Student Blog - Is Irresponsible Sourcing the New Fashion ‘Faux Pas’?

It appears most are aware that the fashion industry is wasteful, but consumers and corporations are not doing everything they can to help correct this. The entire concept of fashion has been used as a symbol of status for many years. The significance that the fashion industry puts on materiality is toxic to the environment. A 2019 Business Insider article says this industry “produces 10% of all humanity's carbon emissions, is the second-largest consumer of the world's water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics”.  In addition, “85% of all textiles go to the dump each year. And washing some types of clothes sends thousands of bits of plastic into the ocean”. 

We cannot put all the blame on the corporations producing the clothing, because we the consumers often look for quantity over quality. With everchanging fashion trends, consumers move towards fast and cheap fashion to keep up. There are many ways we can reduce our environmental footprint as consumers. We can try to extend the life of our clothing by selling or donating older pieces instead of throwing them away and shop upcycled items instead of brand new.

The University of Ottawa is making great strides in this area. It has improved its sustainability and is continuously working to build a greener campus. An initiative specific to clothing waste is the Free Store that encourages giving all kinds of material items, including clothes, a second life and thereby reducing their environmental impact. However, there are still many people who want to purchase their clothing brand new. For example, most universities sell "University themed" attire. I remember my first time going into the uOttawa bookstore to purchase a sweater so I could represent my school at the infamous Panda Games. It is always an exciting time of the year when students flock to the bookstore to pick out new uOttawa merchandise to wear to their first Panda Games. Some students may shop there every year or even more than once per year. Unfortunately, this encourages the cycle of overconsumption and waste seen in the clothing industry.

In addition to its environmental footprint, the clothing industry does not have a good social reputation. Using university campus attire as an example, most of the clothing is probably not made in Canada, but in factories in developing countries. Outsourcing clothing manufacturing is a way that corporations can profit from lower costs, while distancing themselves legally from certain issues in manufacturing such as wages, work environment, safety, etc. The uOttawa bookstore holds many different brands of clothing. Some popular ones are Roots, Adidas, and Under Armour, but most of the items are made by Russell Athletic, a United States-based clothing manufacturer, owned by Fruit of the Loom (FOTL). FOTL’s Sustainability Report states that its suppliers must adhere to the same Codes of Conduct as them. For instance, “Regular and overtime hours are within legal limits” and “Employees are entitled to the legal minimum wage for all hours worked and benefits required by law or agreed in contract”. These statements can be misleading because aspects that are enforced by law need only adhere to the laws of the country in which the manufacturing partner is located. For example, Russell Athletics has two direct suppliers in India. In India, the 2020 minimum wage was of 178 INR per day, which approximates 3.08 CAD per day. Imagine working all day for $3 in 2020!

There are far more ethical suppliers uOttawa can partner with to purchase its campus clothing, such as local or domestic manufacturers. Our university could support an ethical and sustainable Canadian business like Ungalli, a clothing brand which uses 100% sustainable materials - such as “plastic bottles, recycled cotton, and scraps from cotton factory floors” (Eco Market). Business Insider states that one cotton shirt can use as much water to produce as a person drinking eight cups per day for three-and-a-half years. Meanwhile, each t-shirt made by Ungalli saves “41 days of drinking water and 7 hours of light bulb energy compared to traditionally manufactured t-shirts”. Its products are designed and manufactured in Canada. This is only one option from the emerging sub-industry that is sustainable fashion.

Of course, more socially and environmentally responsible sourcing will result in higher prices, but it comes back to supporting quality over quantity. If that were the norm, maybe then companies would have to start producing better, more sustainable products. While the best solution to wastefulness would be to end the idea of obsolescence in the fashion industry (the constant need to update one's wardrobe every year) that is not likely. Instead, to be a part of the solution, I encourage consumers and businesses to upcycle, resell, donate, and extend the life of your clothes, and/or support responsible brands so that clothing production becomes more sustainable.

~ karly labbé - guest blogger

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