How much do you know about the behind-the-scenes world of the garment industry?

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Fashion is a part of just about everybody’s lives, as we all wear clothes. Unfortunately it is also a source of   much abuse, both of people and the environment.

All over the world garment workers are being exploited. These people work in appalling conditions for very little money, so we can buy our clothing at “bargain” prices.

It is a well-known fact that the fashion industry is responsible for much ecological havoc. Deforestation either to create fabrics such as viscose or rayon, or to make space for other fabric-producing crops such as cotton, excessive water consumption by those crops (1500 litres go into the cotton plants that produce one T-shirt), fertilizer leeching into ground water, ditto chemicals used in the production of fabric, run-off dyes polluting whole rivers, waste fabric and discarded clothing clogging landfill…. The list goes on.

Indonesian river polluted by dye

A river in Indonesia polluted by run off dye from a textile factory

Non eco friendly textiles on landfill

Textiles on a landfill in America

As the shadow of climate change looms ever darker, the clothing industry is seriously having to consider its contribution to pollution, the proliferation of greenhouse gasses, and global warming.

Fortunately, across the globe, concerned fashion practitioners are trying to find innovative ways not only to offset the effects of fashion on the planet, but also improve working conditions within the industry.

We at Elizabeth Galloway feel strongly about fostering sustainable, ethical fashion, and want to encourage and equip our students to make a positive difference out there.

So what is being done right now, and by whom?

 1. Fashion-specific awareness campaigns

Eco friendly Out of Fashion campaign

Rainforest Action Network (RAN) is an organization who has launched “Out of Fashion”, a campaign naming companies that use textiles made by dissolving pulp from trees, and demanding they commit to removing forest destruction and human rights abuses from their supply chains.

Eco friendly Who Made My Clothes campaign

In the wake of the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in which 1129 garment workers were killed and 2500 injured, Fashion Revolution started the “Who Made My Clothes” campaign to raise awareness of the plight of workers and improve standards of safety as well as general working conditions. The 24th of April has been designated as world-wide Fashion Revolution Day, commemorating the catastrophe and serving as a further call to action.

2. Promote the use of sustainable fabrics

Synthetic or man-made material from petrochemicals such as nylon and polyester justifiably have a bad reputation, but not all natural fibres are perfect either.

Eco friendly Cotton as natural fibre

Cotton is still the most widely used fabric in the clothing industry, but is not at all ecologically friendly. Organically grown cotton is a step in the right direction, but there are other sources of textile out there that have fewer harmful effects as well as more positive qualities.

Wool is a natural fabric with many desirable attributes, but being of animal origin, its use gives rise to moral and ethical considerations, as for that matter, does silk. An alternative is milk protein, from which a synthetic fabric with a pH similar to that of human skin can be manufactured. Although this fabric is not very durable and wrinkles easily, it dyes well, is fully bio-degradable and is a renewable resource. “Qmilch” was developed by German fashion designer and micro-biologist Anke Domaske.

Eco friendly Anke Domaske

Anke Domaske with dresses made from “Qmilch”

Viable cellulose (plant) fibres for the fashion industry, include rayon and tencel (from wood pulp and so to be avoided); linen and bamboo (both of which require harsh chemical processes); and soy and hemp which would appear to be the best options. Soy, however, requires a fair amount of pesticides, while hemp requires none.

Eco friendly Hemp plantation

Hemp plantation

Many countries including South Africa prohibit the cultivation of industrial hemp because of fears that it could somehow encourage the use of cannabis. Fortunately change is starting to happen, as this truly is a miracle crop which can be used as food, clothing, building material, packaging and many other purposes. Canada is one country with a well-established hemp clothing industry. In South Africa a six year exclusive permit was granted to House of Hemp to establish the industry, and some beautiful but expensive fabric was manufactured. As the permit expired in 2016, we are awaiting further developments. Designers creating demand for the product would probably help speed things up, as well as drive down the price.

eco friendly Hemporium Cape Town

Hemporium is a Cape Town company that produces and sells a range of hemp clothing.

3. Eco-friendly manufacturing processes

Eco friendly Levi

In 2011, Levi’s re-thought the finishing processes of their jeans so as to use up to 96% less water. The aim is to manufacture 80% of their apparel in this way by 2020.

Fabric dye is a big culprit in the pollution of increasingly scarce water resources. Synthetic dyes contain harmful toxins, including heavy metals such as chrome, copper and zinc (all known carcinogens). These get into our ground water, and affect the food we eat. It also flows into the oceans and contaminate marine life to the extent that some seafood is becoming unsafe for human consumption.

Eco friendly Organically dyed yarn

Organically dyed yarn

There is an upsurge in interest in ancient and traditional practises, including the manufacture and use of organic dyes. Numerous plants, vegetables and herbs can be used to create biodegradable, non-toxic colorants, and Elizabeth Galloway students can experiment with this method.


Colorep, an American company, has patented AirDye®, a process which applies colour to fabric without the use of water. Fabrics dyed with this technology have been used by New York designers Costello Tagliapietra in their Spring/Summer 2010 runway collection.

Eco friendly Costello Tagliapietra SS2010

Costello Tagliapietra SS2010

 4. Reducing waste

There are two approaches towards this goal, namely pre-consumer and post-consumer.

Pre-consumer waste reduction centres on Zero waste design, in other words designing garments in such a way that no or very little fabric needs to be cut away from a piece of cloth (normal design generates 15-20% fabric waste). Traditional costumes such as the kimono, sari, chiton and kilt are good examples of this, but contemporary designers such as Claire McCardell and Zandra Rhodes have also experimented with the technique.

Eco friendly Skunkfunk zero waste fashion
Eco friendly Skunkfunk zero waste fashion

A design by Skunkfunk, a brand that specializes in Zero-waste fashion. Originating in the Basque region in Northern Spain, they now have stores on all continents except Africa.

Another method is to utilize offcuts in other designs, such as this one, also by Skunkfunk

Eco friendly Post-consumer waste design

Post-consumer waste design utilizes the remnants of the fashion cycle to produce new garments from second hand or surplus goods. Martin Margiela is an exponent of this approach. This leather jacket was created out of surplus belts.

Eco friendly Post-consumer waste design
Eco friendly Vivian Westwood preaches

Vivian Westwood, famous designer and climate change activist preaches the waste hierarchy consisting of the three ‘R’s’ – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. She urges consumers to buy less clothing, but of better quality and classic cut, so that garments last longer.

5. Fairtrade

Eco friendly Fairtrade company

Fairtrade is an ethical certification whose main aim is to promote more equality and sustainability in the farming sector. Fairtrade standards are rigorous, and focus on improving labour and living conditions for farming communities and on promoting a way of farming that doesn’t harm either people or the environment.

Produce carrying the Fairtrade mark include coffee, tea, wine, chocolate and cotton. Cosmetics, jewelry, handbags, sneakers and textiles are also covered.

There are 35 Fairtrade-certified apparel brands. Most of them are based in the USA, UK and Canada, and there are also a couple in Australia and Cambodia. South Africa, to our shame, have none.

People Tree,  the first apparel company to be Fairtrade-certified, brought out this collection in collaboration with actress Emma Watson.

Eco friendly Emma Watson collection for people tree