After attending the Sustainability Masterclass at EIFF in July, I had some more thoughts on the separation between the human costs and the environmental costs in fashion and how this all links back to the sustainability discussion. The panel at the talk consisted of an executive from Stella McCartney, a Masters degree student researching the circular economy in fashion, the owner of a colour consultancy business, and, I think, a moderator. I found that this linked in with the ideas that I was exploring in the Spend More, Buy Less vein that I have been delving into. I have actually being reading up on this and doing a lot more research than may meet the eye with my blog, especially as my posts are often published a few weeks after I’ve written them. I am now much more aware of and interested in the ethical debate and I have further posts coming up on the topic in the future.
According to the author of “Why Fashion Matters”, Frances Corner, if we extended the lifecycle of each of our clothing items by nine months we could save $8bn annually. The whole idea is buying clothes that are made to last instead of fast fashion pieces that are designed only to last a season or two. If we begin making conscious decisions to spend more smartly, we can save our bank balances, lives, and the planet. You wouldn’t think that one person making a change could make all the difference, but if each person decided to make this change things could greatly improve.
It is true, though, that luxury brands do less harm than fast fashion. For one, they produce less. People also hold onto their items for longer. Luxury goods do not have the same turnover that fast fashion does because we generally think of expensive goods as an investment. Fast fashion brands mass produce and do so for the lowest possible cost, meaning they go to factories in Asia where there is a low minimum wage and they can make the highest profit. We also buy way too much fast fashion because it is available and because our appetite for it is increasingly larger.
The only way that fast fashion retailers will begin to produce less is if we, as consumers, collectively buy less. If at the end of each season stores are left with so much stock to mark down in the sale in order to shift the inventory they will begin to realise that they are producing too much, that the demand is not high enough. However, it would take a lot of people to make this change. It is also important that we think delicately.
Although it may seem awful to think about children producing your clothes, I learned in Where Am I Wearing? that many of these children work to feed themselves and their families, to keep them out of awful businesses like prostitution. However, when this book was written it was after the Nike scandal of the 90s but before the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 so perhaps big changes have occurred in this time period, maybe the kids are now in schools. I don’t think brands will ever know who really makes their clothes unless they go to the factories themselves and visit, and do it unannounced. If you do an audit, it will be the very best of things you will see; people will ensure audits are positive or they risk serious repercussions. Random checks are the only way to be confident that your clothes are being produced ethically but even this can become impossible when your manufacturers subcontract the work. Your supply chain can grow until the business requiring the goods really has no idea, fully, of how they got there.
Until the system is changed, and that is a problem greater than what the fashion industry can solve as it comes down to government and culture in the Asian countries, any major changes to the way that fast fashion brands produce can have a detrimental effect on the economies and, in turn, the citizens who are most vulnerable to the changes. If they lose their jobs, they can’t eat. They can’t provide for their families. Sometimes when we think we are doing good we are actually doing more harm. As I previously mentioned, fast fashion and luxury are two very different worlds so the problems that each encounter don’t often overlap.
There was another woman who spoke at the talk who owned a colour consultancy service. It was her job to provide women with assessments on the colours that suit them best so they can shop smartly in the future, therefore hopefully reducing their overall waste. I think my granny had this service done years ago, and she actually offered it to me one time. I tend to stick to a very basic colour palette anyway so I didn’t find it necessary. One thing that the woman said that struck me was that fast fashion retailers were not interested in their customers just buying certain colours that suited them because they just want their customers to spend. They don’t care what it is on, they don’t care if the items are almost disposable as long as they sell. I found that rather sad. Why be so small minded?
So as individuals, what can we do? Basically, buy less and think about a purchase before you make it. Do you really need it? Will you wear it enough? Does it fit? Does it suit you? Do you need it? Of course we don’t need half of the items that we buy, but sometimes want outweighs need. Livia Firth is a vocal speaker on this issue. She is known to say if you don’t think you’ll wear something 30 times, don’t buy it. I don’t think motto should apply to every item of clothing you purchase (e.g. a special occasion dress) but I think it definitely should for the more everyday items, especially basics like t-shirts, trousers, and coats. Maybe if we all made the effort to become more conscious consumers progressive changes could occur. It shouldn’t be a pie-in-the-sky dream, especially if people’s lives are at risk when they go to work every single day. That’s not fair to them.