This week, representatives from all the major brands – from fast fashion retailers like H&M, Asos and Zara, through to luxury labels like Burberry and Swarowski – are gathering in Copenhagen to discuss sustainability in the global fashion industry.
The fashion industry is one of the most lucrative and destructive industries on earth. It generates €1.5 trillion every year and produces over a billion clothes every year. With global garment production set to increase by 63% by 2030, this model is reaching its physical limit.
This year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit is focusing on “circularity” – an industry buzzword that promises relief to the problem of limited resources within one of the world’s most resource intensive industries. In 2015, the fashion industry consumed nearly 80 billion cubic meters of fresh water, emitted over a million tonnes of CO2 and produced 92 million tonnes of waste. The Summit admits that the industry has a disastrous environmental impact and that we face “increasingly higher risk of destabilising the state of the planet, which would result in sudden and irreversible environmental changes”.
While their focus on circularity sounds promising, it’s simply not enough.
Industry leaders rarely talk about the real solution: reducing the overall volume of production. All their talk about sustainable investing and innovative new materials and technologies comes under the assumption that the industry continues to grow. But unlimited growth is impossible on a planet with finite resources.
The industry wants to place the responsibility on consumers to educate themselves and recycle their own clothes, while continuing to heavily market cheap fast fashion at us.
Real change is not going to happen without investing in designs and strategies to extend the life of clothing and reduce the environmental impact of production at the design stage. Fashion brands need to redefine their marketing strategies and start involving customers in a new narrative where people buy less and clothes are more durable and repairable. We need to slow down.
If the Fashion industry really wants to be “an engine for a global and sustainable development”, it needs to think about how to shift the business model beyond the current paradigm of continuous economic growth. We hope that the fashion industry doesn’t wait until 2030 to realise that.
*This story first appeared on Greenpeace.org
Something I hear a lot from people is that they would love to shop more ethically, but ethical clothing is just too expensive. And I do get that. When money is tight it’s only natural to want that budget to spread as far as possible.
Is ethical clothing expensive though? When you look at it on the surface, yes, ethical clothing is expensive. This $120 dress (approximately £96 at time of writing), by Everlane, whose business model is based on ‘radical transparency’, is pretty similar to this £35 dress from a company with no ethical statement. Why would you spend £60 more on a dress that’s pretty similar? It’s hard to make the maths add up.
When you sit and think about that £35 dress though, you begin to think how manufacturers can possibly make a dress for £35, and still make a profit. If you’ve ever tried to make your own clothing you’ll know it’s pretty tricky to make a dress for that amount of money. By the time you’ve bought the fabric and the pattern, and the thread and any zips or buttons, and the electricity to power your sewing machine, you may well have reached or exceeded that amount, before even accounting for the cost of your own time.
So could the rise of fast fashion retailers have caused us to lose our sense of perspective, and our benchmarks and baselines on what is expensive?
You would expect to pay more for something now than in say, 1980, wouldn’t you?
Since the 1980’s the cost of housing, rent, food, fuel and other consumables has risen, in some cases dramatically. In 1980 the average cost of a home was £23,000 (around £89,000 in today’s money), whilst by the end of 2016 the average price of home was £205,000 according to the same report. The Telegraph reports that lager has increased in price by 336%, whilst a loaf of sliced white bread has increased in price by 235% and eggs by 286%.
It goes without saying then that you would expect to go into a shop and buy an item of clothing that was considerably more expensive now than it was in 1980.
What has actually happened with clothing is that since the 1980s, instead of rising in price in line with inflation, clothes prices have fallen and fallen to the point we’re at now where you can buy a top for less than £5 in 2017.
Prior to the 1980’s the majority of clothing was made domestically. I’ve struggled to find UK based data, but The New York Times reported in 2009 that in the 1960s, the United States made 98% of its shoes. They stated that in 2009 it was a completely different picture, with the US importing more than 90% of its footwear. This is more than likely mirrored in clothing manufacture too.
The reason for this outsourcing is that in the 1980s clothing manufacturers realised they could manufacture abroad, in places where they could pay workers considerably less, and where workers could work longer hours in poorer conditions. This ultimately meant greater profits for manufacturers, and lower prices for consumers.
We’re now so used to cheap clothes that have flooded the market since the 1980’s, that this has artificially driven down the value of clothing. If you’re in your forties or younger you’ll have grown up in an age where clothing has gotten cheaper and cheaper. You won’t, or will barely remember a time when clothing wasn’t cheap. Yet going back to the £96 Everlane dress, I suspect that this is more like what the average dress should cost in 2017, if not more.
It’s also also quite clear the impact that the mass production of clothing overseas has had on household spending. I’ve again struggled to find UK statistics, but census data from the US shows that in the 1950’s households spent 12% of their annual income on clothing. Fast forward to 2015, and it’s reported that households spent just 3.5% of their annual income on clothing, even though Americans are buying more clothes than ever before. The same article reports that in 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits, whilst in 2015 that figure was 30 outfits – one for every day of the month.
More worryingly, another report suggests the average item of clothing is worn just seven times before being discarded. Cheaper prices clearly mean consumers value their clothes less.
So what’s the answer? By suddenly removing manufacture from the countries that depend on clothing manufacture for the overseas market wouldn’t be good for those countries’ economies. In 2014 the ready made garment industry represented 81.13% of Bangladesh’s total export, and of the 4 million workers employed by this industry, 85% are illiterate women from rural villages. It’s a tricky situation.
I think part of the answer lies in our relationship with clothing. Buying less; not buying into trends; and investing in quality timeless pieces are more than likely the way forward. I’ve previously written in length about these aspects of consumerism – but in a nutshell ethical fashion isn’t expensive when you factor in the cost per wear of a quality made item, versus a poorly made fast fashion item of clothing that falls to bits after just a few wears.
As consumers we also have to act more responsibly. YouTube haul videos, like this one where the vlogger boasts to impressionable young viewers about how many cheap items of clothing they’ve bought only perpetuate the cheap disposable clothing myth.
Another part of it voting with your wallet. If more and more people start shopping with more responsible retailers then this sends a clear message to retailers that they have to up their game and make their clothes more ethically.
Perhaps we have to therefore have to work on regaining our sense of perspective when it comes to the cost of clothes. Spending more on each individual item of clothing we buy and spending better, but buying much much less is the only way to re-establish sensible baselines on what constitutes as expensive and what constitutes as good quality.
*This story first appeared on Huffington Post
A Note On Fashion Fashion
There is no such thing as “conscious fast fashion.” Fast fashion encourages buying frequently and discarding quickly. The current mainstream fashion industry relies on globalised, mass production methods where items are designed, produced, sold, and then discarded at a rapid pace – usually within a few weeks. The production methods used to create these garments – sold on the high street through big name brands – threaten natural resources and damage the social and ecological environment; contributing to the depletion of fossil fuels; damaging water reservoirs and cotton crop irrigation; introducing pesticides into the environment; placing forests and ecosystems in jeopardy, and using unethical manufacturing methods that threaten human rights and the safety of its workforce.
The main reason our relationship with fast fashion is unsustainable is because we buy too much. When items are so cheap, we justify to ourselves the reasons for buying them. We buy them because they are cheap not because we love them. We end up with too many things.
What Is “Slow Fashion”?
Slow fashion is the rejection of trend-led seasons; it’s about fewer purchases of higher quality, designed and created to last. It encourages us to consider our environment by valuing ethical production methods, creating quality products in a sustainable manner.
Slow fashion is about buying less; it’s about placing quality over quantity; it’s about caring for the environment; it’s about conscious buying and thoughtful purchases. It’s not about not buying anything at all. We need clothes to wear, shoes to put on our feet, and it’s OK to lust after (and buy) little extras that we don’t necessarily need but rather want. So long as we make those purchases in a respectful, conscious manner, taking into account how something was made, whether it was designed to last, and if it will enrich our lives rather than just add another thing to our pile of things only to be discarded later.
Slow fashion values our environment; places importance on diversity, quality, beauty, and sustainability; acknowledges the needs of our environment and our community; encourages us to slow down our consumption and practice conscious buying.
How We Can Play Our Part
Consumption, in any form, is powerful. Slow fashion is about voting with our money; it’s about making a conscious choice to buy sustainable items, and that choice says: “I care. I care about our community. I care about our environment. I care about the part I play in it.” But also: “I place value in the things I buy.”
If you feel this “movement” is exclusive or are daunted by the issues it deals with, remember slow fashion is not about living by a certain set of rules. It’s about introducing an awareness of sustainability into our lives and that means something different to everyone and can be achieved in so many different ways. It’s about aspiring to do better in any small way we can.
Slow fashion is simply the decision to be conscious with our choices and make only thoughtful purchases that enrich our lives both mentally and physically.
*This story first appeared on The Private Life of a Girl
The conscious consumer, who demands to know the story behind a fashion product, could lead the charge for transparent, ethical production, says designer Bruno Pieters.
ANTWERP, Belgium — Over the past few decades the fashion industry has gone through an impressive transformation. Today, there is an abundance of fashion, available around the globe, in all price ranges. Our dream of globalising the industry has been largely realised. But the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh was a cold reminder for some, and a brutal discovery for others, that the people who had helped us build this dream were living a nightmare. 1,129 human beings died, over 2500 were injured. On April 24th 2013, it wasn’t just a building that collapsed. Our innocence about fashion came crashing down with it. For millions of people, that event has tainted the joy of admiring and purchasing the fashion that once seemed so glamorous. Worldwide clothing sales have not been affected. But a seed of consciousness was planted that has kept on growing ever since. There isn’t a design good enough to remove the bitter aftertaste of that catastrophe. We want to assume the best about the purchases we make — but now, we know better. When I was younger, I was fascinated by images of the ateliers of renowned couture houses and all the work that went into the realisation of one design. Those days seem long gone. Companies have moved most of their production to low-wage countries. Brands are operating more efficiently than ever before, producing large quantities at very low costs. By expressing our values through our purchases, we allowed brands to behave irresponsibly. Through buying their products, we told them we didn’t care. However, consumer behaviour can become a solution. Money is a language and when spoken fluently, can be a powerful tool for change. Another kind of consumer has emerged: the conscious customer. A clientele that respects craftsmanship, authenticity and transparency. For the millions of people who love the constant newness of fashion, there are others who value the beauty of the story as much as the design itself. A very influential, well-educated minority is demanding humane products and transparency from fashion brands, leading a shift that is happening around the world. Very few luxury products still carry the traditions that built the reputation of the brand. Often, when told today, the story is no longer credible. There is a need for a new story. An honest one. A smart brand will seize this opportunity to gain a whole new audience. Today, there is a new generation of fashion brands, driven by designers with a vision of street culture, youth and our future. But what I find most unfortunate is that almost all of them fail to include any notion of sustainability in their production. They are not setting themselves apart from their predecessors; they are not translating their opinions into deeds. I am cheering for new technologies, such as 3D printing. The day might come that we download the design for a pair of socks and print them out in the comfort of our own home — eventually, such progress might put an end to labour problems. But in the time that it takes us to develop this, the consequences of our current activities are racking up, as Rana Plaza tragically proved. Consumers need to make better choices and this industry urgently needs to evolve. Bruno Pieters is the founder of Honest By, a transparent and sustainable luxury fashion label. The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion. ** This article first appeared on Business of Fashion here.