Words by Inès Bussat
Fashion is universal. We all wear and consume clothes, the same way we all eat and consume food. Recently, there has been progress in the understanding of our food consumption’s impact on the planet. However, I believe there is still too little awareness concerning the social and environmental crisis caused by the fashion industry.
In 2013, the Rana Plaza building, a garment factory in Bangladesh, collapsed. More than 1,100 workers died and 2,500 were injured – most of them being young women. The eight-story building was used to manufacture clothes for well-known global fashion brands, such as Primark, Benetton and Mango. This incident represents the fourth largest industrial disaster in history. Its mediatisation finally brought attention to the way fashion is made and enabled a re-connect of the broken ties between those who produce, sell and buy fashion.
The activist movement Fashion Revolution calls for change in the fashion industry, and for a need to bring sustainability and social equity as core values within its process. The founders Orsola De Castro and Carry Somers describe sustainability as a spectrum, a movement and a culture. It is about addressing human needs – physiological, emotional and material – within planetary boundaries, such as global warming, water supply and chemical pollution. Social equity consists of caring for the environment and for the vulnerable communities that inhabit it. In the process of fashion, garment workers should be empowered, the public health protected and the ecosystems preserved. In that way, sustainable fashion is a holistic approach to the conception, fabrication, sale, consumption and use of our clothes, shoes and accessories. With the campaign ‘Who made my clothes?’, the Fashion Revolution movement encourages us to question fashion by asking brands and retailers transparency and accountability. As Orsola De Castro declares: ‘if you really enjoy wearing clothes, then you should commit to the clothes you are wearing in an emotional way’. If clothes are our ‘second skin’, shouldn’t we care about its origin and composition?
The fashion industry needs to change. The capitalist system is at the core of the issues linked to fashion: brands release new collections every couple of weeks in order to maximise profit, prices are getting cheaper and cheaper and quality lower and lower. The ‘excess’ trend of fashion – fast-fashion – has consequent destructive impacts. The lack of transparency from corporations and brands is costing lives and our clothes are made in pain and suffering.
It is crucial to understand fashion not only as a superficial sector but as a structured system. Indeed, the fashion industry is related to gender, labour, poverty, and environmental issues. As a matter of fact, eighty percent of garment workers are women and 90% of all workers are unable to negotiate their wages nor their working conditions. In 2018, reports show that the production and commercialisation of clothing accounts for an estimated 6,7% of the global climate impact. Currently, 80% of all produced garments ends up being either incinerated or left in landfill, and by 2030, clothing consumption is projected to double. The present state of the fashion industry is atrocious, but I strongly believe that positive change is yet to come.
I love fashion because I believe it is an art and a means for self-expression. It manifests cultures and identities while enabling us to present who we want to be, or more precisely, how we want to be seen. Clothes can illustrate personality and opinion statements.
Before writing about the ways by which we can participate in the positive change towards a more sustainable fashion, I am going to use the current coronavirus crisis as an illustration of the flaws of fast-fashion.
Similarly to the rest of the world economy, the fashion sector was globally restrained during lockdown. As a result, orders made by brands were either cancelled, or suspended, leading to the waste of around 982 million clothing pieces. Besides, according to BBC News, up to half of the four million garment workers in Bangladesh may lose their job as a result of the pandemic, and again, mostly women are concerned. For the Fashion Revolution movement, the pandemic proliferates the need for industry-wide and systemic change. Yet, for this change to happen, transparency is crucial: we cannot fix what cannot be seen.
There are plenty of things we, citizens and consumers, can do to alleviate the impacts the fashion industry has on the world and its people, and hopefully, make it radically change. To be honest, I used to love fast-fashion brands, such as H&M, Zara or Topshop. My sisters and I used to accumulate trendy tops and trousers, without thinking at all about where, how and by who it was made. The documentary The True Cost by Andrew Morgan was eye-opening: for the first time, I could see what was hiding behind the ‘Made in China’ tag and the attractive £10 price of my favourite pair of shoes. It was extremely upsetting to know that it could have been made by a young girl, just like me, in dangerous and harmful conditions. The film revealed the backstage of the glittery fashion world I was so passionate about. It is from this realisation that my sisters and I discovered the joy of second-hand clothing. Prices are low, no harm is done due to our consumption, each piece is unique – or at least feels unique – and we can still accumulate all sorts of costumes and feel less guilty about it. We are lucky, in Brighton, to have access to so many different second-hand shops.
Most of my wardrobe is now composed of old fast-fashion pieces, second-hand findings and a few recently bought ethical and fair pieces of clothing. Buying sustainable clothing is important, in order to encourage conscious brands to continue their work. Yet, it does take time to get used to the ‘true cost’ of fashion, but once you do, you start appreciating and treasuring each piece, as a hand-made piece of art, which it is. In Brighton, shops like Lucy & Yak, The FAIR shop and Zola Amour have a stunning selection of sustainable and ethical clothing.
Another way to dress sustainably is to make the clothes ourselves. Craftisvism as a form of resistance against the fashion industry is becoming increasingly popular. Above is a picture of my sister Chloé, who sews most of her own clothes with my grandmother’s old sewing machine. Each of her creations are unique and made with love. She teaches most of her friends to sew to make them realize how accessible it is.
I believe in the revolution of fashion. It is urgent, necessary and all of us can take part in the battle. Like Orsola De Castro said, let’s see beyond the superficiality of fashion and start wearing our clothes with emotions and consciousness. Sustainable fashion is more than a trend, it is a political, social and environmental understanding of the industry.
If you would like to know more about the cause, visit the Fashion Revolution website, watch The True Cost documentary, and read Fashionopolis written by Dana Thomas.