to cast, and I buy clothing and food. What I do has a consequence for the world in which I live. But it can be hard to fathom the complexities of these big issues, or to know what I could possibly do to make change.
When I developed the environmental metrics for the Baptist World Aid Ethical Fashion Report in 2017, I had the chance to dive in, to learn what impact consumers and the fashion industry were having on the environment, and to craft a path forward to make positive change. I spent months researching the impact of different types of cotton, the dyes and treatments used, and the rates of water use in textile production.
This research sounds industrial and scientific, but through the process of my research, I discovered that the issue itself was so much more human than this.
Many factories in China, Pakistan and other countries in the Asia Pacific are involved in dyeing and washing fabric. In fact, half of the world’s textiles are made in China. It’s estimated that nearly one third of the country’s rivers are so extremely polluted that they are no longer fit for any sort of direct human contact. This is because many factories fail to treat water containing hazardous chemicals, before the water is released.
The result? Water in these rivers has caused a high incidence of cancer for the people working or living in the vicinity of textile factories. Rates of rare forms of cancer, affecting residents and workers of all ages, are so high that the Chinese government has officially acknowledged them as “cancer-villages”.
I was deeply troubled by the lack of understanding and steps taken to address these issues by fashion companies too. Whilst there were flashes of innovation and sporadic conversations about the consequences, there didn’t seem to be a great deal of action from an industry whose product was resulting in harm to people and our surroundings.
I spent a number of months feeling anguished about the industry… and I think that was really appropriate. It is right to feel broken by the brokenness of the world.
Sometimes I find myself ignoring the difficult issues – the impact of being a meat eater; using single-use plastics – but with this issue, I had the time and felt the imperative to sit and understand the gravity of what our love of clothes and our love of consumption is doing to the world. And, importantly, the people we share it with.
Thankfully, I also had the privilege of seeing and crafting change. And I discovered that there are many examples of hope within the supply chain – the Chinese government has been shutting down heavily polluting facilities, which means less pollution, higher standards, and a wakeup call for Australian companies that had their product deliveries delayed by the shutdown.
The environmental management questions in our ethical research are set to be influential in the industry. Already, we have seen companies working on their supply chains to meet our standard. Really big players are stepping up and changing how they operate. And if the industry can shift its environmental management in the same way that it has its labour rights practice in the past five years, then we’re looking at phenomenal, impactful change.
It has been very powerful for me to dig deep into this issue and talk directly with companies in the fashion industry about their processes and behaviours, but not everyone has the capacity to do that. In fact, that’s why we produce the Ethical Fashion Guide and Report – please use it. Please order some more for your friends or churches at: baptistworldaid.org.au/2018-ethical-fashion-guide. Please speak to companies on Facebook or Instagram to say thank you if they received a stronger grade, such as an A or B, or encourage them to do better if they received a C, D, or F.
You, too, have the privilege of crafting change.
Read more about the environmental management metrics in the Ethical Fashion Report. Download it here.