Fashion is running out of time to get its house in order

2018

the telegraph - mi apparelHave you reached peak festive fury yet? My brothers and I coined the phrase many years ago for the moment when, for my mother, it all gets too much. It’s also become something which I feel increasingly towards every press release I am frequently sent with big, bold facts yelling at me, “Brits spend £85 on Christmas party outfits which most will only wear once” (a survey by the British Heart Foundation).

Another, from the Fashion Retail Academy, shouted, “Over 80 per cent of consumers are buying clothes they never wear.” And a pledge from Dr Kerri Akiwowo, a lecturer in textiles at Loughborough University, imploring people to buy second-hand presents or give something homemade, citing the Waste and Resources Action Programme’s assertion that around £140 million worth of (largely unbiodegradable) clothing goes into landfill each year. 

I thought of these things whilst in New York earlier this week as I stumbled across a small slice of the past, in a shop called Stock Vintage, near Union Square. It specialises in early 20th century workwear and military uniforms: Wrangler denim jackets from the 1900s, army shirts, still with their badges pressed on from the Second World War, kids’ camp T-shirts from the Thirties and Forties, a riot of colour and Americana print-wit. None of these would have looked out of place in any new store, much was in pretty good condition, the (natural, organic – although back then, they just hadn’t invented pesticides) cotton embroidered shirts softened by wear but not worn through, original buttons still fastened on, marks of life, but really, more proof that clothes – even these simple items built for hard wear and endurance – will last more than a lifetime, if you want them to.

Stella McCartney announcing the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action at last week’s Business of Fashion Voices event.
Stella McCartney announcing the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action at this week’s Business of Fashion Voices event. Credit: John Phillips/Getty Images for The Business of Fashion 

The current predicament of the fashion industry makes me feel uneasy, partly because I am culpable for being part of a culture that pushes the new in and must-haves, but also because the sea of bad news surrounding the worst practices of the industry is not new: we know that child refugees are being drafted in to work in garment production in Turkey; that fast fashion factories in this country have been paying its workers far less than the minimum wage; that 1,134 garment workers died when the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed on top of them; that farmers in India are ending their lives because they are so in debt to the companies which buy their cotton, but also trap them into expensive deals to purchase GM seeds and fertilisers; that in Prato, Chinese immigrants work at night in basements ensuring luxury labels a “Made in Italy” cache. Not to mention the burning of old stock and unused fabrics, the catastrophe of over-production and polluting… but still we want more. 

Perhaps no one could have predicted the effect of the internet and social media, enabling the fashion industry to accelerate at an extraordinary rate. Faster delivery times, a race to be cheapest, and exhaustive marketing strategies that have seen every wannabe Instagram user turn themselves into living billboards. The knock-on effect of sales culture, with constant discounting, ensures that we have no idea of the value of anything.

The end conclusion to all this is an ethical crisis, spanning the environmental and basic human rights for those involved in the production of our clothes. Again, this is not news. But it is reaching a critical point.

After the Rana Plaza disaster, the Bangladesh Accord was put in place in order to protect workers’ rights and safety through a five-year agreement between brands, retailers and unions. At the end of November time was up on the deal. The Bangladesh government will decide next week whether to expel the Accord inspectorate from the country. Without it, workers are terrified they will end up back in the abysmal conditions they were in before. 

At home, the fashion industry is under the spotlight of the Environmental Audit Committee, which has criticised Boohoo and Primark for selling T-shirts for as little as £2. The result being that clothing is being treated in the same way as a takeaway coffee cup – chucked into landfill as soon as our fleeting interest in it wanes. 

On Monday, at the COP24 climate summit in Poland, Stella McCartney will announce the full details of the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which she has spearheaded the creation of, in association with the UN and in line with the Paris Agreement. It will pledge 16 commitments for brands to sign up to in order to see a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The charter’s intention is to force change and policy legislation in regards to the environmental strain the fashion industry puts on the world. 

This week I attended the All Parliamentary Party Group for Fashion and Textiles. The room was bursting with impassioned women (mostly) from different areas of the industry, united in their belief that the time has come for legislative action. Orsola de Castro, founder of the excellent Fashion Revolution campaign, cited the need for the culture of the industry to change – it’s elitist, opaque practice is helping no one. Designer Katharine Hamnett impressed upon the crisis in cotton farming and the need to push for sustainable crops in order to save soil and wildlife from the use of pesticides and support impoverished farmers.

The commercial reality of this was exposed by a designer discussing her experience with a huge national retailer. She pleaded for organic cotton to be used in the collection, but was rebuffed with the eventual concession to use BCI cotton (a label that aims to ensure sustainable practice, but still uses pesticides) instead. The reason given? The brand didn’t want its customers to look around the shop floor and wonder what might be wrong with the conventional cotton everything else was made from. 

Cost is another concern. Retailers say customers will not pay more for “sustainable” goods. But why? We pay more for coffee with a Fairtrade stamp. We buy organic vegetables. Luxury brands are falling over themselves to stop producing fur. Why can’t we make people care about sustainable fashion?  And who along the supply chain will pay for the documentation of transparent ethics?

At the moment any schemes offering certification are voluntary, and none are government backed. As one commentator said, “The fashion industry has had enough time to mark its own homework.” 

The call at the end of the session was for legislation to create a labelling system for clothes, so we know how good the process has been to create it. Which would leave the decision in your hands – would you pay a few pounds extra for the peace of mind that your clothes have been responsibly produced by fairly paid, honourably treated adults?

The thing is, I don’t think we have much choice left.

Article by The Telegraph



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