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“A few years ago I was sitting at a meeting discussing the state of “ethical fashion” with a group of very influential fashionistas. One of them scornfully commented, scrunching up her Botox-injected face, “Oh, but this saving the planet thing is so worthy.” It was as if, on Planet Fashion, “worthy” meant dull.
Today, “worthy” is the new “decadent”, and we’re beginning to reimagine aspirational fashion in a completely new way, taking into consideration garment workers and environmental issues throughout the supply chain. We still want to look good, but we are also looking for a sense of meaningfulness that goes beyond our mirror. The power of a carefully chosen, sustainably made garment has never been more relevant.
This isn’t to say that saving the planet and having a social conscience are new concepts: they were alive and well last century, culminating in the 1960s peace and love ethos. Fashion was a major part of that movement’s aesthetic and messaging.
Blue jeans and beyond
Just look at blue jeans: an outspoken canvas of painted and embroidered slogans and personal opinions, they were a symbol of protest, of anti-conformism, the look of a generation who wanted an end to the Vietnam War, or nuclear power. In that same era, consider the miniskirt, and how it became a shocking symbol of emancipation and freedom for young women.
Clothes are our chosen skin. They are a reflection of ourselves and of what we stand for. And as the wardrobe of the 1960s showed, matching our clothing to our beliefs is a fundamental and powerful form of political self-expression.
Drowning in a sea of choices
But something happened as we went from the Age of Aquarius to the era of Reagan and beyond. Stupefied and spoiled by a sea of choices – of things to buy, of opportunities and stuff – we forgot about the planet for a few decades. We forgot about the people who make our clothes. The industry decamped to developing countries that offered cheap labor and the opportunity to bypass regulations that ensured decent wages, the right to unionize and the controlled disposal of waste. Lower cost and lower regulation, in turn, paved the way for fast fashion, mass production of luxury goods and hyperconsumerism.
Karl Marx used to say that religion is the opiate of the masses. To upgrade this to a contemporary context, consumerism is our crack cocaine. The implication that the quantity of goods that are available to us somehow represents a form of freedom has left us with a massive debt towards the people who produce those goods – and towards the planet we inhabit.
The fashion industry directly employs at least 75 million people and likely more than double that are indirectly dependent on the sector — an estimated 80 million in China alone. While fashion employs a staggering number of people, it hasn’t necessarily extended the benefits of its profits to its extensive workforce in developing countries. Rather, it has continued the long-held practice of keeping workers in conditions of semicaptivity, slavery and exploitation. In the process, it has had catastrophic effects on our environment and the people who inhabit it, impoverishing rather than enriching our global culture.
Fast fashion pollution
To put it into context, in order to produce 80bn garments annually, we produce 400bn square meters of cloth, 60bn of which are wasted on the cutting room floor. And that doesn’t even take into consideration accessories such as handbags, shoes, jewellery and hair clips. These are made from dangerous and environmentally unsound materials such as plastic and polluting metals.
The environmental impact of fashion extends far beyond such materials and into the water supply. For example, it takes 2,720 liters of water to produce one T-shirt. Not surprisingly, the Aral Sea, which provides water for cotton irrigation in Uzbekistan, one of the world’s largest cotton producers, is now almost completely dry. Further, up to 20% of China’s industrial water pollution comes from chemical textile waste discharge in rivers.
All of this environmental destruction adds up: the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, right behind oil. And while it has been corrupting our environment, it has also been selling a dream of aspiration and glamour. The “It” bag, craved as a status symbol, is actually mass-produced by underpaid workers. They have, in turn, taken the place of skilled artisans who once made high quality products but have since lost their livelihood.
Fast fashion has actually been labeled a democratization – but it’s hard to see how something made in such exploitative conditions could possibly be democratic. For something to be democratic, or aspirational, it should advance everyone involved in its production, not merely function as a status symbol for its end users.
Most big brands, whether high street or high-end, are redesigning themselves to become sustainable. What’s interesting is that, instead of blazing new trails, they’re following the lead of small, pioneering innovators, designers and individuals for whom doing things right has never gone out of fashion. In the process, they’re exposing their own ethical inadequacies.
What consumers can do
While the fashion industry explores its sustainable evolution, what can consumers do to become a part of the solution? The answer is as simple: they can buy garments that are made to last by people who are paid well for their work. With that in mind, here are three quotes from three great women:
Joan Crawford: “Care for your clothes like the good friends they are.”
Vivienne Westwood: “Buy less, choose well and make it last.”
Lucy Siegle: “If you aren’t going to wear it at least 30 times, don’t buy it.”
And I’ll add one more: demand quality, not just in the product you buy, but in the life of the person who made it.
Orsola de Castro is a fashion designer and co-founder of Fashion Revolution; for more information go to www.fashionrevolution.org. She can be reached on Twitter: @orsoladecastro or @Fash_Rev; and on Instagram: @Fash_Rev.”