In May, the British Fashion Council and the Council of Fashion Designers of America released a detailed plan – and a warning – to the fashion industry on how they must slow down production and use the coronavirus crisis as an “opportunity to rethink and reset”. Time will tell whether brands take heed of that warning.
But something has to change. On the virtual high street, brands like Pretty Little Thing, Missguided and thousands of Instagram boutiques are contributing to masses of textile waste, air pollution and “buy to wear once” ethics. On sites like these, you can buy knock-off designer items for a fraction of the cost, often almost immediately after it has appeared on the runway.
Missguided got into hot water last year offering a £1 bikini, highlighting the true production costs of some of these fast fashion products. The conditions and payment of the women working in sweatshops to facilitate the £1 bikini doesn’t bear thinking about. But if fashion is to survive the tidal movement towards ethics and sustainability, it is going to have to start asking some difficult questions.
In fact, the problem is becoming so serious that the United Nations has set up a partnership on promoting sustainable fashion in line with their social development goals.
In a report they noted that “fashion is an environmental and social emergency. Nearly 20 per cent of global waste water is produced by the fashion industry ... which also emits about ten per cent of global carbon emissions – more than the emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping combined”.
They also discuss how supply chains put pressure on everyone who works within them, but particularly the factory workers who produce these clothes: “Fast fashion is also linked to dangerous working conditions due to unsafe processes and hazardous substances used in production. Costs reduction and time pressures are often imposed on all parts of the supply chain, leading to employees suffering from long working hours and low pay, with evidence, in some instances, of a lack of respect for fundamental principles and rights at work.”
Slow fashion is a concept that is becoming more popular in light of the growing climate justice movement. Advocates of slow fashion support a manufacturing process that respects people, the environment and animals. It involves making fewer purchases, and the purchases you do make being centred around higher quality garments or second-hand items.
Designer brands are not always ethically superior to fast fashion, however. In the past few years, designer brands have really ramped up their production rates to almost the same as high street brands. Pressure to reduce costs and speed up production affects all levels of the supply chain, with staff working long working hours and for very low pay. A lot of even high-end clothing is produced in sweatshops in countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh where workers are paid poverty wages to mass produce clothing often in appalling conditions.
Sustainability in fashion doesn’t just end at slowing down production and committing to care about the environment: it also requires the industry to tackle the ethics of where these clothes are made and by whom. The recent trend of “dropshipping”, where retailers do not keep the stock themselves and instead send the order to wholesalers (often stocked by sweatshops) who then deliver to the customer. In these warehouses clothing is produced unsustainably and then flown from countries like China over to the UK and America in a constant cycle of supply and demand.
For models, editors and buyers, flying across the globe to fashion shows in Paris, London, Milan and New York (to name a few) quickly racks up air miles. Clothes must be flown in to shows for multiple collections a year, leading some brands to have an almost constant cycle of international flights to take their clothes (and people) across the world.
However, there have been some noticeable changes as brands and individuals commit to improving their working practices and personal contributions. Gucci recently announced that they would be cutting their collections down to two a year, slowing down their production and in turn, reducing their carbon footprint as a brand.
Supermodel Edie Campbell, who has spent the last year attempting to be as sustainable as she can whilst being one of the most booked models in the world, tells me that she has spent most of the last decade travelling between airports so she is aware of her own carbon footprint and history. She says the turning point for her was in 2018 when she read the IPCC report on climate change, and she committed to stop taking any air travel that could be done over land. She is now regularly spotted on trains across Europe en route to shows for brands like Chanel and Burberry. Campbell says: “I’m hawking out my face and body to brands so that they can sell more things to more people – I’m under no illusions that I’m part of the problem.”
Models like Campbell are influencers in the industry. By showing an alternative to fashion’s unforgiving pace, they are leading the way to a sustainable future.