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How (not) sustainable is the fashion industry?

By Esmee Blaazer


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Background |Long read

Image illustrating fashion. Credit: H&M

Fashion and 'sustainability' don't actually go together. A garment is usually made in such a way that it quickly goes out of fashion. In the fashion industry there is not only stylistic obsolescence, but also technical obsolescence. Some clothing is of such low quality that it tears, pills or loses its colour after a few wears and washes. Ideal for fashion companies that rely on the sale of new garments, but not on sustainability.

This is called planned obsolescence. The concept of 'planned obsolescence' emerged in the 1920s. “Manufacturers experimented with ways to limit the lifespan of products and thus stimulate demand for new products. For example, the strategy was applied to light bulbs and later to electronics, household appliances, cars, smartphones and also clothing,” explains Belgian sustainability expert Jasmien Wynants in the guest post 'Sustainability clarified: Why everyone is talking about the circular economy as a solution'.

Therefore, the answer to the question of how sustainable the fashion industry is is: not much/not yet.

In the clothing industry, profit usually comes before people and planet, or people and the environment.

The Belgian journalist Sarah Vandoorne, who specialises in sustainable fashion, said in the introduction to her recently published book 'Kleerkastvasten' (which translates into ‘Wardrobe Fasting' in English) : “Day in and day out, we put on clothes. They are part of our identity, they make us feel good about ourselves. At the same time, millions of people are working their butts off for a pittance to dress us, and the fashion industry is, in the process, also helping to kill our planet.”

Sarah Vandoorne (1991) is a Belgian freelance (investigative) journalist. She has been writing about the textile industry and more sustainable fashion since 2015.

In recent years, Vandoorne has travelled to Bangladesh (where she visited factories where textile workers assemble our garments), Indonesia (where she saw a Citarum river polluted by textile dyes) and Ghana (where she found one of the largest second-hand markets in the world and visited a beach soiled with clothes).

She wrote down her knowledge and experiences in her book 'Kleerkastvasten’ in which you can read how the textile supply chain operates, and what is wrong, or at least what could be improved. She also looks at solutions for making the industry more sustainable.

We will explain it to you in this background piece.

Click on the arrows in the text for more information.


  1. The amount of clothing produced deserves a separate mention
  2. How the production of new clothing harms the environment
  3. Impact of the clothing industry on people
  4. Positive note: sustainability is higher on the agenda (+ the legislation that is coming)

1. The quantity

Too much clothing is made and overproduction is the standard

When it comes to sustainability, one of the biggest problems in the sector is that there is simply too much clothing being produced. “Many problems in the sector can be traced back to the 'quantity',” says author Vandoorne during a video call.

Nowadays, there is a constant supply of new collections and trends. Most clothing brands make at least two to four collections per year, and there are luxury brands that create as many as ten new collections a year. Fast fashion companies such as the Spanish retail chain Zara or the British online giant Asos renew their range even more frequently. Every year, between 100 to 150 billion garments are produced.

A gigantic amount. Dutch newspaper Het Parool recently wrote that if we were to immediately stop producing clothes, we could continue for another 40 years with all the clothing items that are already available.

The fashion industry is a competitive market. Companies try to stand out and attract customers by releasing new collections and styles.

Clothing brands gamble on collections and styles. Long before the collections hit the shelves, orders for mass production have to be passed on. And before that, the collections have already been sold to retailers and are therefore completely designed. Clothing brands do not yet know which items (months) later be popular with consumers.

For traditionally operating fashion companies, it can take as long as 9 to 12 months to get a product from the drawing board to the store shelf.

You can read more about it in this article: The fashion industry supply chain and players involved

Fashion companies want to have sufficient stock so as not to miss out on sales. For this reason, overproduction is the norm in the fashion industry. Companies produce more clothing than there is demand for - and will sell. “In fact, companies simply order too much from manufacturers,” explained journalist Emy Demkes.

High volumes generally lead to lower production prices and that also promotes overproduction.

“Order size is a decisive factor when it comes to price,” explained clothing manufacturer Workingmenblues previously to FashionUnited. “The bigger the order, the more you can negotiate a lower price.”

Read more here: This is how a clothing brand’s collection is created

And a low price is one of the most important things for most fashion companies (see box below). This way, clothing brands can market its products for the lowest possible price and there is a good profit margin (the amount they earn when selling the garment).

Ultimately, the fashion industry is all about making money. Independent fashion researcher Natascha van der Velden recently told Dutch newspaper Trouw that, barring exceptions, the fashion industry is "only about growing sales and profits".

In the fashion industry, companies compete on 'novelties', but also on price

Price competition has been going on for decades. Our clothes have become increasingly cheaper. Most clothing production has been moved to countries with lower production costs, such as China and Bangladesh. Fashion companies have also started making more clothing from cheaper materials, such as polyester.

With the rise of fast fashion companies and discounters where a T-shirt is on the shelves for the bottom price of five euros or sometimes as little as three euros, price competition in the sector has further intensified.

Some say that the sector does not sell a product, but a price. This refers to the sell-out culture prevalent in the fashion industry. The huge amount of clothes being marketed contributes negatively to this. There is an oversupply of clothing.

Source: article "Is this 'Fast Fashion'?" by fashion economist Rens Tap, which he originally wrote for Dutch trade organisation Modint in 2015. Recently he updated the article and published it on the association's website in January 2023.

Items are often discounted to sell to consumers (and to make way for the next collections and trends).

Consumers have become accustomed to low prices, a spiral that is difficult to get out of.

Residual stock is a growing problem….

Due to overproduction, some of the clothes made remain unsold. In the Netherlands for instance in 2019, 6 percent of all clothes put on the market were not sold. This ranged from 21 to 49 million pieces.

In 2019, 349 to 802 million garments were marketed in the Netherlands. Of these, 94 percent were sold (32 percent of which were at a discount). 6 percent were not sold, somewhere between 21.3 and 49 million pieces.

Source: Government report 'Research into the way in which the textile chain deals with unused and new textiles' by Rebel Group, dated November 17, 2020. Rebel's adaptation of figures for the marketed clothing from GFK 2019 'Measuring the Dutch Clothing Market Maldini’ in 2019.

Another example: the well-known retail chain H&M had unsold clothing worth four billion US dollars in its warehouse in 2018.

Often, this unsold stock is destroyed. You may remember that H&M and luxury brand Burberry came under controversy in 2017 and 2018 when it emerged that they deliberately destroyed unsold, but still usable clothing ?

An important reason for fashion brands to destroy new clothes is to avoid disrupting their own market. After all, they want to sell new clothes to you again soon. Another reason is that clothing brands want to protect their image. Leftover stock sometimes goes to outlets. Another option is to donate. “But how would a Burberry customer feel if she saw her brand - let's say - among a different target group?”

You can read more about it here:

…just like the amount of discarded textiles

The amount of discarded clothing is also increasing.

Overproduction encourages overconsumption

”Overproduction feeds overconsumption feeds overproduction,” writes Vandoorne in 'Wardrobe Fasting'. The continuously changing range, collections and trends - and at those low prices - encourages consumers' appetite for buying. And those eager buying consumers in turn encourage the industry, and so on.

The essence of fashion is that it continually reinvents itself. And that is attractive to us, because our brain is focused on the new and the unknown, Vandoorne quotes psychology professor Carolyn Mair in 'Kleerkastvasten'. Dopamine, one of the happiness hormones, is released when we interact with new experiences or things. This substance gives us a feeling of reward. Vandoorne added: “But instead of feeling good and fulfilled, we crave more. Marketers use this knowledge, but sometimes also abuse it. (..) It explains the insatiable nature of consumerism and our urge to keep buying new clothes.”

and contributes to the culture of disposable fashion, where garments are quickly purchased and thrown away.

“We have too many clothes, so we also just discard them en masse,” begins Vandoorne on the end of life issue. “We sell it through Vinted or put it in the container.” Especially with the latter, people think they are doing something good 'because maybe we will help people in Africa by doing that'. In reality, your discarded clothes pass through many hands who make money from them and eventually they end up on markets with second-hand textile traders.”

At Ghana's second-hand Kantamanto Market, for example, traders are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living because there is a surplus and the quality of some clothes is too poor. Every week, 15 million garments enter the market and an estimated 40 percent remain. Some goes to landfills, some is burnt (causing a lot of air pollution) and some disappears into waterways and the sea. As a result, Ghana's beaches are full of clothes that have washed up. The same thing is going on in Senegal, Vandoorne says.

Moreover, it is not only beaches that are polluted. In Chile's Atacama Desert for example, there are mountains of discarded clothing.

In Chile, there is a lot of trade in second-hand clothing. Traders import unwanted clothing - mainly from Europe and the US - to resell locally and in other Latin American countries. Yet more than half of the 60,000 tonnes of clothing imported each year ends up in illegal landfills in the desert, negatively impacting the environment and local communities. NB: this desert is mainly home to never-worn textiles.

The images of the desert hit the news in December 2021, and later, in August 2022, it was announced that the Chilean environmental court would investigate the impact of discarded clothing in the Atacama Desert. The lawyer who brought the case speaks of “negligence and guilty omission” where “the ecosystem of a very valuable region is damaged”, Knack reported at the time.

Several sites around the world are being used as landfills, with all the ecological consequences that entails.

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A mountain of clothes in the Chilean desert (Alto Hospicio, in northern Chile). The photo was taken on April 19, 2022. Credit: TAKAYUKI FUCHIGAMI Yomiuri The Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP

Overproduction (and the waste that comes with it) is of course at odds with sustainability.

What about recycling?

Landfilling or incineration can in some cases be cheaper and/or easier than recycling. Recycling clothing currently takes place on a relatively small scale. Recycled fibres accounted for 8.9 percent of all raw materials for textile production in 2021. That is a small increase compared to 2020 when the share was 8.4 percent.

The increase was mainly due to recycled polyester, the Textile Exchange reported in its 'Preferred Fibre and Materials Market Report 2022' report. But beware, recycled polyester is usually made from old plastic bottles. Old clothes are rarely made into new clothes: they were made in less than 1 percent (!) of cases in the year 2021, according to Textile Exchange.

In positive news, efforts are underway to improve and increase the scale of the clothing recycling process. For example, the sustainability organisation Fashion for Good regularly sets up recycling projects. And do you know the Belgian company Resortecs? The company develops technologies for the efficient recycling of textiles on an industrial scale. Another great development is that in August 2022 the first commercial textile-to-textile recycling plant was opened by Renewcell, a Swedish recycling company specialising in recycling textile waste into raw material for new fibres.

2. Impact on the environment: how does clothing production harm the environment?

The traditional fashion industry is organised in a linear way. This is a system based on the "take-make-waste" model, which works as follows:
Fashion companies take new raw materials (such as cotton), make a garment with it (such as a T-shirt) and sell it to consumers, who wear it and throw it away.

Source: Guest contribution ‘'Sustainability clarified: Why everyone is talking about the circular economy as a solution' by Jasmien Wynants for FashionUnited.

One of the problems with this model is that it results in huge amounts of textile waste and pollution (as explained in section 1).

Another problem is that the fashion industry is a large consumer of raw materials. Raw materials are becoming scarcer, and the industry is depleting resources and burdening the environment with its production.

Today, “two-thirds of our clothes are made from fossil fuels”, says Vandoorne. “And more than half of our clothing is made of polyester.”

The synthetic fibre polyester, the most widely used material in the fashion industry, is made from petroleum. The production process of polyester is energy-intensive and generates significant greenhouse gas emissions, which contributes to climate change. In addition, harmful chemicals such as solvents are often used during the production of polyester, which leads to water pollution, among other things. Furthermore, there is another major disadvantage: plastic pollution.

During the production process and later also in the use phase, polyester garments release tiny parts of plastic, known as microplastics. As many as 1,900 microfibres can come off one synthetic garment, such as polyester or acrylic, for example, per wash. Worldwide, as many as 35 percent of all microplastics released into the environment can be traced to textile products. And it’s not just plastic soup. Microplastics have been found in our drinking water and food and the human body.

Read all about it here: What the fashion industry has to do with microplastics pollution (and everything you need to know about EU initiatives to tackle microplastics)

Natural raw materials also have an ecological footprint. Take the cultivation of cotton, a popular natural raw material. It requires large amounts of water for irrigation, leading to (huge amounts of) water wastage and depletion of natural water resources, especially in arid regions. In addition, pesticides and fertilisers are often used, harming biodiversity and polluting the water and soil ecosystem.

And raw materials are just the beginning. Yarns are made from raw materials, fabrics are made from yarns, and the garment is made from fabrics. And somewhere along the production process the fibres, yarn, fabric or garment are dyed. It is estimated that dye is involved in 95 percent of cases.

Garments are almost always coloured. Adding colour can be done by dyeing and printing. "In 95 percent of cases, colour is involved," estimated fashion professional Monique Wertheym.

We interviewed Wertheym for the background article 'From fibre to garment' where the 'technical structure' of your garment is described.

Dyeing is very polluting: Water consumption and pesticides are major issues

The dyeing part is very polluting. A lot of water is needed for the dyes to do their work. The chemicals used in dyeing are often toxic and can affect the health of workers. In addition, the chemicals are typically dumped into the environment as a waste product, directly into water streams. In the countries where our clothes are dyed and/or finished, whole bodies of water are coloured blue or red by dyes.

For example, look at the documentary: River Blue

The documentary follows international conservationist Mark Angelo who shows the consequences of the clothing industry on rivers. Credit: River Blue (January 2018)

Vandoorne saw with her own eyes what happens when 'textile dyers discharge chemicals and heavy metals into waterways'. “We saw foam on the Citarum River in Indonesia,” she says. “I have photos where the water is purple. And my colleague who hung above the boiling hot runoff vapour to take the photos contracted a respiratory infection.”
In addition, there is the social aspect of the environmental problem, she adds: “It means that many people in Indonesia can’t get clean water. They have to pay a lot for it, but in some communities that money is not available at all.”

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Image illustrating cotton cultivation. Photo: Mr-Location-Scout for Pexels.com

At the same time, new, innovative materials are being developed and brought into use in the fashion industry. Several companies and designers are looking at newer, more sustainable dyeing techniques.

The company MycoTex, for example, is developing textiles from mycelium, the root of mushrooms. This raw material grows in the lab and is biodegradable.

Among other sustainable textile innovations, there are textiles made from shrimps, 'salmon leather' or 'cactus leather'.

The project 'Living Colour' by Ilfa Siebenhaar and Laura Luchtman is a good example of 'responsible dyeing' using bacteria. And Fabulous Fungi uses color pigments from fungi.

Read more in the article series: 'Sustainable textile innovations'

3. The impact on people

Our clothing is mass-produced on the other side of the world, in so-called low-wage countries such as Bangladesh. As the term already makes clear, people in these countries earn little.

Often, garment workers are not paid a living wage. This means they do not earn enough to meet their basic needs. For example, in Bangladesh, one of the largest textile producing countries in the world, the minimum monthly wage for a garment worker has been 72 euros per month since 2018. “One bright spot is that wages have risen since Rana Plaza (more on that later, ed.), but unfortunately still not to a livable level,” Vandoorne writes in 'Kleerkastvasten'. A living wage in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, would be 393 euros, as calculated by Asia Floor Wage.

Poor labour compensation is why most garment workers work endlessly long hours (usually voluntarily, sometimes forced) and rarely taking time off.

But, clothing labour is not long-lived, Vandoorne describes. “The physical work is so intensive that it is not common to continue stitching clothes after the age of 50, 40 or even 30.” In the academic portfolio and the book ‘The Sweatshop Regime’ by economist Alessandra Mezzadri, textile workers are described as labouring bodies, says Vandoorne. She thinks this term is crude, "but it makes clear how their bodies are used as part of the supply chain to perform physical work, almost anonymously, without being recognised for it." People perform the same tasks all day long, in the same position, such as inserting zippers, making buttonholes or stitching back panels, for example.

This is seen as the most efficient way of working and often also has a practical reason: there is usually a machine for one type of finishing or operation.

You can read more about it in this article: 'The supply chain in the fashion industry and players involved'

According to Mezzadri, this leads to both physical and mental stress and complaints ranging from back pain to visual impairment, according to Vandoorne.

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Image: clothing factory, Ciawi, Bogor, West Java, Indonesia, published on October 27, 2020, Unsplash License. Photo by Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash.

The working environment in the clothing industry often leaves much to be desired in terms of health and safety

Working in clothing factories is not always safe. In some factories, fire safety is inadequate, electrical wiring is unsafe and health and safety training for workers is minimal. And that increases the risk of accidents.

The Rana Plaza disaster is a tragic example of the safety problems in garment factories. On April 24, 2013, a garment factory called Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring thousands of others. For the sake of completeness, the Rana Plaza collapse can be traced to a combination of factors, including corruption, construction violations and disregard for safety standards.
Corruption and negligence played a role in this tragedy.

The Bangladesh Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has charged 17 people for violating rules during the construction of Rana Plaza. ACC spokesman Pranab Kumar Bhattachajee told Reuters at the time: “Our investigation found that they grossly breached building regulations.”

Originally, the Rana Plaza building was for shops and offices. Additional floors were added to accommodate garment factories. “Municipal authorities approved additional floors in the building, but they did not have that authority,” the ACC spokesperson told Reuters.

The swampy ground was also not suitable for such a large building. The use of heavy machinery in the factories increased the load on the building's structure. 'Substandard' materials were also used during construction.

The day before the collapse, cracks were discovered and the building was evacuated, but workers were forced - “either directly by their superiors or indirectly through the pressure to earn a daily wage,” according to CNN - to return to their workplace the next day.

Read also:

  • Owner Rana Plaza faces the death penalty (June 2015)
  • > persons charged with murder in Rana Plaza case (December 2015)
  • > u> (June 2014)

But this disaster brought worldwide attention to the unsafe working conditions to which many garment workers are exposed.

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Image: Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. Image: Rijans via Flickr Creative Commons

“On April 24, during the commemoration of the disaster, journalists asked about our experiences. But what do our answers yield? So many years later, nothing has changed,” former garment worker Nulifar told Vandoorne in Bangladesh. She survived the disaster but suffers from health problems that prevent her from working and trauma.

There are workers who still work in unsafe conditions. Accidents also still happen regularly, 'such as boilers exploding', says Vandoorne.

Unsafe conditions also include abuse of power and (sexual) harassment, bullying and/or blackmail. Also, forced labour and child labour still occur in the fashion industry.

Things have improved since Rana Plaza. This is partly due to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. It is a binding agreement between clothing brands, trade unions and NGOs to improve safety and working conditions. It includes a series of measures and obligations, including regular inspections of factories by independent experts.

There are also factories that treat their workers “like family,” says Simone Preuss, sustainability journalist at FashionUnited. “GSSL in Bangladesh for example.”

Read more here: 'Ten years after the Rana Plaza disaster: Where is the industry now?' (You can read all about the Bangladesh agreement in this article, plus the Pakistan Agreement and International Agreement).

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GSSL in Bangladesh. Photo: Sumit Suryawanshi for FashionUnited.

Why are working conditions sometimes so bad in poorer countries where our clothing is produced?

Large clothing companies have a lot of power. They can choose where they have their clothes made and because of the price competition in the sector (see box in section 1), they often look for places where people earn little. These poorer countries sometimes lack strict legislation aimed at protecting labour rights and working conditions in the clothing industry.

Sometimes there is legislation, but limited enforcement. Governments lack the resources, capacity or will to ensure compliance with labour rights, leaving factories free to continue unethical practices. When it comes to will, it can be traced back to the economy. The clothing industry is often an important source of income for these countries. Bangladesh, for example, is heavily dependent on the textile industry and a significant portion of the clothing produced in the country is intended for export, mainly to Europe. Governments, like the Bengal one, therefore have an interest in a prosperous industry.

As you now know, corruption can also play a role. The lack of transparency in the supply chain can also contribute to the ineffective enforcement of legislation (see box below).

Furthermore; due to poverty in manufacturing countries, people often have few choices but to accept work under poor conditions to earn a living. Finally, there is often little or no access to trade unions and/or collective bargaining, leaving garment workers unable to improve their working conditions or demand better wages. In short, garment workers are in a vulnerable position.

The production chain in the fashion industry is often complex and non-transparent. Here’s how it works:

A fashion company issues a production order to a supplier. This supplier, often a manufacturer, can then choose to outsource certain parts of the production process to other companies, which are referred to as sub-suppliers or subcontractors. The reasons for outsourcing to sub-suppliers are diverse. It allows manufacturers and suppliers to specialise in certain aspects of production, leverage specialised skills or increase efficiency by distributing production. However, this makes it difficult to maintain full visibility of the entire production chain and to ensure that all parties involved comply with ethical and sustainability standards.

This was also something that emerged at Rana Plaza. “Fashion brands claimed that their clothes were not made there,” said Vandoorne. “But clothing labels from the brands were found in the rubble. Their clothes were indeed made in the collapsed factory. That could mean that these fashion brands have so little control over their supply chain that they don't even know where their clothes actually come from," Vandoorne explains. “And that is actually even more problematic than if they were to lie about it.”

(Over the past 10 years, transparency has become more important in the industry. More fashion companies and organisations have become committed to promoting transparency. )
Retraced for example, facilitates blockchain technology that allows fashion and textile companies to track their products and fibres and share this information with relevant stakeholders. The German company was founded in 2018, a year later it won an award, and in the pandemic year 2020 it onboarded 40 fashion companies and secured a large investment.

Journalist Simone Preuss added: "A few years ago, blockchain technology for transparency was 'nice to have'. Now it is more of a 'must have' because it saves money and makes working easier in times of crisis (Covid has that has been demonstrated)."

But beware, Vandoorne stresses that most workers she spoke to find their job difficult, but above all are happy that they have work and receive a salary . Something Preuss confirms. “Especially women,” she says. “This way they contribute to the family income and can postpone their wedding for a few years.”

Vandoorne also points out how environmental and social issues sometimes 'contradict or even work against each other'. She talks about how a factory in Indonesia was closed due to environmental problems and its workers were fired. “But that was a place where, relatively speaking, there were quite a few unions at work and wages were therefore slightly higher.” One of the former garment workers who had now found a new, but lower-paying job, said in conversation with Vandoorne: “How am I supposed to feed my family now?”

Van Doorne is therefore careful not to portray garment workers too much as victims. In her book she writes,“Garment workers and their children are not victims. They participate in an unequal system that has not valued that labour for centuries.”

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Image: textile workers. Credit: Clean Clothes Campaign, an organisation that fights to improve working conditions and the position of workers in the global clothing industry.

4. We end on a positive note

More focus on sustainability and the legislation that is coming

In an industry that revolves around profit maximisation, fortunately - and desperately needed - there is increasing attention to people and the environment.

“It's nice to see that sustainability is on the agenda these days in the fashion industry," Dutch sustainability expert Willa Stoutenbeek told Het Parool. “For about two years now, as a brand, you really can't ignore it anymore.” Many companies are 'going green'.

Sustainability is also on the agenda in politics and legislation is in the making:

On July 1, 2023, the ‘Uitgebreide Producenten Verantwoordelijkheid Textiel’ (UPV) legislation , (which translates to Extended Producer Responsibility for Textiles in English), went into effect in the Netherlands. It is reminiscent of the 'polluter pays' principle. The UPV makes textile manufacturers responsible for the collection, sorting, recycling, reuse and waste phase of products they develop. Vandoorne said: “The goal is that the products are not lost after use to reduce the environmental impact.”

There will also be a Due Diligence law at the European level, which is best explained as 'duty of care legislation'. This law requires companies to investigate their production chain and improve abuses. This includes both environmental and human rights violations. Vandoorne added: “This way, companies will also become responsible for the employees of their suppliers.”

In addition, there are also inspiring (more sustainable) fashion companies that are taking a radically differently approach.

A great example is the young Amsterdam-based company New Optimist. The clothing brand works socially, locally and circularly and, according to its founders, is about 'making clothes'. The company is transparent. The Amsterdam production studio (the NO Clothing Factory) shows how the clothes are made.

New Optimist is steward-owned. Meaning the business model excludes profit maximisation and olaces the company’s (social) mission at the heart of the business.

Another unique thing: the clothing brand introduced a new deposit system in September 2023 to encourage customers to return their garments after use. New Optimist is working on a recycling programme to turn worn garments - preferably locally - into new yarn or fabric. A company to keep an eye on.

Also read the article: 'Break the pattern: The clothing brands that throw trends and seasons overboard'

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Image illustrating the dark side of the fashion industry. Resale company Vestiaire Collective shared this image when it announced in November 2022 that it would ban fast fashion brands from the platform. Credit: Vestiaire Collective.

Vandoorne concludes our call with the following: “It is important that we know the story (of how (not) sustainable the fashion industry operates), but we shouldn’t become despondent about it either. What we can do as consumers is call out, ask questions and encourage change.” She believes that 'every little bit helps,' referring to creating more sustainable choices. Because, as citizens, we can make an impact together.

Conscious consumers struggle with fashion and sustainability. On that she says, “We consumers can’t do it perfectly and, above all, we should not wear everything. Ultimately, it is the industry that must change, under government leadership.”

Editors note / Disclaimer: There is much more to be said about fashion and sustainability. To keep the background piece somewhat manageable, we will discuss a number of major themes.

It is good to know that the fashion industry is struggling with insufficient information when it comes to sustainability. Vox.com and De Correspondent wrote interesting articles about this and I personally experienced it when collecting statistics about the fashion industry and writing background articles like this one.

Vox.com article 'Fashion has a misinformation problem. That’s bad for the environment' van Alden Wicker, 31 January 2020.

De Correspondent article 'Wrong figures have been spread about the fashion industry for years. Stop that' by Emy Demkes, January 18, 2021 (reading tips)

For example, a widespread claim regarding sustainability is that the fashion industry is the most polluting industry in the world after oil. This claim is still going around (even in the clothing sector itself), but has since been refuted, says Vandoorne.

American journalist Alden Wicker is the one who announced in 2017 that there was no basis, research or data for the claim, she published in the article 'We have no idea how bad fashion actually is for the environment' on Racked.com. That same year, Wicker wrote for EcoCult that the textile industry might be the fifth most polluting industry, although she questions that herself, Vandoorne explained in 'Kleerkastvasten'.

In 2018, it is The New York Times that causes it to become much more widely known that the claim second most polluting industry is false. The American newspaper called it ‘The Biggest Fake News in Fashion’.

Exactly how polluting the fashion industry is remains to be seen. Wicker published in January 2022 the article ‘Fashion Is Not the 2nd Most Polluting Industry After Oil. But What Is It?’ (Reading tip)

For many matters regarding sustainability, the results of different studies or sources give slightly different figures or percentages. There are also often wide margins. Just look at the bandwidth of the number of new garments produced annually (100 or 150 billion is a significant difference) and that of the number of unsold pieces on the Dutch fashion market (somewhere between 21 and 49 million pieces). That is why we have left out so many figures in this article.

A campaign by Fashion Revolution, the global organisation that advocates more transparency and fair working conditions in the fashion industry. Credit: Fashion Revolution newsroom

- Interview with Belgian journalist and sustainable fashion expert Sarah Vandoorne on May 15, 2023
- The book ‘Kleerkastvasten, de textielketen ontrafeld’ by Sarah Vandoorne, April 19, 2023
- Input from Simone Preuss, sustainability journalist FashionUnited, June 5, 2023
- The article series 'Sustainability clarified' by Belgian sustainability expert Jasmien Wynants for FashionUnited, from 2022-23
- Het Parool article 'Brainwashed by fashion brands: 'Sustainable clothing should be the norm instead of a rack in the store' by Esther Muller, June 9, 2022
- De Correspondent article 'Fast fashion is everyone's favourite scapegoat, but that is not always justified', by Emy Demkes, November 26, 2021
- Trouw article 'Ten years after Rana Plaza: has anything improved in the clothing industry?' from Roy op het Veld, April 9, 2023
- Modint article "Is this 'Fast Fashion'?" by fashion economist Rens Tap that he wrote for the trade organisation in 2015 and updated in August 2022.
- Dutch Government report 'Unused textiles', research commissioned by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management conducted by Rebel Group, by Michiel Kort, Reinier van der Vusse and Maxine van Grootel, September 4, 2020
- The New York Times article 'H&M, a Fashion Giant, Has a Problem: $4.3 Billion in Unsold Clothes' by Elizabeth Paton, 27 March 2018
- European Parliament Briefing 'Environmental impact of the textile and clothing sector: what consumers need to know', January 19, 2019
- Plastic Soup Foundation Position Paper 'Microfibre release from clothes after washing: Hard facts, figures and promising solutions', May 2017
- Textile Exchange report ‘Preferred Fibre and Materials Market’, October 2022
- Reuters article 'Bangladesh accuses 17 over garment factory collapse', by Reuters staff, June 15, 2014
- CNN article '10 years after Rana Plaza, is Bangladesh’s garment industry any safer?' van Oscar Holland, 23 April 2023
- Articles from the FashionUnited archive by journalists Esmerij van Loon, Anne Buis, Vivian Hendriksz, Regina Henkel, Don-Alvin Adegeest, Simone Preuss, Sylvana Lijbaart, Caitlyn Terra, Nora Veerman and May-Anne Oltmans (the original publications are mostly linked in the article text)
- Parts of this article text were generated using an artificial intelligence (AI) tool and then edited.

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Fashion Education
Fast fashion
Living wage
Sustainable Fashion
Textile Waste
textile workers