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Could pledge campaigns help kickstart a more ethically-sound fashion industry?

It has been said that only the oil industry is worse for the environment than the fashion industry, with clothing production releasing tonnes of hazardous chemicals into the atmosphere every year. Groups like Greenpeace have campaigned for years to pressure the biggest culprits into adopting more environmentally-friendly practices, but most clothing lines have been resistant.

Yet, with sites like Kickstarter offering consumers a chance to vote with their wallets, could the crowdfunding of small-scale manufacturers and ethical fashion innovations finally take the fashion industry in an eco-friendly direction?

Crowdfunding clothing: prêt-à-supporter

Crowdfunding has most commonly been associated with video games, films, and charity campaigns. But the importance of crowdfunding to independent fashion businesses cannot be understated. A study last year notes that the site has created nearly 30,000 full-time jobs, with the average donation being roughly $30 per person.

The gains for Kickstarter have filtered down to the companies looking to get their start; the same study showed that 21% of companies using the platform increased their annual earnings. Indeed, one of the site’s most lucrative campaigns was for the self-proclaimed “world’s best travel jacket”, which raised $9,192,055—not bad, considering its starting goal was a mere $20,000. Meanwhile, this list of Kickstarter t-shirt campaigns ranges from simply financing designers’ work to developing a more ethically-sound method of production and wear.

Uniform, for example, is intended to be the “world’s softest t-shirt”, but the business also donates school uniforms to children in Liberia for every top they sell. The 10-Year Hoodie is designed to last for at least a decade, meaning less waste. They are also made and sold in America, which means less fuel is used in their transportation. The allegedly stainproof Silic brand, meanwhile, used the platform to finance a self-cleaning tee, thus reducing energy and water wastage from washers and dryers.

Projects like this are undoubtedly better for the environment, but can these crowdfunded projects really make a difference on a larger scale? Will larger businesses in the fashion industry follow suit?

What’s so bad about the clothing industry?

Though less prominently so than the fuel industry, fashion has a terrible history of harming the environment. This can mean anything from unsustainable manufacturing processes to corporate policies and business decisions that prioritise the brand over the planet.

Due to the long and complex nature of fashion supply chains, it is difficult to tell exactly how bad the industry is for the environment. One thing is for certain, though: some level of harm is done in every step.

Taking cotton t-shirts as an example, there are the pesticides used on cotton fields and the gallons of water used on these plants; one estimate puts the total at 5,000 gallons for one t-shirt and jeans combo. Then there are the fossil fuels used to transport finished clothing from factory to warehouse to storefront, and ultimately to wardrobe. Finally, there are the tons of waste created when clothes are thrown away.

Even the materials used in most of our clothing can do harm to the planet. Microfibres found in synthetic fabrics often find their way into the sea via laundry machines, wrecking the environment and killing sealife. Microfibre pollution was named by the Guardian as “the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of,” yet after repeated attempts to bring it to mainstream attention failed, clothing manufacturers continue to use the materials.

High-end brands such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton are known to destroy, and even burn, their last season’s stock rather than put it on sale at discount prices, in order to preserve the labels’ premium reputation. Practices like this paint a picture of an industry where the environment does not remotely figure into key decisions.

As the above Kickstarter t-shirt campaigns show, many crowdfunded clothing projects place heavy focus on their environmental impact. These projects have been successful, many raising more than their targets, but that doesn’t guarantee that larger fashion businesses will take notice.

Will the success of these crowdfunded campaigns influence big fashion chains?

Despite the deeply ingrained unsustainable practices in the fashion industry, there are hints that the consumer demand for more environmental production is being considered. Clothing magnate Eileen Fisher has recently taken to publicly calling out the harsh environmental impact of much of the fashion industry, describing it as “the second dirtiest thing in the world.”

Fisher’s eponymous clothing brand sets out her dream of the fashion industry’s future:

“Our vision is for an industry where human rights and sustainability are not the effect of a particular initiative, but the cause of a business well run.”

The biggest polluters—“fast fashion” chains like Gap, Zara, H&M, and even Calvin Klein—are still very much in operation, but many of them are beginning to realise they too can benefit from the goodwill that funded Kickstarter’s most successful clothing projects. Gap now has a dedicated sustainability page on their website, listing various ethical pledges such as a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, an 80% reduction in waste, and an improvement to production line transparency.

Some have questioned the merit of pledges like these, suggesting they are only surface-level programs of “greenwashing”, more focussed on repairing the reputation of clothing companies than repairing the actual environment. Still, the fact that so many big clothing businesses see it as essential to speak publicly about the steps they are taking to change their ways is surely a good sign for those wishing for an eco-friendly future for fashion.

In an interview with some of Kickstarter’s most successful fashionistas, many seemed to think that large fashion corporations will continue to move in a greener direction, as consumers continue to gravitate towards clothing made through more sustainable practices. Even if the big businesses don’t turn around on their own, the young independent creators currently doing business on Kickstarter are the ones who will go on to shape the industry in the future anyway. It looks like the second dirtiest industry in the world might just get a whole lot cleaner.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Caitlyn Stevens .

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