Justin Peralta on Unsplash

It takes a lot to make a garment, not just the bits we hear about – the designers, the brands, the shops, the catwalk shows, the parties and Instagram influencers – but also the farmers, the ginners, spinners, weavers, sewers, artisans and other factory workers who produce the raw materials and shape them into our clothes.

It takes water, soil, seeds, land, forests, animals, electricity, oil, chemicals, metals and other precious natural resources to clothe us. At the current speed, scale and level of technological innovation, the fashion industry is heading towards an unsustainable and uncertain future.

The good news is that there are some promising developments that could transform the fashion industry and how we purchase and wear clothing. New technologies and processes are being developed to design, produce, use and recover products and materials in radical new ways – a circular system, in which anything material is considered part of a loop, where recovery or future use is anticipated and enabled. This includes the creation of new environmental, social and economic models. As acclaimed luxury designer Stella McCartney explains: ‘in future fashion will be restorative and regenerative by design and the clothes we love [will] never end up as waste’.

But how did we get here? 

Up until the mid 19th century, our clothes were made-to-order by local tailors and sold through trunk shows to aristocratic clients. A short time later the latest fashion designs would be shown on catwalks across major European cities, still produced locally and on a relatively small scale. Consumer culture was ushered in around the 1950s due to booming mechanisation and the growing prominence of advertising through television in the post WWII era. 

The 1970s saw most garment manufacturing moving overseas and the scale of production and speed to market was hugely accelerated. ‘Fast fashion’ gained steam throughout the 1980s, and some heralded it as the 'democratisation of fashion’. What once seemed exclusive to a few was made accessible to most. The majority of the market moved in this direction throughout the next two decades. By the mid 2000s fashion had become a huge globalised industry with production steadily shifting to countries that offered the lowest wages, the least regulation and fewest protections for workers and ecosystems. The system was designed to maximise profits by producing increasingly large volumes as quickly as possible for the lowest cost.

The growing social and environmental impact of our clothes

Today the global fashion industry has become one of the most influential sectors in terms of industrial, cultural and financial power, worth over $2 trillion. More than 150 billion items of clothing are produced each year. As a result, garment production has become the world’s third largest manufacturing sector, behind automotive and electronics. Despite decades of industrial automation and technological innovation, garment manufacturing remains a labour intensive process, employing millions of people worldwide. Women represent the vast majority of people working in fashion supply chains and too often work in poor conditions, making poverty level wages and subjected to gender-based violence in the workplace.

Meanwhile, the price that consumers pay is cheaper than ever before. A little over a century ago people spent more than half of their income on food and clothes. Today people spend less than a fifth while purchasing over double the amount than they did 20 years ago. 

The amount of clothes bought by a typical British family in one year produces carbon emissions equivalent to driving a car 6,000 miles and consumes the amount of water it takes to fill 1,000 bathtubs – putting clothing fourth after housing, transport and food in terms of its impact on the environment. Yet the average British household leaves a third of their clothes unworn each year and collectively we send 300,000 tonnes to landfill.

The negative social and environmental impacts of our clothes cannot be underestimated. The consequences can quite literally be grave. On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh killing over 1,100 garment workers, making it the fourth largest industrial disaster in history. Workers complained about cracks in the walls but were forced to work in deadly conditions anyway. The victims that died that day were making clothes for many of the popular fashion brands you’ll find on almost any high street or shopping mall. In fact, recent research suggests that garments are among the biggest items at risk of being produced through modern slavery practices. 

Globally we already consume 30 per cent more resources each year than our planet can replenish. Once the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea has dried up in just a few decades thanks to water-intensive cotton farming and the local economy has evaporated along with it. Millions of trees are logged every year to make fabric and this endangers ancient and protected forests. Some people say that you can predict the latest trends in fashion by the colour of the rivers in China. Synthetic clothing is the number one source of microplastics polluting our oceans. With a growing global population and one billion more people soon entering the middle class in Asia, we cannot carry on producing and consuming clothing in the same way.

Positive change has already begun

Recently, data analyst and Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed that fashion data was used to target online alt-right communities and elect Donald Trump. ‘We used weaponized cultural narratives to undermine people and undermine the perception of reality. And fashion played a big part in that.’ Wylie explained. He understood how fashion has shaped innovation, sparked cultural transformation and created economic development for centuries. Now, the focus needs to shift towards how fashion can be a powerful and political force for building a sustainable and resilient future for the planet. 

Technology will undoubtedly be an important tool for change. For example, scientists are developing ways to regenerate fibres such as polyester, nylon and cotton over and over again, and new innovative biological materials are being turned into fashion fabrics. Orange Fiber is made from citrus juice by-products and through novel processing forms a soft fabric perfect for dresses. Bioengineered spider silk is used to create a fabric stronger than steel, while Modern Meadow is using the latest biotechnology to brew leather in a lab without harming any animals.

Robotics and Artificial Intelligence are beginning to disrupt manufacturing and retail. For example, Adidas operates two ‘on-demand’ speed factories in Germany and America. These speed factories utilise 3-D printing, robotic arms and computerised knitting to produce sneakers in just five hours, with the aim to make one million pairs per year. In contrast, the conventional way of making sneakers is done mostly by humans and can take two months to turn raw materials into final products. Automation has the potential to completely re-shape fashion’s workforce in the future. Textile and garment production may no longer provide jobs to millions of low-skilled workers in developing countries. The big challenge will be how to make sure everyone in the industry can benefit from these changes. 

New business models such as renting clothes and smartphone apps that make it easy to swap and buy/sell second-hand clothes are proliferating, so much so that the resale of clothes is expected to be bigger than fast fashion within the next ten years.

If these technological innovations can succeed and scale in the fashion industry, then our clothes truly have the potential to change the world for the better.

By Sarah Ditty

About the writer

Sarah Ditty is Policy Director at Fashion Revolution, a global movement in over 100 countries campaigning for greater sustainability and transparency in the fashion industry. Sarah works to influence the public, the industry and lawmakers on fashion’s social and environmental issues, as well as leading the development of the annual Fashion Transparency Index report.

For Anyone//Anywhere: The web at 30, the British Council is proud to be collaborating with the Barbican on a series of essays from leading international writers and thinkers whose work explores the impact of technology on our lives. Find out more about the Barbican’s Life Rewired season, which throughout 2019 explores what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.

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