“Sustainable Fashion Can’t Be Just For Some” – Why The Fashion Revolution Is Not Just For The Rich

As Fashion Revolution Week comes to a close, Zoë Beaty reports from Fashion Question Time

Who Made My Clothes

by Zoe Beaty |

Arguably, there couldn’t have been a more pertinent week for Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Question Time to take place. On Tuesday, as Extinction Rebellion's week-long London offensive made crucial headlines, fashion’s movers and shakers gathered in South Kensington’s V&A to discuss their role in the current climatic emergency.

And the fashion industry plays an indisputably crucial part. At the rate we’re now consuming garments – raced down the production lines, on to rails and into baskets and, soon enough, into landfill – fashion will account for one quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported. The particulars of the fashion industry’s state are being discussed more frequently, so much so that stats about its abysmal legacy almost roll off the tongue: the 1.2bn tonnes of yearly waste; that the industry is the second largest polluter in the world after oil; that it produces 20 per cent of waste water each year; that shoppers in the United Kingdom alone are hoarding £46.7bn of unworn clothing in their wardrobes at any one time. They are repeated, often, alongside fervent calls for change. Too right: change is needed urgently and, for the most part it feels like the industry’s big players are finally in agreement about this. But what will that take, and what will the repercussions be for consumers in the UK? As Tuesday’s panel was asked in accordance with this year’s theme, how will innovation and sustainability change the fashion panorama? For fashion, what does Tomorrowland actually look like?

While it’s an essential journey, it’s also intensely complicated. So far we have looked towards high street giants like H&M, M&S and the Arcadia Group to lead the way – and some, notably the former two, have made some headway into doing so. H&M, for example, has taken charge with addressing its supply chain, encouraging consumers to buy from its sustainable collection and advising how to look after and recycle their clothing to reduce waste. Likewise, M&S has committed delivering its “Plan A” by 2025, including a transparent supply chain, vastly reducing plastic use and waste and greater community engagement. Of course, commentators say, it is a snail-pace race – these giants cannot move at the rate we would like them to. It’s frustrating: we have seen the problem, clearly, now, and we would like it to be dealt with. Only, it just doesn’t work like that.

Fashion Question Time negotiated this quandary deftly, dispelling the myths that often prefix shallow solutions to this looming issue. For instance, while audience members suggested imposing blanket bans on synthetic fibres like polyester, spandex, acrylic and rayon, suggesting that – just like the plastic straw “revolution” – this would be a quick and succinct way to cut down fashion’s carbon footprint, this would hardly be a solution at all. “This example highlights the complexities of mass produced fashion and the materials that we use in fashion,” Dr Mark Sumner, a lecturer in Sustainability, Fashion and Retail at the University of Leeds. “Because actually, a material like polyester can be much more sustainable than a material like cotton.”

Sumner explains that, while polyester takes 200 years to decompose and releases toxic microfibres into the ocean (though increasingly popular PETr – recycled polyester – is growing ever more common in use), it is “much more durable and will last far longer than a cotton garment”; it’s fast-drying and versatile. It lasts – meaning it has the potential to be less wasteful – it meets worker health and safety protocols for uniforms. It doesn’t use the vast amounts of pesticides and water to produce that cotton does.

It’s cheaper. This is an issue all of its own. Because, while fast fashion is indisputably and unforgivingly harming the planet, historically it emerged as a product of social injustice. Once upon a time, fashion was reserved for the elite – those who could afford to indulge did, while the majority weren’t privy to fashion’s moods. Working classes would own two outfits – one for Sunday best and one for the working week. It wasn’t until technological advances in post-war Britain in the 1960s and a change in attitude of consumers that fast fashion started to emerge. By the 1990s, it was more acceptable to admit a love for cheap clothing. And it’s kind of gone downhill from there – “In the last 16 years clothing consumption has doubled,” Laura Balmond, Project Manager for Make Fashion Circular at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, told Tuesday’s panel. “And in the meantime we’re using clothes up to 40 per cent less than we were 16 years ago. So we’re producing more and using them less.”

Now consumption of fashion is out of control – but a swift move towards consuming significantly less, and an inevitable upturn of prices could mean that we create damaging social rifts. “While there is a climate emergency, there is also a social emergency,” says Mary Creagh, MP for Wakefield, told the panel “and we have to tackle both of those things, together.

“We must move towards a much more sustainable economy – but we must also make it a just transition. We have to ensure that we don’t create winners and losers in this scenario, and that fashion doesn’t become something for the rich people to enjoy.

“I feel very passionately about this because, in the destruction of the coal mines, in the 1980s, my constituency was decimated. It created immediate unemployment, hunger – and it was because of an unjust transition.

“That we move, now, is important, but equally so is how we move. We must make this transition with ordinary people with us at every step and allow them time to adjust and change their own behaviour as the industry evolves, too.”

In short, sustainable fashion must be available – but it must be available for everyone. Despite one Extinction Rebellion organiser in attendance at Fashion Question Time posing whether fashion had a place at all in the precarious future ahead, the reaction was unanimous. “Fashion means jobs for people and joy for people,” Balmer said. “We all need it. We just need to find a way of doing it differently.

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