From mindless consumption to a sustainable fashion system.
Over the last two decades, with the rise of fast – and incredibly cheap – fashion, many of us seem to be increasingly losing the perspective on our clothing consumption. As a secondary effect of globalisation, retailers are able to source very inexpensive materials and production facilities for their businesses. The low costs enable fast fashion companies to drop the prices, resulting in a fierce competition between brands. At the same time though, the spending on clothing goes up, as all sorts of campaigns like “Buy One Get One Fee” trigger increased consumption. From 2001 to 2005, the spending on women’s clothing in the UK increased by 21% (men’s clothing by 14%). During the same period though, clothing prices dropped by 14% in real terms, meaning that the number of garments purchased per person increased by over a third over these four years. All according to a report from the Institute for Manufacturing. The question we must ask ourselves at this point is: why on earth would we need all these clothes?
During the Copenhagen Fashion Summit last month, Vanessa Friedman, fashion critic at The Financial Times, claimed that the solution for the many of the current issues of our fashion system lies rather in building a “sustainable wardrobe”, than in “sustainable fashion”, which she sees as a contradictory term. According to Friedman, the answer is to shop less, and in a more conscious and deliberate manner; filling your wardrobe with pieces that last in terms of style and quality. Or, as quoted by Vivienne Westwood back in 2012: “ Buy less, choose well, make it last”.
15 years ago, I remember purchasing clothes 2-4 times a year, mostly due to seasonal needs – or the fact that everything I had was worn out. Nowadays, with the internet and the global, ever increasing interconnectivity, we pick up new styles and trends daily. Styles and trends that we want to wear instantly. Consumer demand puts pressure on the retailers, and especially within the fast fashion sector, to bring the latest trends to their stores – the sooner the better. The average high street fashion chain has new pieces in every week, which requires very short production lead times. A system resulting in inhumane conditions for underpaid garment workers, in countries like Bangladesh and China. The infamous Race to the Bottom.
To illustrate the core issues of the current fashion system, you need to look no further than the nearest high street apparel store, and what takes place there on a daily basis. After observing the typical customers, even ever so briefly, it becomes quite clear that, in here, clothing shopping is no longer about wardrobe needs. Tons of garments are tried on; and then left in a sad pile in the fitting room cubicle. Often, shopping is done in the lunch hour; meaning there is no time to try on the pieces: “So let’s have one of everything, it’s so cheap anyway. And you can always bring it back if it doesn’t fit”. Once at the till, there is hardly time to wait for the garments to be un-tagged, or the transaction to be completed.
As a consequence of these behaviours; in 2012, 1.7 BN garments in the UK (30% of the total clothing purchases) were left unworn in the cupboard or even in the shopping bag. Not needed, unwanted, and no one could be bothered to bring them back to the store.
Think about it; buying a piece of clothing requires more consideration and effort than that. Ideally this is an item that you will keep, love and care for, for at least a few years. In addition, a garment does not come from nothing; it has been designed, ordered, stitched, embellished and then shipped to the store. Everyone who has been engaged in this process deserves more respect from us consumers than just the current trend of mindless consumption.
It is easy – not to say convenient – to blame the retailers for the vicious wheel of fast fashion, with associated issues like climate change, poor working conditions, and the growing landfill. But the truth is not as simple as that. As fashion consumers, we must carry our fair share of the responsibility; and the core thing to do is simply reconnecting with our clothes: caring about each garment and respecting the process behind it.
On the 24th of April, the fashion world was celebrating the Fashion Revolution Day, which was created in remembrance of the Rana Plaza disaster last year, where over 1100 Bangladeshi garment workers were killed as their factory collapsed. During this day, people all over the world were wearing their clothing inside out, showing that they had taken their time to see, and consider where the garment came from: where it was produced – and to what price. On Instagram and Twitter, the hashtag #insideout was employed as fashionistas from around the Globe were asking retailers: “Who made YOUR clothes?”
Even if you (like me) like to wear your clothing the right way round for everyday, take a moment now and then to consider who produced it – and under what conditions. To use the words of Carry Somers, fair trade hat designer and founder of the Fashion Revolution Day: “Consumer demand can revolutionise the way fashion works as an industry. If everyone started to question the way we consume, we’d see a radically different fashion paradigm.”
Care, reconnect; and be considerate and deliberate about your wardrobe. Fashion is an amazing part of society; and therefore we must, little by little, transform the system to a (more) sustainable one. To a force for good.
Words: Johanna Bergström