Sustainable Production Proves Vital in the Future of Asia’s Textile Industry

The economic repercussions of COVID-19 have halted rampant consumerism. In particular, the fast fashion industry has incurred tremendous losses. With nowhere to go and no one to see, formerly avid fast fashion consumers aren’t stocking up on the latest, cheapest trends from huge brands such as Zara and H&M. The pandemic, coupled with fears about fast fashion’s environmental degradation, could cripple the industry.

Despite negative environmental implications, many Southeast Asian countries have built their entire economies on the textile industry, catering mostly to fast fashion. Valued at $2.4 trillion and employing over 75 million people, Southeast Asia’s textile industry must adapt in order to weather the pandemic and reduce its impact on climate change. Implementing innovative and sustainable methods of production is critical to the future of Southeast Asian economies and the planet.  

To evade the costs of fair wages and high taxes, companies relocate production to countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam, where environmental and labor regulations are more relaxed. Companies that constantly seek cheap labor and lax regulations have disastrous consequences for the environment, but have also laid the economic foundations for developing countries in Southeast Asia. Textiles make up 80% of Bangladesh’s total exports. Textile production hubs in Taiwan have also developed into higher value sectors, as these countries open up to foreign trade and adopt new technologies. The industry in Indonesia employs as many as 4 million workers. 

While fast fashion has industrialized many Southeast Asian countries, it has also promoted exploitation of a vulnerable workforce and the degradation of the environment. The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh and the pollution of freshwater sources are only two out of a myriad reasons for why the industry must change. The Rana Plaza factory was constructed using substandard materials and disregard for building codes, which eventually killed over 1,000 garment workers. The bleaching and dyeing processes in textile production contaminate water with toxic chemicals, endangering aquatic life and poisoning sources of drinking water. 

Fast fashion’s model of production revolves around the notion of “stack-them-high, sell-them-cheap,” pumping out more garments as trends quickly die out. Clothing companies like Zara take only two weeks to transform sketches into garments. The disposable nature of fashion allows approximately 350,000 tons of clothing to crowd landfills in the UK alone, costing the economy over $1 billion. Research by environmental scientists has revealed that one garbage truck worth of clothing is incinerated or sent to landfills every second. The growing global middle class and GDP per capita has doubled fast fashion consumption within the last 15 years. Yet, garments are only worn for half as long. 

In addition to consumer waste, the textile industry’s manufacturing bases are remarkably destructive. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change estimates that the industry is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which they expect to increase to 25% in 2050. The production of one cotton shirt requires 2,700 litres of water, exceeding an individual’s water consumption over a two year span. The pesticides used to treat cotton fields pose a serious health threat to farmers, degrade soil quality and contaminate water. 150 million trees were demolished in 2018 to farm cellulose- and protein-based fibers used in textile production. Viscose fiber, in particular, is the major source of Indonesia’s deforestation. Fast fashion giants like H&M rely on this cheap and durable fiber, with its sourcing contributing to severe untreated water waste and excess levels of toxic carbon disulfide. The combination of polluted air and water and deforestation is lethal as the climate rapidly warms

Storefront closures and dwindling consumer confidence have plummeted fast fashion sales. In the wake of COVID-19, H&M reported a 46% sales decline in March. Bangladesh’s textile industry estimates a $10 billion loss in 2020 as Western retailers continue to cancel mass orders. Overall, ongoing textile manufacturing and a steep drop in consumer demand has led to extraordinary levels of textile waste. Experts worry that, as the economy gradually emerges from the pandemic, excess consumption will ensue, with consumers likely prioritizing affordability over sustainability. Attracting investments back into the Southeast Asian manufacturing bases will likely suspend crucial labor and environmental regulations. 

Pursuing sustainability requires raising consumer awareness and reshaping models of production. Although many name-and-shame campaigns have exposed brands like Nike for exploitative child labor, most consumers tend to neglect this issue due to lack of proximity. Heightened consumer awareness can pressure fast fashion brands to adopt sustainable practices. The slow fashion movement, coined by Kate Fletcher of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, sets an excellent standard for modern consumerism by focusing on the craftsmanship of clothes, opting for more sustainably made garments. 

Shifting the mindsets of consumers is a challenge, but brands marketing new and sustainable practices can attract more demand. Perhaps the latest ‘trend’ can be sustainably made clothing. Normalizing second-hand clothing is necessary to reduce garment waste, as well as dispelling the misconception that purchasing second-hand is unhygienic or tacky. Brands like Rent the Runway have capitalized on the concept of leasing clothing instead of buying and trashing. 

The recent rampage of natural disasters in 2020 has hopefully enlightened consumers to the dangers of large coroporation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, costliness hinders measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions. To combat this, governments can offer brands certain tax incentives that push brands to provide fairer wages and adopt sustainable methods. Governments can also penalize companies who exceed carbon emission limits. The Asia Pacific Rayon (APR) factory in Indonesia is a great example of sustainably sourcing viscose fibers. Recognizing that viscous sourcing contributes to deforestation, APR has committed to sourcing this wood fiber from sustainably-run plantations. 

Moreover, technological innovation in the textile industry can reduce the quantity of garments produced. Computer processes can now calculate the demand of items, significantly shrinking overproduction. Companies must also adopt the circular economy’s four pillared business model: phasing out toxic chemicals and microfibre release, increasing clothing usage, revamping recycling, and effectively using resources and renewable input. Once companies implement these practices, they should market their sustainability commitments, drawing consumers to more ethical labels.  

Millions of lives depend on the fashion fashion industry’s economic base, yet billions of lives depend on the earth’s survival. Legislation coupled with consumer responsibility will transform the textile industry for the better. If the textile industry wishes to stay in business, the next big trend ought to be sustainably-made clothing. 

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Hannah Keenan

Hannah Keenan is junior majoring in International Relations Global Business and minoring in Chinese for the Professions. She was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Growing up in a part-Chinese family, she has always been fascinated by the Chinese language and have been studying it since high school. She loves learning about the financial and legal aspects of international affairs, which she hopes to pursue a career in someday. At USC, Hannah is a member of Delta Phi Epsilon Foreign Service Fraternity and Pi Beta Phi.

hkeenan@usc.edu