13,174 — that’s the number of T-shirt styles, not including blouses, dresses, bottoms or outerwear, from a single online fast-fashion store. And that is just one brand among a sea of thousands.
The scarier part is that that's not even counting the stock for each style and its many color options. Considering that 2,700 liters (713 gallons) of water is needed to produce the cotton to make a single t-shirt, the scale of water needed is astronomical. If we were to make calculations on the very unrealistic hypothesis that each T-shirt was one of a kind, that would mean 35.6 million metric tons of water was used during their production – that is enough to cover the daily water needs of 17.8 million people living on 20 liters a day in countries experiencing extreme drought. If we were to apply that scale to the average daily usage of water in developed countries, which can range anywhere from 350 liters to 800 liters, even at the maximum possible amount, that figure comfortably provides for the water needs of over 44,000 people. It's a bit sickening, isn't it?
"The textile industry is the world’s second-largest polluter. It is responsible for 20% of the global water pollution," said Senem Kula, a designer based in Istanbul, acknowledgingly.
"Just think about it," she said. "This year, we didn’t have the rainfall we expected. If that continues for the years to come, say two or three years in-a-row, first the agriculture sector will cease to exist, then textiles and subsequently all industries will collapse, one by one."
On top of that, there is the issue of pollution. The fashion industry heavily relies on pesticide use, which poisons the soil and our waters, said Kula, adding, "The chemical dyes (used to color garments) uncontrollably mix with clean water sources and pollute them."
Shutting up shop and stopping all production is not the answer, of course. Clothing is a necessity, whether for practical, functional or societal reasons, though to what degree is debatable. However, it is also an undeniable driving force behind economies, and the fashion and textiles industry, including its subindustries, are the livelihoods of 300 million people.
"For the future of humanity, our planet and the industry, we must lay on the table these concerns and discuss. We need to act fast and radically, we don't have much time," she said.
Kula's design story
Kula's foray into the world of fashion and design in 2016 was rather unconventional. Instead of runway shows, she pursued a project with a purpose: to save the dying art of repairing antique carpets and stop a traditional craft from disappearing forever.
Working with one of the last remaining artisans of the craft in Turkey, she learned the intricacies of carpet weaving and, needle by needle, thread by thread, learned to construct one from scratch. Then she incorporated her design skills to dye it using a natural plant dye, indigo.
“Perhaps the old days were when textiles were most functional and creative. Carpet and rug weaving was one of those crafts. Back in the day, they weren’t really considered pieces of ‘design’ but those women were incredible designers," Kula said. Nowadays, she said, most of us can’t even come close to their level and understanding of design.
A year later, she wanted to transcend national boundaries and turned her eye toward Japan. This time, she wanted people to appreciate the dying art of yuzen, which is a resist dyeing technique that uses rice paste.
"I wanted to contribute to reviving a dying cultural value on a global level, not just in Turkey," she said. Kula designed patterns for the traditional Japanese garment kimono, and the artisans there embroidered her creations.
The next year, she dedicated her time to a project where sustainability would be the sole focus.
"It was over 10 years ago when I first heard the word sustainability but, of course, in those times we weren’t feeling (climate change’s) effects as we do now, so there was not much awareness," said Kula, adding that her upbringing, and in particular her mother, played a profound role in the awareness she has today.
In 2018, as part of her entry for the Koza Young Fashion Designers Competition, she made designs out of discarded kiteboard parachutes from the coastal town of Akyaka in southwestern Muğla province.
“They were sitting there idly and were going to be thrown away. I had embarked on this journey to turn them into something of value," she said.
That project laid the foundation for her PLSTC collection, showcased at Istanbul Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in 2019. “What are you wearing?” was the question she was asking consumers this time.
“The synthetic fabric we call polyester comes in many forms, and we see it everywhere. However, it is also one of the most pollutant materials in the textile industry because it releases microplastics into our waters with every wash. Both during production and after in the hands of the end-consumer, it continues to pollute nature, just as other petroleum-based raw materials do," she explained.
Using plastic potato sacks as her fabric, Kula used careful hand workmanship until they no longer resembled what they originally were.
"From the outside, they looked almost haute couture but in essence, it was just a plastic potato sack," she said. Which brings us to this question: How many of you actually read the labels on your clothing?
Kula said she wanted to motivate the consumer to check the composition of the garment they are wearing and start reading labels carefully. That was almost the peak of her activism in the industry – until last year, that is.
"I don’t want my clothes to be made by a 15-year-old child or someone working in a facility whose safety and security has not been ensured," said Kula. She recalled the 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse.
"When the (eight-story) Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh, 1,134 workers lost their lives. Among the rubble, we saw the labels of the brands we know and wear today," she said of the day that went down as a dark day in the fashion industry. The event became a turning point in the industry, sparking the Fashion Revolution movement.
Kula explained: "It is a movement working for transparency in the fashion supply chain. Its manifesto reflects that. It's: we love fashion, but we don't want our clothes to come at the cost of people or our planet, and we demand action, now." It's a movement she strongly supports.
"People used to work in unsafe environments because of the cheap production pressure brought by fast fashion. Unfortunately, they were a cog in the wheel of fashion's unfair and economically unequal world," she said.
The sad thing is, Kula said, people have died just so we can wear a T-shirt, and more continue to die.
"It's high time we questioned these practices in the industry. That’s why in my future collections, in every single one, I want to show the overlooked side of the industry: the manufacturers. Behind that glamorous glitzy front, I want to show the faces, the people who make your clothes, who pour their hard work and sweat into making them," she said.
The root cause of the problems our planet faces today – economic, cultural, social and ecological – is humans, said Kula.
"The climate crisis, water shortage, chemical pollution, waste management, modern slavery ... how agricultural lands are used, our diminishing resources, ethical approaches to humans and animals, they all come under the 'sustainability' heading," she said.
However, Kula said, a lot of brands exploit this growing concern about sustainability and use it as a marketing tool solely to their own benefit. Some do this by not even using organic materials; they just revamp their logo and paint it green in an act of deception. In the industry, this advertising gimmick is called "greenwashing" and is used to lure in more seemingly eco-conscious customers, using funds for marketing instead of investing them in environmentally friendly practices to reduce their carbon footprint.
“They cannot even substantiate their claims and they try to hollow out the term sustainability," she said but added that the informed consumer should see through that.
Change starts with you, but it doesn’t start until you do.
"We first need widespread awareness and then we need to collectively stand against such brands to make our stance clear. This has to be a revolutionary movement," said Kula.
If one asked what the world’s most sustainable fashion item is, what would you say?
Kula says it is the garment you already own. "The important thing is to look after it well and make good use of it. Then buy secondhand if possible or even make your own. If none of these are possible, then, and only then, should you buy something new," she said.
That’s also the philosophy Kula channeled in her 2020 “Displacement” collection. It was like being at an away game; a collection born out of times spent at home during lockdowns and in a pandemic, she said.
"My collection for the Koza competition was the culmination of all my research on the matter and an embodiment of my collective angst thus far. I reflected on the dilemmas I experienced during those times, the pessimistic atmosphere and the quandaries I had. It was a collection that combined all of the questions I had about life and fashion," she explained.
"Most of the fabrics were scraps and old fabrics left over from my previous collections. I did not want to buy new for this collection. My circumstances pushed me harder in that direction. My goal was to produce the collection with the lowest carbon footprint to date in the history of Koza competitions," she said. Needless to say, she achieved that goal.
When she did have to resort to buying new materials to create the forms she wanted, Kula said she went for sustainable fabrics: organic cotton, lyocell from certified sustainable forests or fabrics made of plastics collected from the seas and coasts.
"I used the fabrics I had at hand to do the patterns and made sure even the threads I used were from recycled material," she said. It became the first collection built solely on sustainability, and Kula said she is happy to have been a pioneer in that sense.
One of the biggest mistakes the brands of today make is to consider sustainability a marketing issue, while in reality, it is one of innovation and R&D, said Kula.
Fabrics and fibers can be made out of coffee grounds these days, she said, and even from wheat straw.
Bio-engineering knows no bounds nowadays, and in it lies the answer to fashion's fabric problem.
"Starch, for example, is used to produce plastic. So, we can say that a textile industry in which we'll encounter more bio-based materials such as those made from algae, bacteria, yeast proteins, collagen and seaweed, as well as where food wastes such as fruit peels, coffee and straw are used in the production of leather and fabric, awaits humankind in the (not so distant) future," she said.
One other way to improve sustainability is to create a never-ending cycle of upcycling, recycling and reusing what we already have, and perhaps only using trees from sustainable forests.
Most of the onus falls on the consumer, though.
“The manufacturer only produces what the consumer demands, and this demand pushes designers to create exactly that. This is simple, straightforward," she said.
Kula said the current system we as humans have imposed on ourselves is largely to blame.
“We’ve created a system that is based on sparking different desires and demands in the consumer and meeting these new needs through the most unjust, dirty and fast ways," she stressed.
With projections showing the world population surpassing 8 billion by 2050, the world will need to find smarter ways to meet its needs.
"Seeing as we cannot expand our planet and agricultural lands are limited and will be needed for food, the fashion industry will have to become innovative," said Kula.