On 24 April 2013, a Bangladeshi garment factory in Dhaka collapsed, killing 1,133 people and injuring more than 2,500. Fashion Revolution Day commemorates the disaster by encouraging consumers to ask 'Who made my clothes?'. The British Council's Kendall Robbins explains why we need a more sustainable approach to fashion.
'Sustainable' fashion means more than hemp sack dresses
'Sustainable' fashion might seem like an unrelatable buzz word that suggests natural-coloured sack dresses made of hemp. This could be the case in some instances, but it's much more than that. The easiest way to think about sustainable fashion is simply as awareness.
As consumers, we are so far removed from the process of creation that we can't imagine how a garment comes into existence. We take for granted all the work that goes into making clothes. This starts with research and development, then includes design, product development, production of raw materials, conversion into fabric, fabric treatment, manufacture of thread and buttons and zippers, pattern-cutting, stitching and finishing, packaging, selection by a buyer, shipment and arrival in a shop, merchandising and retailing, and sales people. It finishes when the garment arrives in your closet.
I've probably skipped many other components, but the point is, the majority of these processes have a human touch or idea behind them. Each garment has gone through thousands of hands to reach you. But we have no relationship to that process anymore.
Consumers used to be more involved in the story of their clothes
Before mass production, it was very different. People would buy material from a draper, who knew the fabric producer. They would have this fabric made into a garment by a tailor they knew, and when it wore out, they would pass it on to someone else, mend it or use the materials to create something new. This still happens in many countries, but in the UK, our relationship is often only with the finished garment. The retailer and the label do little to reveal its journey.
It's difficult for retailers to make sure clothes are ethically produced
Today, the consumer usually relies on the retailer to ensure their end product has been ethically produced. But this is nearly impossible for a retailer to do. They may audit a factory to ensure that things are responsible on that side, but it's difficult to trace the raw materials that go into fabrics. Equally, it's very difficult to monitor whether a manufacturer is outsourcing or subcontracting parts of production. The sequins on your £20 top may have been handsewn by someone working 18 hours to ensure they meet their order.
We're buying too much, too cheaply
This is drastically different from the old made-to-measure system. Not all consumers then knew where every bit of their wardrobe came from, but they weren’t buying so many clothes. It is the sheer excess, which really causes the most damage. Lucy Siegle explains in her book To Die For that in the early 20th century, people spent a higher amount of their personal income on their wardrobe. Today, people spend less, but have more clothes.
Retailers struggle constantly to lower their prices to meet the consumer’s demands. To lower the price of a garment, the retailer needs to find savings in the production chain. Every one of the processes listed earlier has a price. So when buying a £5 top from a high street shop, consider all the people involved in the different processes of making it, and how much they needed to be paid. And bear in mind that the mark-up of an item by a retailer is usually twice the cost price.
We don't know how much human effort still goes into making clothes
One of the reasons behind this demand for more, cheaper clothing comes from a change in the relationship consumers have with their clothes. Because we are no longer privy to the process of creation, we sometimes can’t grasp how much time actually goes into producing a single top. This makes it hard to think of clothing as a long-term investment. It's less hassle to put a coat with ripped seams in a charity dropbox than to pay a tailor to mend it; easier to throw out holey socks than to darn them; and quicker to toss a pair of worn-out shoes in the bin than to ask a cobbler to refurbish them.
Today's clothes have shorter lifespans
In many museum fashion collections, there are pieces made from textiles of an earlier period, but in the silhouette of a later period. This is because clothes were handed down and adjusted to the fashions of the time, as well as the size of the new wearer. Many historic fashion collections have very few older examples of clothing worn by classes outside the aristocracy. Environmental conditions aside, this is often because less wealthy people used or recycled their clothes until they were threadbare.
Today, we've moved in the opposite direction. Clothing and household textiles make up almost five per cent of landfills globally. This creates millions of tonnes of waste in the UK alone, most of which isn’t easily biodegradable. According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), 350,000 tonnes of used clothing, worth £140 million, goes into landfill in the UK every year.
Some companies are looking at ways to recycle clothes
All of this could have been re-used, recycled or sent for energy recovery. Some retailers and businesses are already looking into the economic potential of re-use and recycling, such as Marks & Spencer's Schwopping initiative, or Nike, which recycles plastic bottles to make high-performance sportswear. But we still have a long way to go before we implement 100-per-cent-recycling programmes, and in the meantime, things are really down to the consumer.
It's up to us to show retailers what we want
Companies are producing cheap, fast fashion because of shoppers' habits. Retailers can implement all sorts of corporate social responsibility programmes, and ensure that they are producing ethically, but consumption still rests with the consumer. Change will not happen overnight, but through awareness and education, particularly amongst young people, we might be able to grow a new fashion system. There are already great initiatives like the Royal Society of the Arts’ Student Design Award, which encourages graduates to tackle social problems through design, and as a result has seen young designers try more sustainable approaches.
How can we have a more ethical relationship with our clothes?
Reminding yourself in the first place that there is a story and a value behind your clothes is a great initial step. This can be intimidating at first, as there's so much to be aware of. It's a bit like trying to be healthy – it feels like every week there is a study which declares some food you’ve always eaten causes heart disease or some plastic is cancerous. I haven't even touched on environmental issues around clothes production: a garment might be produced with a good human-rights track records, but the cotton used in it may be a product of over-farming, causing freshwater shortages, the dyes used might be causing toxic contamination to rivers, or your cheaper cashmere might be the same stuff turning the grasslands into deserts. It's hard to be 100-per-cent sustainable. But there are some changes that can help.
Plan your wardrobe to get the most out of it
Sustainability columnist Lucy Siegle advocates a ‘curated wardrobe’. This simply means that you plan and think about your wardrobe in order to get the most life out of it. You can take simple steps such as buying less, buying more carefully, buying organic where you can, recycling, selling on, swapping, mending, and sewing your own clothes. The key is to resist the temptation to impulse-buy, just because something is cheap. Cheap clothing often fits poorly. The materials aren't good-quality and fall apart easily. In a curated wardrobe, every piece should have a purpose and value.
I once did an inventory of my whole wardrobe and over several months kept track of what and how often I wore everything in it. Let’s just say there was a lot I didn't use. WRAP’s Value of Fashion report really goes into detail about the difference you can make by extending the lifespan of clothing and recycling it. Curating your wardrobe saves money, and means a sustainable approach to fashion doesn't need to be expensive.
Research your clothes before you buy
If you’re not buying something on impulse, then you have time to do research. Compare prices, look at the retailer’s corporate social responsibility policies, search the internet for reports on their manufacturing audits, and make a clear decision on what you want. When you spend time finding the right piece and finding out about its story, it instantly has more value.
Ask retailers questions
Retailers work for profit, so they want to meet the customer's needs. The more consumers demand transparency, the more retailers will work to give it. Ask the shop assistant about where the garment is produced and how. Email customer services or write letters. Or tweet at your favourite brand with the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes.
Recycle and re-use your clothes
Recycling clothes doesn't need to just mean putting them in a charity bin. There are great initiatives like Schwopping and Swishing (a clothes-swapping party). I am a big fan of charity shops, particularly for a lot of wardrobe basics. A lot of the stuff in charity shops comes from cheaper stores like Primark and Tesco, but rather than letting the clothes go to a landfill, they can be re-used.
We also need to push for more innovation in recycling. The UK is known for its brilliant material innovation, with designers like Christopher Raeburn using second-hand utilitarian materials like old parachutes to create high-fashion collections.
Learn how to get more from your clothes
Do you know what fibres the clothes you’re wearing are made out of? Are they silk, cotton, rayon, polyester, wool, nylon? Learning what your garments are made of helps you decide what to buy and how to take care of your wardrobe, so it lasts. And knowing how to sew, darn and mend your favourite clothes can be very satisfying.
Young people haven’t necessarily yet acquired a taste for clothing consumption, so it’s a great time to encourage them to think sustainably, and appreciate the process of making clothes. By learning how to make clothes themselves, people understand the work that goes into producing an object. The UK once had a vibrant clothes manufacturing industry, which included a whole range of crafts, such as lace-making, weaving, leather-working, cobbling and embroidery. Many of these industries are in decline in the UK today. There’s currently a big trend in design around making, but in fashion it feels like less of a movement, despite the fact that countries like India employ 34.5 million skilled artisans.
How can young designers produce ethical clothes?
If you’re a designer just starting out, then you’re in a great position to write certain values into your brand. It doesn't have to mean that you’re producing a product which prices you out of the market: it could be your unique selling point.
For example, Filipino designer Ken Samudio first studied marine biodiversity. Passionate about the issue of plastic waste in the waters surrounding the islands of the Philippines, he began producing luxury handbags and garments made of waste plastic. His work has been selected for Vogue Italia’s Vogue Talents, for the International Fashion Showcases in 2014 and 2015, and he’s got international stockists and press.
Professional support for designers who want to make sustainable fashion
The Ethical Fashion Forum can support young designers looking for ethical suppliers, business models and expert advice. And the Centre for Sustainable Fashion does research, runs programmes and creates policies to make fashion a force for good. They've also got a huge roster of fresh thinkers and researchers. Courses are popping up around the world like the MA Fashion Futures degree at London College of Fashion, which advocates a design approach that looks towards a future fashion system. If you’re based in the UK, you can also seek out advice from the Designer-Manufacturer Innovation Support Centre, which offers downloadable toolkits and workshops.
Learn how to get involved in Fashion Revolution Day today.
If you'd like to find out about the British Council's fashion work, please see our Architecture, Design and Fashion pages.