Spend More, Buy Less – Part 3

This is now the third post in my sustainability series. Before I have tackled the human cost of fast fashion more than the environment. This time I wanted to shift my focus onto that, briefly. Most of the information below was what I picked up at the EIFF talk on sustainability. I found the executive from Stella McCartney to be very informative and actually extremely interesting to listen to. I can’t pretend that I’ve ever really considered the environmental cost of fashion before that day so my mind has been opened. I always think of the humans first. However, if we keep ruining our planet there will be nowhere for the humans to live. Ah, science.

I think it is clear to everyone that the planet’s natural resources are scarce. In some areas, water is a luxury yet in the production of many clothing items, especially denim, massive quantities of the resource are used and then polluted as a result. So how can fashion respond to some of the harm that it does and turn that harm into good? It isn’t easy. However, I learned that Stella McCartney is a brand that is willing to put the time and effort into finding out how.

Basically, the idea of a circular economy needs to be further explored in order to make fashion more sustainable and less environmentally damaging. Promisingly, lots of the big brands already have officers in house to explore what brands can do to reduce their footprint and make things safer for all involved, although there seems to be more of a focus on the environment instead of the human costs.

Kate Moss in jeans, a vest top, and a leather jacket.

I liked the idea of replanting the grass when sheep graze on fields. This was mentioned by the Stella executive. The sheep are sheared for their wool which eventually comes back and is made into a jumper and then is sold in retail stores. I liked this approach of going all the way back to the beginning. Instead of just exploring Tier 1 suppliers (the manufacturers) or even Tier 2 and 3 (like the textile suppliers and mills before that) Stella, as a brand, wants to go all the way back to the raw materials to make a difference. That was a cool fact to find out.

I also found out that some materials are harder to recycle than others. Cotton can be made back into cellulose, I think they said. But other fibres are often more difficult to reuse and recycle and until the technology is developed to make this possible. Obviously this will require a great deal of investment. Fortunately there are coalitions which focus on sustainability that may be able to make this possible eventually. There are also the corporate giants like Kering which owns Stella McCartney who provide the investment to allow brands to explore these issues in a way that smaller luxe brands may not be able to do.

Denim, white shirts, and t-shirts are all staples of our wardrobes but all harmful to make. The shirts are bleached, meaning the water is polluted. T-shirts just use a hell of a lot of water in the production process (think back to scarcity in some areas of the world). Denim is an obvious offender, but some techniques like sand washing are not only environmentally harmful but actually dangerous for the workers involved. They risk going blind. The more I have explored this topic, the more wary I have become. I feel helpless. I don’t know what I can do, or if there is anything that I can do, to help with this. If you look into it, almost everything that you’d want to wear causes some form of damage.

As consumers what can we do? I’ve thought about it and I concluded that recycling is key. If your old clothes are in a usable state, donate them to a charity shop. If you have old uniforms, there are specific companies who are interesting in reusing them. If they’re not in a wearable state, try donating to a textiles bank. Maybe something can be made out of them, even if it’s just dishrags. Reducing our consumption means that eventually the vicious fashion production cycle will slow down. I think that may be the crux of the matter.

Spend More, Buy Less – Part 2

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.