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It was in the spirit of Fashion Revolution Week that I found myself on my way to East London on a rainy Tuesday afternoon to attend a panel discussion on the future of sustainable fashion. I fought my way on to the overcrowded shop floor of Kitty Ferreira and settled in to listen as four experts attempted to answer the big question: 'can fast-fashion ever be sustainable?'
For those who don't know, Fashion Revolution is a movement that began as an outcry against the tragic events that took place at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013. Forced to work in incredibly unsafe conditions, over 1,000 garment workers were crushed to death as their five storey concrete factory building collapsed around them.
Horrifying images of broken families hauling bodies from the wreckage remain a powerful reminder that the way in which we currently produce, consume and think about our clothing is broken. Every year Fashion Revolution Week marks the anniversary of Rana Plaza; it seeks to push more and more brands towards transparency through social media campaigns such as #WhoMadeMyClothes, and raise awareness of key issues with events such as the one I found myself at this week.
Leading the debate was Carol Rose, a true BuyMeOnce champion. Carol has fought hard to promote increased durability of clothing in her twenty years in the fashion industry. She was an advisor to the UK Government Scheme SCAP (Sustainable Clothing Action Plan and implemented the ELC (Extending the Life of Clothes) Awards, which challenged designers to come up with concepts that would increase a garments longevity.
“Organisations across the supply chain could cut up to 3% of their carbon, water and waste impact by making clothes that last just three months longer.” - wrap.org.uk
Within a few minutes Carol had articulately encapsulated one of the biggest problems we face when attempting to break our addiction to fast fashion, and a helpful idea to remember when switching to more long-term shopping habits. Clothing must be functionally durable, but it must also be emotionally durable.
It's no revelation to say that clothing is closely linked with our sense of personal identity. Even a garment made from indestructible fabric held together by the world’s strongest seams won’t cut it if our feeling towards the garment isn’t equally long-lasting; it will still end up gathering dust with the other 70% of unused clothing that makes up the average British wardrobe. The question is, then, how can we make people value their clothes for longer?
The discussion that followed was thoughtful and meandering; I’ve briefly outlined some of the more interesting points raised and how the different panelists imagined a fairer, more sustainable fashion industry might exist (along with things you can do to help!)
Francesco Mazzarella, post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF), suggested the answer could lie in creating stronger links with cultural heritage and artisanal skill. With increased mass-production we have become increasingly emotionally disconnected from the making process, but it’s clear that many people still hold a strong interest in craftsmanship with the continued popularity of brands like People Tree.
People Tree not only utilise artisan makers to produce authentic, high quality products, but actually display clearly on their site the people or groups of people responsible for making your clothes, thereby creating a tangible connection between shopper and maker.
The more we can learn to value the heritage and human skill gone into making our garments the more likely we are to develop stronger emotional connections to them, and the less likely we are to collectively view them as disposable.
Sustainable fashion designer Fée Uhssi offered an intriguing idea: that to truly work towards sustainability we will have to explore exciting new shapes, designs and concepts. As an example she cited her project The Art of Fashion Wrapping, inspired by her love of African culture and the traditional wrap skirt called “Pagne.”
As a concept, wrapped fabric is perhaps at the pinnacle of sustainable, zero-waste clothing. It can be adapted almost endlessly for fresh looks, will accommodate any change in body shape and can be easily repurposed after use. Brands we love such as Encircled have already used this kind of thinking to create modern, eco-friendly multi-way clothing.
The one-size-fits-all nature of wrapped fabric as a garment is interesting too, in that it allows us to bypass discrimination against size. Fée highlighted how often emotional vulnerability, particularly in women, is ruthlessly manipulated by the fashion industry as a whole to encourage a frenzy of buying. We grow up led to believe that an extremely small (literally) range of sizes and shapes are the ones to aim for, or that to be seen wearing the same garment too many times is shameful.
It’s clear that sustainability is linked with our own emotional security in powerful ways. When we can begin to collectively resist the seductive pull of fast fashion we might begin to see a fairer, more sustainable fashion industry - and live happier, healthier lives.
Pressure Brands and Government
Sylwia Bajek, Fashion Consultant and previous employee at Stella McCartney, thought more responsibility should be felt by governments to bring about change. Whilst there are great initiatives such as the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, hardly anything exists in terms of real legislation.
She argued that since luxury fashion brands have an almost all-encompassing influence over the direction of the fashion industry, there is little that can be done on a smaller scale that will result in big change. Since their motivation will always primarily be their own profits, changing legislation is one of the only ways to influence their behaviour and by extension the industry as a whole.
There was unanimous agreement that if a fully sustainable fashion industry was possible then getting there would be a long and difficult process. Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution Day, compared it with opening your front door and allowing people to look inside:
“The more doors are open, the more the picture becomes clearer, the better we can understand and ameliorate supply chain workers' lives and the environment."
This metaphor is a potent one, because open doors within the fashion industry aren’t only necessary for accountability. A more transparent supply chain reassures us that our purchases aren’t enabling or validating mistreatment of workers across the globe, but it also opens up the possibility for more emotional connection with the clothing we bring into our lives. A sustainable fashion industry is only possible when clothing is a commodity we truly value.