Suddenly, it feels like there’s a real sense of urgency when discussing sustainability in fashion. I think some of it is genuine concern, with incredible people offering solutions. Sometimes though, I think that it’s more a case of businesses thinking they have to be seen to be indulging the idea. When did I become such a cynic? Probably when I reached out to a lot of stores and labels, only to feel totally underwhelmed with their limp responses...
My own relationship with clothes has been an interesting one. My career started when I took part in Blood, Sweat And T-shirts for BBC Three in 2008, which saw six young consumers – one of them me – taken to India to see exactly how our clothes are made. We stumbled across filthy working conditions and children being made to work long hours in cramped spaces. There were rows of production lines struggling to keep up with the West’s insatiable appetite for fast fashion. It was a sobering experience.
Back then, the emphasis was more on the workers themselves (and the obvious need to prioritise human welfare), but it was that trip where I also understood how our obsession with clothes was detrimental to our planet – a fear confirmed when I spent time in Kazakhstan last year for Stacey Dooley Investigates: Fashion’s Dirty Secrets for the same channel.
The Aral Sea, which lay between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was once one of the biggest inland seas in the world, covering approximately 68 million square kilometres, but since the 1960s, locals have watched their sea all but disappear. As I drove along the former seabed, I spotted huge ships and boats now sitting in desert-like conditions. Camels were rambling around, replacing the fish that once lived there. Residents explained how the Aral was vanishing, because the rivers flowing into it had been diverted to cotton farms nearby.
I’ll never forget one older man reminiscing about how it used to be: the water was ‘shocking blue’ and he had loved listening to the sound of the seabirds. The fishing industry was decimated, the ecosystem was struggling and tens of thousands of jobs were lost.
Essentially, this devastation was a result of cotton production on an irresponsible, industrial scale. I certainly underestimated how much water cotton needs to grow: more than any other fibre. To put it into context, it takes thousands of litres of water to grow the cotton for one jacket. Of course, one jacket isn’t going to ruin the planet. However, producing one hundred billion new garments every year will. It’s estimated we, in the UK, spent roughly £60 billion on clothes last year*. So how can we say we are taking sustainability seriously, without addressing our excessive purchasing?
It can feel like many of us consume clothes now, instead of owning them (preferably for years). Instead of lusting over a piece and mulling its purchase for a while, we tend to buy something we ‘sort of love’ there and then. This throwaway, disposable attitude is very problematic – and one we need to shift.
We’re buying six garments online, and sending back five. There’s a carbon footprint associated with this new way of buying, not to mention a significant increase in packaging
Amy Powney, the creative director at Mother of Pearl, has been at the forefront of the sustainable fashion movement for years (read more about how she’s doing this this on page 52). ‘Sustainability is a mindset rather than, “Oh, I’m using organic cotton.” That’s just too narrow-minded, she explains. 'Once you get that sort of filtration mindset, it changes the way you think about everything.' In that vein, Mother of Pearl has decided not to have a traditional show at next week’s London Fashion Week. ‘It seems like all that energy and money and time go into one show which is over in three minutes, so we are going to try to do more interactive things at Fashion Week to get the message out there,’ she tells me.
This bold move follows the Swedish Fashion Council’s announcement in July that they’ve decided to cancel Stockholm Fashion Week to focus on launching a more sustainable alternative. ‘Stepping away from the conventional model has been a difficult, but much considered decision,’ Jennie Rosen, the CEO of the council, said at the time.
These are women who clearly feel the need for drastic change. Instead, Amy has just put out a nine-piece collection on Net-A-Porter made with ‘peace’ silk, a process which doesn’t kill the silk worm and with a fully traceable supply chain – inspired by BBC Earth, with whom she did a tie-in video. ‘Basically just a very, very short introduction to, “Did you know that consumerism has a massive impact on climate change? These are the solutions you could adopt.” I was so excited about it.’
Her optimism is infectious. ‘To be fair,’ she continues, ‘in defence of the public, I think it’s brand-new information [to many] that fashion has an environmental footprint’ – a sentiment I echo. It’s not that people don’t care; it’s just we haven’t all been exposed to the shocking realities. But now the facts are entering the mainstream, we have a collective responsibility to do our bit.
Dr Mark Sumner, a lecturer in Fashion Sustainability and Retail at the University of Leeds, agrees. For instance, he pinpoints the way ordering in bulk online only to return most of what was delivered has become standard. As he says, ‘We’re buying six garments online, and sending back five, often without even wearing them once. There’s a carbon footprint associated with this new way of buying, not to mention a significant increase in packaging and the use of plastic.’
He warns that, without us taking action to address environmental issues such as climate change, fabrics will be in short supply and become far more expensive – and, therefore, so will our clothing. ‘We will revert to what it was like back in the Victorian era, where access to fashion was driven by class and spending power.’ So what now? With a lot of us in agreement that those in authority aren’t doing nearly enough, it does feel like it’s up to us to try to steer things in the right direction. ‘The challenge for consumers is that to be green, you have to put in a bit of effort,’ adds Dr Sumner. ‘It’s about doing your research.’ That might mean checking a brand’s corporate website to see whether it’s signed up to programmes such as the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). If not, ‘then you should consider not buying from that brand, or write a letter to its chief exec to ask what they are doing about its environmental footprint.’
At the same time, we do have to look at our own habits. For me, this discussion is never about trying to guilt us all into falling out of love with fashion, or suggesting that you should have it all figured out – I definitely don’t. It’s simply about recognising that there are consequences to what we buy and wear, and that we have to go back to really loving our pieces and keeping hold of them for a lot longer than we currently do. Wearing items again, mending pieces, re-heeling shoes, borrowing things instead of buying if we can.
But whatever we decide to do, there has to be a sense of urgency. Because we are running out of time.