The stack ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap ethos of fast fashion is damaging the planet and our self esteem, according to experts. Lee Williams explores how slowing down the fashion industry will transform our clothes – and our happiness.
On 24 April 2013, the eight-storey Rana Plaza building collapsed killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring many hundreds more in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. The disaster, caused by structural failure, was the worst industrial accident of modern times.
Factories inside the building manufactured garments for many of the world’s biggest clothing retailers including Mango, Matalan, Primark and Inditex, the owners of Zara. The unsafe conditions and poor pay were in many ways a direct result of the West’s increasing desire for ‘fast fashion’, a business model where the ‘stack ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’ mentality means an increasingly fast turnover, poor quality garments, and fashion ‘seasons’ lasting as little as one or two weeks.
The resulting pressure on supply chains has had an increasing ecological as well as human impact. As well as being a major driver in fossil fuel consumption, the fashion industry involves a vast use of pesticides – cotton crops alone use up 11–12 per cent of the world’s pesticides according to environmental journalist, Lucy Seigle. And there is the problem of waste – according to Wrap around £140m (350,000 tonnes) worth of used clothing goes to landfill every year in the UK alone.
There is, however, an alternative. Slow fashion, as the name suggests, seeks to slow down the pace of production and consumption by changing practices and attitudes all along the supply chain from farmers to designers, manufacturers and consumers.
“Slow fashion is more than just a slowing of the fashion process,” says professor Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion in London. “It’s an honouring of what fashion is really about, which is representing a time, a place and an identity in connection with others.”
Dilys had first-hand experience of sustainability issues in the fashion industry as a designer. “I found myself doing everything remotely,” she says, “so I was sending faxes with sketches and getting samples in and I realised that the process of design had become disconnected from the skills involved in the making of it.”
In her work pioneering the use of organic materials for Katharine Hamnett, legendary designer of the slogan T-shirt, she became aware of the effect of GM cotton on the lives of poor farmers. It was an experience, coupled with her newly-acquired role as an educator, that made her realise the need for a centre for sustainability which could bring together education, research, business and political change.
The Centre for Sustainable Fashion was created in 2005 and now, as well as providing educational courses, the centre works on projects with some of the world’s biggest labels such as Nike, Gucci,Yves Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney, to promote sustainable practices. “It’s really important that luxury brands do something,” says Dilys, “brands like Alexander McQueen or Yves Saint Laurent, change culture, and if you can change culture you can change everything.”
But getting the big corporations on board alone won’t be enough, according to Dilys. Multinationals, by their very size find it difficult to change the way they operate quickly, even with the will to do so. Instead it is the smaller labels, designers and startups that can have the biggest impacts.
Christopher Raeburn is a British designer who uses recycled or reused materials such as decommissioned military gear. His first ever collection of women’s outerwear was made from a single parachute. Since then he has gone on to use all kinds of ex-military materials from Russian army winter coats to fighter pilot compression suits.
His 2014 collection included outerwear and bags made from a 25-man life raft. “Pretty much what we find, we use,” says managing director of the label, Alex McIntosh. “We try to push the idea that there’s already a massive amount of resources in the world ready to be re-used.”
McIntosh agrees that expecting big corporations to change the way they do business isn’t the only way forward. Instead he thinks a patchwork of small designers offering “micro- alternatives” can produce a healthy industry. But first new designers need to fully understand their own vision.
“You’ve got to figure out first of all what you really believe in and what is really unique about what you do,” says McIntosh. “Bring those two things together and you’ll be working towards a more sustainable model.”
But it is the modern mindset of endless consumption that is perhaps the most difficult hurdle to overcome in the battle against fast fashion. Professor Kate Fletcher is a lecturer at the London College of Fashion, writer of numerous books on sustainability, and the person who first coined the phrase ‘slow fashion’.
The problem with fast fashion
For Kate Fletcher, the modern fashion industry is one of the key drivers, not only of the consumption mentality but also unhappiness in general. She points to research showing that extra consumption, above a basic level, doesn’t contribute to wellbeing and even undermines it.
“Every additional purchase isn’t doing anything to make anybody happier,” she says. “And having a materialistic mindset is one of the key indicators of depressed personalities. So the fashion industry at present is actually undermining everybody.”
But how can we hope to change an attitude so deeply ingrained in society? Ironically the fashion industry – the very epitome of our restless consumer culture – might be the best place to start. “Fashion changes culture,” says Dilys Williams, “and I think that changing how people perceive the world will be more effective than however many great technologies or efficiencies or better materials we come up with.”
The key shift is to stop thinking of fashion and shopping as the same things, according to Rebecca Munro of the London College of Fashion, and return to its essence – a means of expressing our own image and individuality.
“The slow fashion movement is all about advocating that we don’t all buy new clothes every two weeks and that we think about our personal style rather than just copying what is in magazines – think about what suits us, what we like and, ultimately, what makes us happy.”
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