Word Context
While the fossil fuel industry remains a notorious contributor to escalating carbon emissions and rising temperatures, the fashion sector’s significant environmental and social impact must also be thoroughly examined to shift towards a just and sustainable future. To “defashion” is to combat the fashion industry’s role in the climate crisis and its exploitative labor practices by dismantling it entirely and transitioning to regenerative and fair clothing systems. According to a 2021 study published by the World Resources Institute, the fashion industry is responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions. Fast fashion, which refers to the cheap and quick production and distribution of garments imitating the latest trends from catwalks and influencer culture, is part of an environmentally destructive and exploitative industry. The most notable names in fast fashion include Zara, H&M, and Shein. The mass overproduction of clothing leads to enormous amounts of waste, with 53 million metric tons of clothing sent to landfills or incineration every year. A majority of the fibers found in fast fashion are made of polyester, which is a plastic derived from fossil fuels that break down into tiny microplastics contaminating oceans and lakes, ultimately harming marine ecosystems and human health.

Not only is the fashion industry a major polluter, using cheap, toxic textile dyes and emitting microplastics into the oceans, it also heavily exploits garment workers in the Global South for cheap labor. To defashion is to recognize that the continuation of the fashion industry depends on exploitation. Defashion proposes alternative clothing systems that are self-organized and free from the hegemonic nature of the globalized fashion system. The fashion industry has intentionally moved its labor to vulnerable, low-income Asian countries such as Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines and employs impoverished women to avoid paying living wages. According to the Oxfam 2019 report, 0% of Bangladeshi garment workers and only 1% of Vietnamese garment workers were paid a living wage. By not earning a liveable wage, exploited garment workers are struggling to escape poverty and dangerous working conditions, as well as advocate for their basic human rights. A report in 2018 revealed that the fashion supply chain is the second largest supporter of modern slavery, after the tech industry. The fashion industry relies on labor exploitation, overproduction, and sacrifice zones, and this includes indigenous, independent clothing makers and their culture. Defashion implies ensuring the space for ancient crafts and designs by recognizing that they are valuable and viable alternatives to the globalized fashion system. Defashion is about decolonizing the definition and understanding of fashion.

In recent years, growing awareness of the environmental and human cost of the fashion sector has seen more demand for ethical and sustainable fashion. Unfortunately, many large fashion brands are guilty of greenwashing by falsely promoting sustainable initiatives. In July 2021, the not-for-profit Changing Markets Foundation reported that 59% of all green claims by European and UK fashion brands are misleading. For example, fast fashion giant H&M launched an in-store recycling machine on Earth Day in 2021, but produces 3 billion garments each year. Promoting sustainable campaigns is not enough—defashion argues for a paradigmatic shift towards a Post-Fashion future. Purchasing the latest sustainable collection will not erase the throw-away culture inherent in hyperconsumerism. Defashion points to the inability of the fashion industry to degrow and divorce itself from environmental harm and erasure of traditional indigenous knowledge.

Fashion Act Now (FAN), an independent campaign group that originated from Extinction Rebellion, urges the fashion sector to dismantle and radically reimagine its entire industry that is predicated on growth, exploitation, and sacrifice zones. Uli Artha Panggabean, a traditional Batak weaver from North Sumatra, Indonesia shares her story with FAN’s Sandra Niessen in her short film. Uli urges for more regulations and copyright protection for her textile designs that the fashion industry uses without her consent and financial compensation. She is one of many indigenous makers who are forced to work in a system that disrespects her rich textile inheritance and cultural knowledge. The fashion system erodes indigenous clothing systems and is unsustainable—harming vulnerable communities and ecosystems. Niessen reminds us that, “Clothing is a human universal, while fashion is specific to only some cultures,” and that decolonizing fashion means honoring clothing diversity.

As a consumer and clothing wearer: What does decolonized fashion mean to you? Are there local designers and indigenous artisans that you can support? What comes to mind when you think of “defashion”?

Citations pending revision.

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