Niamh Tuft is Fashion Revolution’s global network manager. She is responsible for coordinating with all 92 of our amazing country teams around the world. Below, Niamh shares 5 lessons in longevity ahead of our Black Friday Campaign.
Fashion history can tell us a great deal about where the environmental and social issues in the supply chain have come from. The intrinsic link between the cotton trade and transatlantic slavery, which tells us that fashion was built on and continues to rely on human exploitation, to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, which foretells subsequent industrial disasters like Rana Plaza and last December’s factory fire in Delhi, which killed 43 people. On the environmental front, history tells of rivers running black with pollutants around mills in Victorian England, showing us how producing fashion once relied on toxic chemical pollution just as it does now.
However, fashion history can also shed some light on possible solutions. When it comes to the second-hand trade, mending and clothing longevity, fashion has a few history lessons for us!
An Egyptian children’s tunic in the Whitworth Gallery’s collection in Manchester is dated to 600-700 BC. It’s extensively darned with coloured wool threads making it one of the oldest pieces of evidence we have that humans have been darning for thousands of years. Many cultures have their own examples. Boro in Japan creates new fabrics from fabric scraps and old clothes, it was widely practiced in peasant communities in the Edo period (1600s-1800s) though born out of necessity due to clothing laws which restricted access to new fabrics it is now widely practiced by visible menders around the world. And invisible mending has been going on for centuries too – Rafoogari in India is used to restore valuable pieces of clothing, it is highly skilled using patchwork and darning to restore antique textiles which have been passed down through generations for hundreds of years.
Many clothes in museum collections show marks of alterations – either for different fashions and styles, for different wearers or for changes in bodies over time. A 2018 exhibition at FIT called Fashion Unravelled exhibited clothes that were altered, mended and repurposed during their lifetimes, the catalogue lists ‘a set of stays (otherwise known as a corset) from circa 1750 was enlarged by adding panels of mismatched fabric at the waist, reshaping it for a changed figure or a new wearer’ and a Paul Poiret dress which passed through generations for nearly 100 years and underwent alterations to the hem and fastenings to suit different wearers.
Clothes were regularly taken apart to be restyled and trims were reused and repurposed. This is why some clothes in museum collections seem to have a mismatch between the age of the textiles and the date of the silhouette.[i] Many of the historic clothes in museum collections survived because they were used in theatre before they were collected by museums and bear the marks of multiple alterations and adaptations.[ii] Multiple studies show that fit is one of the main reasons that people dispose of clothing[iii] but fashion history tells us we can embrace the craft of alteration once again. We don’t have to bid farewell to our favourite pieces, instead we can wear them in a new form.
If we look back in fashion history, we can find many different roles for traders of second-hand clothes and also menders. The names of different roles alone indicate how much specialisation unfolded in this industry, organised from chapmen (peddlers), crokery sellers (itinerant street sellers of second-hand clothes), rag and bone men (ragpickers), slop sellers (second-hand clothes sorters and traders), clothes-brokers (who traded in bulk and sold to smaller sellers), and pawn brokers who bought and sold clothes but also rented them out.
Mending clothes was often done by family members in the home but mending roles were also specialised and households with domestic servants would have a live-in mender.[iv] Alterations could be made by tailors and seamstresses. Cobblers and cloggers who repaired shoes were widespread. Some textile historians even argue that some forms of embroidery originated from mending or patching.[v] So while the loss of mending skills is a key challenge in ensuring clothing longevity, fashion history tells us that skilled specialist roles can be created and sustained to keep clothing in circulation and make loved clothes last.
But it’s not all about the job creation and the economy! Recent research has shown that sewing and mending can have benefits to our emotional and physical health[vi] and across fashion history making and mending has been at the heart of social and political bonds especially among women – from the secret messages carried in patchwork quilts in North America to the political resistance of khadi in Ghandi’s India to early movements for women’s suffrage who often met in sewing circles. Rose Sinclair’s fascinating research on Dorcas societies recently exhibited at Radical New Cross shows us that the value of making and mending is not only economic but social. These sewing societies originated as a philanthropic movement among middle- and upper-class women. They arrived in the Caribbean through missionary women who treated indigenous skills and knowledge with little regard. But the societies become embedded into communities, and Sinclair shows ‘by the 1950s the clubs brought together Caribbean women through textiles to act as networks for social and economic change. As women from the Caribbean moved to the UK in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the clubs moved with them, contributing hugely to diversity in the British textiles aesthetic.’[vii]
The second-hand clothing trade has been a vital part of the industry for thousands of years, in fact textiles and clothing including pre-worn items were used as currency to trade and barter. In Venice, there was a whole guild of second-hand clothes traders called L’Arte degli Strazzaruoli who regulated every aspect of the trade when the plague hit the city they were tasked with working with health officials to ensure used clothing did not transmit the disease.[viii]In Florence, some rigatierri (as second-hand traders were named) were amongst the wealthiest men in Florence and appointed to political positions in the city.[ix] In London, the second-hand clothing trade was so large and well organised that in 1843 they formally established an Old Clothing Exchange.[x]
Some of the most recognisable fashion items of the twentieth century came out of the second-hand trade, many from army surplus or labourers clothing adopted by subcultures like the beats, mods and hippies. The pea coat was US military surplus. Blue jeans were surplus from clothing made for factory workers, miners, farmers, and cattlemen. Corduroys were originally worn by workers in French industrial towns. Parkas were army surplus which reached British shores after the Korean war and were widely worn by mods. Donkey jackets were originally worn by coal miners before being adopted by skinheads. So, we have the surplus and second-hand market to thank for many iconic styles of clothing we still wear now.
One of my favourite fashion history facts is rooted in recycling. In the 17th and 18th centuries, one of the most ubiquitous destinations for recycled of clothes was to be turned into paper. Established in 1690, the Rittenhouse Mill in Philadelphia recycled rags, including linen linked to the flax industry nearby, into pulp for paper.[xi] The mill still stands today and if you find yourself in Philadelphia you can visit it. On the other side of the Atlantic, Benjamin Law built up an industry which employed over 500 people in West Yorkshire in producing shoddy – wool fibres made from rags, scraps and cast offs. In its heyday, the shoddy capital of England imported waste cloth from all over Europe to create materials not only for clothing but for industrial and domestic use and processed over 30 million pounds per year.[xii]
We should think beyond fashion when it comes to giving the materials that are in circulation the longest possible life. While circularity and textile recycling may be considered as a new technological frontier, fashion history shows us it isn’t something new, archaeological studies across the world (including this one dating back as far as 1500 BC) show that garments and rags were used in applications from health and sanitation, to pottery, salt mining, ship building and insulation.
As we like to remind ourselves at Fashion Revolution ‘sustainability has been trending for billions of years —we are hardwired to it. The culture of excess—mass production, mass consumption and accelerated growth—is, in comparison, a historical nanosecond-long error of judgement’ (Orsola De Castro). We only need to look at fashion history to see that.
[iii] WRAP (2012) Valuing our Clothes and Laitala, Kirsi ‘Consumers’ clothing disposal behaviour – a synthesis of research results’ International IJC 38 (2014)
[iv] König, Anna. ‘ A Stitch in Time: Changing Cultural Constructions of Craft and Mending’ Journal of Current Cultural Research 5 (2013)
[vi] BBC Arts and UCL https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2019/get-creative-research and Journal of Public Health https://academic.oup.com/jpubhealth/article/34/1/54/1550848
[viii] Allerston, Patricia. “Reconstructing the Second-Hand Clothes Trade in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Venice.” Costume 33 (1999).
[xi] The Rittenhouse Mill and the Beginnings of Papermaking in America. James Green (1991)
150 billion of items of clothing. It is, indeed, a lot. And also it’s the average amount produced worldwide annually. At the same time, we use our clothes 36% less than 15 years ago. In this rhythm, amid hyper production and hyper consumption, we are left with disposability and pollution. It is a system of insistent colonialism from the Global North, masking their treatment of the Global South as ‘donations’, using them as if they were some kind of landfill.
African countries receive huge amounts of clothing items from European countries and the US in a system of donation; they are gigantic local markets where these clothes are sold at the lowest prices possible. These clothes have an interesting life story: usually, they have their fabric produced in Eastern Africa, then go to India or Bangladesh, where they are sewn up by women and turned into garments. Afterwards, they get exported for bottommost prices to European countries; 80% of garments produced in Bangladesh go there, according to the OIT.
After a brief season in a fashionista’s wardrobe, a lot of these clothes are donated. Where do they end up going? Their birthplace. 70% of all clothes donated in Europe ends up going back to Africa, according to Oxfam.
We are no longer going to be their dumping ground.
We talked to Hadeel Osman, creative director and the country coordinator of Fashion Revolution Sudan, on how this dynamic evolves in Eastern African countries and what are the implications in the market and local population.
Barbara: How does the second hand clothes market work in Sudan and close countries?
Hadeel: In Sudan and across East Africa, second hand clothes take up a majority portion of the garment market and in many cases are the main source of clothes for citizens. There are several tiers of secondhand markets; street markets, boutiques and social media resellers. Street markets are typically the most accessible and affordable choice out of the three, as it relies on independent traders selecting and transporting the secondhand clothes which are imported mostly from Western countries, in containers that hold hundreds of thousands of tonnes. Boutiques rely mostly on curating unique, vintage, branded items and are usually run by fashion conscious traders who have either grown out of space in their market stalls or have repositioned themselves to target a different class of citizens, often increasing prices to seem more exclusive. Internet resellers depend on free social media platforms to reach their audience, as a much easier form of e-commerce and often charge for delivery. This method can either be separate from the other methods of selling secondhand or is adopted by all. In Sudan the most common and main point of sale for secondhand clothes are the street markets, with various attempts here and there.
Barbara: How and from where do these clothes arrive?
Hadeel: These clothes typically come from USA and Europe, with a decent amount from the Arabian Peninsula and Asia. The clothes that people in the West donate to their local and international charities as well as thrift shops end up being divided into two different piles. One is kept to sell locally and the vast majority are wrapped in bales and packed in containers that are shipped off to most African countries, entering through the sea ports. Other sources of these garments are from companies and traders who send their excess inventory or reject clothes that are unsellable due to malfunctions in design. In some cases in Sudan, these clothes used to arrive through charities and churches which used to bring these garments for the citizens living in camps across war-torn areas, which are then smuggled by traders to markets across various cities.
Barbara: Do you notice that the second hand clothes market affects the local economy in your Sudan?
Hadeel: As of right now, it’s hard to accurately tell as we have limited information available to us on both the secondhand markets in Sudan, along with the local textile manufacturing industry. Also, the current economic situation in Sudan has been in a steady decline for many years. Obviously this makes room for us in Fashion Revolution Sudan to research and find out factual information on this to see how we can contribute to uplifting the fashion industry in its entirety. However, as someone who lives in the country and is aware of the secondhand clothes market and the growing contemporary fashion scene, there is certainly an effect there because people are more likely to buy cheaper easily accessible clothes than more costly custom-made or slow fashion local brands.
Barbara: Do you believe that this problem can be solved? Whether through decreasing the volume of clothing production, or the subversion of the abusive vision from the US and Europe over African and Asian countries?
Hadeel: Definitely, it can be solved but it will take some time. The entire global fashion cycle has to be revised and changed from the first step, in order for us to see actual change and a reduction of clothes dumping in Africa and Asia. Many governments in East Africa have been imposing bans on America and Europe to either reduce or completely stop the import of secondhand clothes. This puts African nations in a position of power, which white supremacy and colonisation have successfully blocked for many decades. These same governments recognise how vital it is to support and even empower the local textile manufacturing industry as they now see the economical and social advantages of African fashion, which has been receiving a lot of positive reactions from the international community in recent years. If more governments join together, and this is a great opportunity for the African Union to be involved, and decide to control the amount of secondhand clothes that enter their borders, then a chain reaction will be born. After all, a large percentage of these clothes don’t amount to much other than waste, which if anything we need less of everywhere. By putting a legal, ethical and economic stop to the abuses enforced by America and European nations and the fashion companies there, we will no longer be their clothes dumpster. This independence can really fuel an artisanal and industrial boom across the continent.
In some Latin American countries, this practice also happens, mostly amid the flow US-Haiti: the Americans use up and throw away the clothes, and these end up going to the Haitians markets. An example is the book “Pepè”, by the Canadian photographer Paolo Woods, which compiles pictures of citizens from the country wearing T-shirts from North America with random and meaningless phrases.
It’s crucial recognize and analyze the practice of clothing donation, how it composes the massive and non-transparent fashion production chain, and the implications of globalised production and consumption. It’s very likely that a system which produces 150 billion pieces of clothing each year is going to produce surpluses. The key question is: why is it that African countries should receive these surpluses from the US and European countries, and pay the price for the overconsumption of others? And why produce so much clothing, when we haven’t been able to use them properly?
A part of the fashion system shows the face of its racism when choosing African countries to be the cemetery for their own trash. The key to the problem is diverse and therefore demands the action of multiple actors. To begin to change, we must begin by lowering production, create the transition to new economies, and bring this modern colonialism and imperialism to the grave, enabling the fashion rebirth as a tool for regeneration and empowerment at any place in the world.
Each year, Fashion Revolution’s creative team collaborates with the BA (Hons) Fashion Communication course at Northumbria University to inspire fashion’s next generation to campaign for a fair, safe, transparent and accountable fashion industry. Below, student Rachel Taylor shares her experience with the brief.
A hedonistic array of lights, people and music fills the otherworldly landscape of Boomtown festival. The fashion is unapologetic, a frantic kaleidoscope of colours and prints. Boomtown is a place where people go to dance, laugh and escape; all who enter dive deep into the rabbit hole of immersive sets and spectacle. Behind the wonder though, there is a sinister trend. Each festival goer is dressed up for the occasion – and festival fashion is largely bought to be worn for just that moment. The cowboy hats, the cheap glamour, the need for a myriad of carefully curated outfits and accessories – it’s so tempting!
Yet, when looking for festival fashion, how much time is taken to buy well or to reinvent the clothes you already have? How much thought goes into not just what it looks like, but asking #whomademyclothes? Where does all this festival fashion go afterwards – to the dump, back into the wardrobe for next time, or gifted on to the next fan?
As a Fashion Communication student at Northumbria University, I was given an amazing opportunity to work on a live brief with Fashion Revolution. I was able to learn about current issues surrounding sustainability, challenged to consider how I could contribute to a more thoughtful fashion future and encourage transformation in the Gen Z consumer mindset and subsequent behaviour.
I was tasked with becoming a pro-fashion protestor, and to develop a call-to-action strategic PR campaign to inspire individuals to take account of their actions, to behave in mindful ways and be a dynamic force for good in years to come.
First, I needed to delve into the mind of Gen Z, the audience of my campaign. Shockingly, a survey I conducted of 40 men and women aged between 18-25 revealed that 87% of people said they bulk buy new clothes for festivals. A staggering 69% of people said they would never wear those clothes again. I know from personal experience as a student, the allure of fast fashion is powerful. If I’m being honest, there’s been more than one occasion where I have splurged on fast fashion after booking a last-minute festival (I’m only human). My research made one thing very clear – that Fashion Revolution has a real opportunity to help make the phenomenon of festival fashion more sustainable and to change the trend towards clothes.
In essence, my campaign is a pilot concept focusing on launching at Boomtown festival. The campaign focuses on encouraging the festival goers to customize and upcycle their current clothes instead of bulk buying new ones. The aim is to stimulate creativity, a love of personalisation and imagination, and inspire a mindset shift whereby clothes are loved, have longer lives and nothing goes to waste.
My project proposed that Fashion Revolution partnership with Boomtown festival. With every Boomtown ticket sold, the festival-goer would be sent a Make Do and Customise zine by Fashion Revolution (digital, downloadable and printable). The zine would instruct the reader to find an old item of clothing and sew on the provided Boomtown Revolution patch. Festival goers would then be instructed to wear their customised look to the festival. Hashtags such as #boomtownrevolution and #makedoandcustomise would generate significant hype from Gen Z. This would make noise about the campaign and Fashion Revolution.
Once at the festival, the revolution patch helps festival goers to claim their rewards at the Boomtown Revolution stand: free food, drinks tokens, discount off their next festival ticket, free use of the luxury portaloos (a major incentive to Gen Z!). Experiences on offer at the stand would be inspirational Make Do and Customising upcycling workshops run by Fashion Revolution and guests, – these would consolidate and tell the story of Fashion Revolution, debate sustainable development and our relationship with clothes, and teach people how to personalise their clothes. The potential reach for Fashion Revolution is 55,000 people at Boomtown festival.
For Boomtown, the collaboration with Fashion Revolution would expand and improve their sustainable business strategy. Boomtown has already made positive steps towards its goal of being a fully sustainable city, and this partnership could help festival goers make more sustainable fashion choices.
My campaign was inspired by the Make Do and Mend movement of the 1940s. In the war years, clothes rationing meant people had to Make Do and Mend their clothes. Looking back, it was a very sustainable way to approach fashion. Subsequently, a key source of design inspiration was war-time propaganda posters. The retro red that is used throughout my campaign is often associated with revolutions. I felt that this was a powerful way that Fashion Revolution could assert their presence and message.
Once this pilot launch has gone well, the project would expand to festivals all over the world with Fashion Revolution leading the way to inspire Gen Z to sustainable festival fashion style.
I think it is vital that festivals encourage their participants to dress with ethics and sustainability in mind. Creating a campaign for Fashion Revolution has been eye-opening and fulfilling. Learning about the social and environmental costs of the fashion industry has deeply shocked and resonated with me. It has transformed my mindset and now I am really starting to realise my own individual responsibility and duty to this planet. We have to be brutally honest to ourselves about our own spending habits in order to really make long-term positive changes that prioritise the planet and each other. Since responding to this project and developing my campaign concept, I’ve cut down on the amount of clothes that I buy and choose to follow brands that have sustainability at their core. Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index has been particularly helpful in me achieving this as I started by reading through this and researching into brands from there. I also sell the clothes I have finished wearing on, so that my clothes get to live on and make new memories with someone else.
When I started the project and began coming up with the initial ideas for my campaign back in February, the world was a very different place. I was also a very different person. I never dreamt that festivals all over the world would be cancelled and we would be in the midst of a global pandemic. I never thought that the fashion landscape could be so affected and it might give us the space to question what have we grown up thinking was normal behaviour? Although the future is uncertain, I feel positive that festivals will return and that we will once again be able to dance together and celebrate life. Lockdown has given us all an opportunity to reflect and think about what is important. We have a true chance now to change our values and bring sustainability to the forefront of everything we creatively do. This is our moment to make a change, question and break our old consumer habits and be resourceful and respectful with what we have, where it has come from and where it may best go on to. This could be a new form of hedonism – let’s get high on sustainable festival fashion.
Follow me on Instagram at: @rachel_taylor_creative
And check out @FashionCommNorthumbria
Lockdown is a testing time for many, with days merging together it is important to plan fun and creative activities whilst staying at home. This is a straight forward step-by-step upcycling project. Its purpose is to upcycle fabrics into new accessories whilst you learn/practice skills about sewing and upcycling. You can then celebrate your creation by wearing it, posting photos of it or sending it to a loved one.
There is an art to upcycling, to see the potential in what could be labelled as ‘waste’, to be a new item or in this case an accessory to be cherished. Upcycling means that those discarded items avoid landfill, with an estimation of £140 million worth of clothing going to landfill annually (Wrap, 2020) this comes at a critical time. Crafting is also a mindful activity that helps you to relax whilst focusing on your creation. You become absorbed in the activity, entering a flow state which calms the mind and reduces stress.
You Will Need:
Cut your fabric around 45 cm x 11cm – this is a rough guide you can make it longer (if your hair is particularly thick or wider if you want a wide styled scrunchy). If you have fabric that is too small you can add it to other fabric by measuring it and sewing along the seam.
Fold the fabric long ways in half and give it a quick iron so it stays in place.
Attach the elastic to one end of the rectangle with a pin and then sew the open side and the end with the elastic, go over the elastic a few times to secure it in place.
Attach a safety pin to the loose end of the elastic, so it is easy to find, then turn the tube inside out (so it will be the right way round), by using a chopstick or similar.
Sew the elastic on the other side so that it is securely attached and pop the closed end in the open end of the scrunchie and sew together, going over it a few times so it is secured.
Enjoy and share your creations online using the hashtag #UpcycleRevolution.
As the #whomademyclothes campaign successfully raised intention for improved social practices in the textiles supply chains, attention is now shifting to the origin of the raw materials, sustainability and composition of the garments we buy. The answer to the Fashion Revolution #whatsinmyclothes question seems rather simple, as materials and fibre types used in products we buy are listed on the little white care label inside the garment. Seems straightforward, right?
How do we know the labels will tell us what is in our clothes?
We rely on the legislation that obliges apparel brands and retailers to disclose the necessary information to us consumers, to be able to make informed choices when shopping. In the European Union, apparel brands and retailers are required to inform their consumers adequately on the composition of textile products at the time of purchase. The European Textile Regulation states that textile products sold in the European Union need to be labelled or marked in a durable, easily legible and visible way. There are some exceptions to this rule for more complex products (like bras) on the materials that need to be included in the composition claims. However, this Regulation should ensure European consumers know what is in the textiles products they buy most. National governments are responsible for the enforcement of this Regulation in their territories.
To make sure they provide reliable composition claims on the products they sell, apparel brands and retailers (especially larger ones) have established extensive quality control systems and test the actual composition of their products at several stages in their supply chains. In case of inaccurate composition claims, products would be relabelled entirely or stickers used to correct the composition claims on the labels. A brand selling textile products on the European market with inaccurate labels could face legal repercussions and/or financial claims. We now focus on Europe, however similar regulations apply in most countries worldwide.
Do labels actually tell us what is in our clothes?
In 2018, doubts were raised regarding the accuracy of composition claims on garment labels on the Dutch market. Why? With the introduction of the Fibersort, a technology able to categorise textiles based on their composition, misleading claims on labels became apparent to sorters of used clothing. The Fibersort machine scans individual garments using near-infrared light to detect their actual composition, which turned out to often differ from the one stated on the garment label. Dutch Parliament therefore urged the national government to investigate these allegations.
In spring 2019, extensive testing by an external lab showed the Fibersort is able to recognise textiles’ composition in a very accurate way. Circle Economy was therefore commissioned by the Ministry for Infrastructure and Waterways to execute a larger scale research using the Fibersort machine. Based on a sample of over 10,000 garments, the results of this research show that consumers are likely to be misled by inaccurate composition claims on labels in 41% of the cases. Deviations between claimed and actual composition of garments were found for all material types, with the strongest deviations found in garments that consist of multiple fibre types (especially combinations between cotton and polyester).
Why can labels be inaccurate?
What do these conclusions tell us? Allegations of fraud are easily made. However, the truth – as always – is less black and white than you might expect. Fraud would imply labels claim a higher content of expensive fibre types like cotton than the garment actually has to maximise the product price. However, the results of the research were far more nuanced than that… Let’s have a closer look at the deviations between claimed and actual composition of garments made of cotton-rich cotton and polyester blends, bearing in mind that cotton is a more expensive fibre.
Textile supply chains are global, long and complex. While brands have established and implemented extensive quality control mechanisms, product information on intermediate products like yarn and fabric is transferred from one supplier to another before a garment manufacturer or product trader will attach a label. Considering the speed and volumes of production, inaccuracies easily arise. The study sample shows that for 11% of cotton-polyester composition claims deliberate fraud is not likely: the claimed composition of the more expensive material is lower than the actual one. In this case a garment with a label that claims it has 50% of cotton 50% of polyester actually would have more than 50% cotton content. No industry player would deliberately under-claim a more expensive fibre.
Of course, as one can expect, the opposite is also true. For around ⅓ of the cotton-rich cotton-polyester garments analysed for this study, cotton content claimed was much higher than it actually was. These outcomes suggest that intentional exaggeration of cotton content is plausible.
Garments with inaccurate labels should not be allowed to enter the European market – as stipulated by the European Textile Regulation. And still, the full sample analysed consisted of textiles discarded by Dutch consumers, which were therefore most probably bought in the European Union. While enforcement of the Regulation is the responsibility of national governments, we found the accuracy of composition claims on garment labels not to be a high priority topic on the agendas of responsible authorities, as indicated by their representatives and illustrated by the lack of information on the topic. As the product portfolio these authorities must oversee also includes more risky topics like food safety, and as capacity for on-the-spot checks is limited, accurate textile composition claims are mostly not deemed a priority.
Why should you care about what labels (do not) say?
Generally speaking, we as consumers show an increasing awareness for the impact of our purchasing behaviour. We buy products from brands and retailers we trust and relate to, investigate the pros and cons of material types, take care of our garments and ensure to find the best destination for products we dispose of. Lying labels will thwart even the sustainability efforts of the most dedicated sustainable fashionistas amongst us.
Dishonest composition claims will mislead you into buying products with a different impact than anticipated for. For instance, cotton is a more expensive raw material and has twice the environmental impact of polyester (according to the industry’s HIGG Index). However you as a consumer might be willing to pay a higher price for a natural fibre as you aim to live plastic-free. While you are consciously choosing to purchase the more expensive cotton shirt, you might still end-up owning a (partially) synthetic garment instead.
At time of purchase, we all want to ensure the product is fit for use. You check the label to make sure the product has the properties you are looking for, and will make a decision based on the information provided – even more so when buying online without the opportunity to feel a product. Unreliable consumer information can lead to more unused items piling up in closets and ultimately more textile waste.
Garments come at a price. They will also have a value at the moment they are disposed of. Ideally they will be suitable for reuse by a next consumer and after that sooner or later they might become feedstock for recycling. Products made of one fabric could be recycled into new ones, mainly if they consist of one fibre type – ideally wool, cotton or acrylic. A conscious consumer might consider this a driver to choose specific products. Unfortunately, as the labels research with the Fibersort showed, the only destination of these carefully selected items after they can no longer be worn might be downcycling or incineration if the labels were inaccurate.
So, what is in my clothes?
Consumers have a right to know the composition of textile products they buy to be able to make conscious choices and go for truly more sustainable products. Therefore, industry and governments should continue to play their role to ensure product information is reliable and accurate. Meanwhile, consumers should care about the materials and garments they buy, and call for reliable product information to base a smart purchasing decision on. The best way to motivate industry and governments to take action is by asking your favourite brands, for instance on social media, #whatsinmyclothes?
Today we are thinking about how to be more careful with our use of the earth’s precious resources. A key part of that is clothing and the fashion industry. We are wasteful, let us not beat about the bush. And the question I have, as a historian, is: can we learn anything from history?
In 1941 the British Government introduced clothes rationing and the following year Utility clothing was swiftly followed by austerity measures that limited the length of women’s skirts, the number of buttons on a jacket, the shape of lapels and the width of the gusset in women’s knickers. Men did not get off scot free either. Their socks, which had until then been knee length, were cut to just nine inches, which caused a roar of disapproval and questions in the House of Commons. That outcry was matched when turn-ups on their trousers were banned. In short, Britain had to cut its cloth to fit the new reality of clothing shortages.
There was the belief during the war that anything that could be done to help the war effort, to reduce waste and to make-do with what limited materials people had was valid. Gill Tanner, now 87, remembers exchanging clothes with her neighbours ‘it was lovely. We got “new” clothes, well new to us, and that was exciting.’ Make-do and Mend brought out some of the best in expert seamstresses. Eileen Gurney unpicked an old edge-to-edge coat, put a deep hem on it, made a turn down collar ‘and la voila! A warm and luscious new coat!’
Clothes rationing, Utility, Austerity designs and then, in September 1943, Make-Do and Mend, presented a serious trial for women but also to the fashion industry. It challenged the editors of newspapers and magazines to work out how best to advise their readers. With Paris out of the fashion picture from the summer of 1940 and the severe curtailing of clothes through the rationing scheme it might be supposed that it was a dire time for clothes. In the literal sense it was: Vogue tried to cheer up its readers by reminding them that for a quarter of a century the advice had been ‘to put your money into one good outfit and vary it with accessories.’
However it was not all doom and gloom. Audrey Withers, the wartime editor of British Vogue told readers of the American edition that she had three suits, one woollen dress for going out in the evening and two pairs of slacks and jumpers for the weekend. She was proud of her reversible topcoat from Bradleys and her impeccable navy wool dress from Angele Delanghe but her main message was one of versatility. Her clothes had to last. Quality not quantity was her message.
While the government was encouraging people to be as frugal as possible, Audrey Withers was reassuring them that they did not have to go around looking scruffy. Far from it, the emphasis should be on ingenuity and creativity. ‘Hats and accessories can let in light-heartedness’ she told her readers, ‘with ingenuity and style you can snip as you please for you cannot ration style.’
When soap was rationed Vogue told its readers that white gloves and shirts were out, as were pastel shades, blonde hair and silk stockings. Fortunately, we do not have such limitations on our clothes today but I would suggest that looking back at some of the ingenious ways people got around clothing shortages could help us to reassess our own usage. I shocked a journalist recently by telling her that I cleaned my black leather boots. She immediately stuck her feet under her chair and said ‘don’t look at my boots, for goodness sake.’ As I spend so much time writing about the war years, I have always been cautious about buying new clothes. Don’t get me wrong – I do love having a new outfit – but I am very happy to share with my well-dressed neighbour. I follow Audrey Withers’ good advice that accessorising an existing outfit can be just as rewarding as buying something new. And so much kinder to the planet.
Julie Summers is the author of Dressed for War, the Story of Vogue Editor, Audrey Withers, from the Blitz to the Swinging Sixties. Dressed for War tells the story of a now-forgotten historical figure who was described, during the Second World War, as the most powerful woman in London. She was behind the designs for the Austerity clothing restrictions and worked closely with great designers such as Hardy Amies, Digby Morton, Victor Stiebel, Edward Molyneux and Elspeth Champcommunal. Julie Summers is a historian, author of 13 books including Fashion on the Ration (Profile Books 2015), and the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.
Christina Dean is the founder of the NGO Redress and The R Collective. Here, she shares her thoughts on the scope of fashion waste and challenges us all to reduce our fashion footprint in the coming year.
Over the last few months, you would be forgiven for believing that the entire global fashion industry has united shoulder-to-shoulder to fight fashion’s waste. From the glossy Vogue and ELLE pages to the buzzy and busy digital coverage, reducing waste, upcycling, recycling and circular business models seem to be firmly ‘in fashion’.
This is all great news – for sure – but it’s not enough cause for widespread celebration.
Over the last 12 years since I, together with the formidable teams at NGO Redress and upcycled fashion brand The R Collective teams, have worked neck-deep in textile waste issues to achieve our mission – to reduce waste in the fashion industry – one thing has become clear.
We are not winning the battle. The sobering reality is that we have a long way to go until waste really is both ‘in and out’ of fashion.
Let’s take a look at what is going on around us. The number of garments produced annually has doubled since 2000 and exceeded 100 billion for the first time in 2014 and an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste is created annually from the fashion industry. Shockingly, every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned globally.
If that wasn’t an insult – let’s add another injury: textile waste is estimated to increase by about 60% between 2015 and 2030, with an additional new 57 million tons of waste being generated annually, reaching an annual total of 148 million tons.
So whilst, I delightedly salute this current push to reduce fashion’s waste, I also wouldn’t raise a glass too high, especially because when it comes to sustainability, about one-third of the fashion industry has yet to take action at all.
So how do we deal with textile waste? Clearly an enormous challenge for an industry that thrives and survives on making and selling ‘new’ clothes. The pressing issue, as we know, is to power up and implement the circular economy, in which materials are captured and re-used throughout the lifecycle.
This is no easy feat – even for the top fashion businesses who are truly focused on this area.
Soaking up fashion’s waste also can’t be left to charities and NGOs, like Redress, to sort. Redress’ direct experience handling societies’ clothing cast offs has taught us how challenging – and costly – it is. Redress’ recent Get Redressed campaign saw us collect 15 tonnes of Hong Kong consumers’ unwanted clothes, which was sorted by 419 volunteers, totalling around 2,100 work-hours in our first 24 hour Sort-a-Thon, as garment-by-garment these clothes were hand-sorted and redistributed to different local charities for onward use. This cost Redress a bomb, and some sweat blood and tears thrown in. Elsewhere, Australian charitable recycling organisations are spending a staggering AUD$13 million (around GBP7m) per year sending unusable clothing donations to landfill.
Neither can the widening array of upcycled fashion brands cope with the textile waste deluge. Through the Redress Design Award sustainable fashion design competition and the 180+ talented alumni designers who have participated, we’ve proudly witnessed designers respond to waste’s urgent call by launching their own upcycled brands, left right and centre, including The R Collective upcycled fashion brand that was born from Redress.
But even these designers certainly can’t slow the flow.
Which means it’s also down to us – normal every day fashion-wearers – to become more actively involved in championing a less wasteful industry. This doesn’t have to mean a fashion-fast or forgoing the love of fashion. It simply means a mind-switch to become more aware of all the waste that dose creep out of our closets.
So for the new year, it’s time to fall in love with our closets and to have fun with our sustainable style. From wearing, restyling and repairing the clothes that we already own, swapping and selling the clothes we no longer love or have need for, to actively looking to preferentially buy clothes made with recycled fibres, or upcycled fabrics, or more sustainable raw materials, there are many fashion-forward ways to enjoy a closet with a cause.
Back in 2016 when I founded Pala, the foundations of the company were very much built up on the mission of creating an eyewear brand that minimised impact on the planet and maximised impact on people in need. Initially this was born our in our partnership with UK charity Vision Aid Overseas by providing grants directly into their eyecare projects in Africa through the sale of our eyewear. These projects have enabled thousands of people to benefit from spectacles, and the empowerment that lies within being able to read, write or carry out work that requires good vision.
As Pala materialised, I set about finding ways for all touchpoints of our brand to connect back to these values, one of those being the sunglasses cases that would protect our product but also end up encapsulating our mission as an ethical brand. Whenever I had bought spectacles or sunglasses in the past, the case was just the ‘added extra’ that came with your frame – nothing more, invariably made from plastic. I struggled for quite some time to work out a design that both was functional and used a substrate that did not necessitate using a virgin material, and yet could be made with relative simplicity. I was also keen to see if I could connect back to Africa in the same way that the sale of our frames did.
It was ultimately that veritable that ‘friend of a friend’ introduction that led me to a solution when I first met with Jib Hagan, founder of Care4basket, a Ghanaian NGO working directly with weaving communities in Bolgatanga, Upper East Ghana. Separated by only 8 miles of Sussex coastline, he and I met early in Pala’s evolution to see if we could work out a way to work with these impoverished communities to create our sunglasses cases and help empower them economically. It coincided with the time that Jib had begun to facilitate the use of waste plastic as an alternative to the ever-dwindling, traditionally used natural straw that the weavers were finding increasingly hard to access.
In 2015, Jib had decided to set up the NGO to highlight the environmental issues affecting rural communities in Ghana and the impact of global warming and single use plastics on their livelihoods. 70% of all diseases in Ghana are caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation with 6 million people being unable to access to clean drinking water. This has led to the widespread use of the water sachet which has become a necessity in providing a clean and treated source of water across Ghana. These used sachets unfortunately are extensively littered throughout towns and villages.
His solution was to switch perceptions; to help others to understand that this discarded plastic was a wealth, not a waste. It was up to us to find a way to work with these otherwise landfill destined materials. The process of reusing this started with plastic bags and water sachets, but as we have scaled we have begun to work with a plastic packaging and sachet factory in Accra, where we take the secondary waste from their manufacturing process. You may think this is somewhat counterintuitive, but the tough reality is that there is no better or cheaper solution than providing water sachets for the very poorest people in Ghana. Even hot meals are served in a plastic bag from street vendors as the most efficient way to transport the food home, and it would be remiss of us to frown at their use of single use plastic in those circumstances.
The cases provided one solution. Alongside Jib, we prototyped many different designs over a period of six months and ultimately landed with the simplest case structure. It just works. It ensures the easiest techniques for the weavers; this leads to a better conformity of case (although we love the ‘wiggly’ ones too!) and doesn’t necessitate the use of any other materials that would complicate the process for the weavers. We provide the materials directly to the communities, the plastic, scissors, wooden templates and labels. They weave the case in their own time and are paid once completed.
When I was over there at the end of last year, I was struck by the strength of their community spirit and pride in their work. Later this year we will have pictures and names of all the weavers on our website, and going forwards, all cases will have a tag with the name of the weaver written on it. They’re proud that their work has reached people across the world, and I think it resonates deeply with our customers to be able to know of the person who take the care and attention in making it.
We’ve been working with the weavers for over three years now and have developed trust and a good working practice. The number of weavers has increased over the time we have been working together and there has been great stories of how the extra income has provided empowerment. We continue to talk, we continue to learn together and our intention is to build on the incredible opportunity we have here to do and create more for these talented communities.
While we support the urgent actions of our friends at Extinction Rebellion, Fashion Revolution does not advocate boycotting brands. There are many ways to campaign and we welcome differences of approach. As a solutions-based campaign, we are conscious of how our actions as consumers effect the lives of the people who make our clothes. Fashion can provide independence and an income, particularly for young women in developing countries. We continue to focus our efforts on campaigning for a more transparent supply chain and supporting the garment workers and unions in striving for better pay and working conditions.
We are also highlighting that we are in the midst of a climate emergency, and we urge citizens to remember that Loved Clothes Last and to limit our consumption, buy better, buy less. We entreat brands to look at their waste and production levels and create new systems making use of existing textiles and their own deadstock.
We advocate that everyone should buy less, buy second hand, wear your clothes longer and if buying new then to support young and sustainably minded and Fairtrade designers/brands – but if you do shop on the high street, then ask those powerful questions like #whomademyclothes because it lets those brands know their customers care and expect better.
We have a whole range of resources and ways in which to enjoy clothes without adding to the impact on the world’s resources. Check out our Emergency Measures to find out ways to make creative use of our existing clothes and textiles.
In its Statement on Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2019, published after the CFS publicised its programme on May 5, the Union of Concerned Researchers into Fashion questioned some of the language and continued assumptions made by much of the industry around sustainability. When industry leaders get together to talk about what they are doing to solve problems, there is a tendency to oversell ideas, to gloss over statistics, to make grand statements, and to pat themselves on the back for the slightest progress. While the Copenhagen Fashion Summit celebrated its 10th year of ‘rewriting fashion,’ there is no doubt that the industry is still working from the same notes it has always used.
As the UCRF wrote in its statement designed to bring a sense of perspective to the summit, “when we take the long view and examine fashion and sustainability progress over the last 30 years, we see that we have not come far at all. Certainly today there are more players and more organisations, more spectacles and celebrations, but not actual advances in ecological terms. So far, the mission has been an utter failure and all small and incremental changes have been drowned by an explosive economy of extraction, consumption, waste and continuous labour abuse.
“We would encourage people engaging with the agenda of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit to pay attention to terms such as “sustainable growth”, which in almost all cases is an oxymoron. While it is a term favoured by investors and asset managers, it is important to stress that the industry has spent 30 years trying to fix the old system, and it is getting worse, not better.”
Measurable progress has slowed down in the last 12 months
Sobering words. So as the Fashion Summit began with opening remarks by Denmark’s Crown Princess Mary, there was nothing to applaud, and little to celebrate. The Global Fashion Agenda’s report The Pulse, reported that the progress the industry is making in terms of its environmental impact has slowed by a third compared with the growth of the sector. Which means if it continues as it is, it will continue to be a net contributor to climate change.
With cheap labour continuing to prop up an industry that still clings to volume, speed and margins as the main drivers to success – despite the fact that consumers are demanding that brands increase their positive social and environmental impact.
There were, however, many positive and useful moments during the summit. The majority of the 1,300 strong audience that attend the CFS because are curious, they want answers, they want to make a change. They know that the campaign for a more sustainable fashion industry has been going on for over thirty years – it didn’t start with this summit. And they are active citizens who question everything. For every CEO on stage calling for ‘strong leadership’ and advocating circularity without addressing the elephant in the room which is consumption, there were hundreds of conversations going on around the fringes, exchanging ideas, making connections, hoovering up scraps of information to take back to their NGOs, their brands, their publications and companies to change the way they work and make sure it is not business as usual. It is the chance encounters with a community who have gathered because they are united in a desire to create a different sort of fashion industry which are the most lasting and important.
Made in Ethiopia
The most enlightening conversations were not necessarily those on the main stage. Taking a coffee break away from the panel discussions, I happened to sit next to Dorothée Baumann-Pauly from NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. I wasn’t aware of the event she had hosted the night before the summit to publicise the report she has co-written Made in Ethiopia: Challenges in the Garment Industry’s New Frontier. The report investigates the nascent garment production hub which currently employs 25,000 workers at an industrial park 140 miles south of Addis Ababa. It’s an initiative started up by the Ethiopian government to attract the global fashion industry – including many brands whose CEOS and sustainability and supply chain officers were on stage, H&M, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein among them – to manufacture in the country. The chief attraction? No, it’s not state of the art factories, well-resourced creches, safe transportation, regulated working hours, or the guarantee of a living wage. The major incentive surely is the lowest wages of any garment-producing country. A basic wage of $26 per month – well below Myanmar, Bangladesh and Cambodia – mean that none of the above apply.
Dorothée pulled out a copy of the report and it makes for fascinating reading. It outlines how PVH, the conglomerate that owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein with nearly $9.7 billion annual revenue, were looking to shift its manufacture away from Bangladesh after the Rana Plaza disaster. They were attracted by the country’s “green” power potential and the possibilities of a fresh start but two years after the opening of the Hawassa industrial park, things are not going as planned. The report makes recommendations to the Ethiopian government as well as to western brands manufacturing there. Now, this is a discussion I would have been keen to hear on the main stage at the summit.
PVH’s Chair and CEO Emanuel Chirico was on stage on day two. Sure, I was really interested to hear about their plans to make three of their best selling items – the dress shirt, underwear, and the T-shirt – recyclable as part of a circular system which can be returned in store and remade into new product. But I’d really love to hear how they are dealing with the issues at their new factory in Ethiopia. Challenges like this are the issues that need to be shared for everyone to learn from. The only time I heard Ethiopia mentioned was from Nazma Akter, the trade unionist and one of the few representatives at the summit of the garment workers. She said she was just back from a trip to see the conditions in Ethiopia and that she was shocked by what she had seen. And from her own perspective starting out as a garment worker in Bangladesh as a child, she has seen some shocking working conditions. A conversation between Ms Akter, Ms Baumann-Pauly and Mr Chirico might have even resulted in some actual change happening on the ground. So that seemed a lost opportunity. Instead, we sat and watched the screen and sighed.
We have eyes but can’t see
There were some other moments of real clarity, positive progress and stop-you-in-your-tracks brilliance. Paul Polman, Chair International Chamber of Commerce and The B Team, gave some home truths that really resonated about actions speaking louder than words. “The worst thing is having eyes and not be able to see: this is where we are at now,” he said. It was a sentiment echoed by Anindit Roy Chowdhury, Programme Manager for Labour Rights, C&A Foundation. “To say that we don’t know is not good enough. It’s unacceptable that none of us truly know if there is or isn’t child labour involved in the clothes we wear,” he said. “And we must invest in transparency.”
Experts and facts are needed more than ever to reiterate the stark truths about climate breakdown and the crisis we find ourselves in. Dr Martin Frick, senior director for policy and programmers coordination UN Climate Change told us: “the house is on fire, we are coming into a feedback loop where climate change is accelerating.” Time is running out.
Fashion, he said, contributes roughly 10 per cent of global CO2. He called for “radical co-operation between brands competing for a market share.” He also called on the industry for its ability to capture hearts and minds and influence behavioural change. “Fashion runs on the biggest source of renewable energy there is – human creativity.” The fact that the launch of the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action by Stella McCartney was one of the most publicised events at COP24 in Katowice in December demonstrates the power fashion has to get the message out. It is clear that we can harness the extraordinary influence we have to influence people’s consumption habits and choices in a way that all the experts and scientists in the world (David Attenborough not withstanding) can’t.
Another expert from outside of the fashion industry was Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming, and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat who said, the only way forward for agriculture is to make it regenerative – and we must cut the number of cows being farmed by half if we are even to begin to redress the balance. “If we continue as we are, the UN warns we have only 60 harvests left,” he told us. “Then what? No food. No fibre. There’s a new game in town. Sustainability is over – sustainability is about doing tomorrow what you can do today.”
Technology and disruption
There was much talk about technology. Avery Dennison launched 10 solutions including a patent to use recycled materials in its labels. They are working with Plastic Bank to recover plastic before it reached the oceans and use it in their recycled and recyclable labels.
They also presented a project with 1019 ALYX 9SM using blockchain technology powered by EVRYTHNG to create a product that can tell its own story from the factory to its onward journey when it is eventually resold and the next buyer can see from the label’s scannable information that it is ‘authentic’ product, so addressing one of the industry’s other great issues of counterfeiting. Admittedly, the brand can control what information it chooses to release to the consumer (and what not to disclose) but it is a real step along the way of being able to ask – and answer Who Made My Clothes? It’s still at proof of concept stage but will be up and running later this year with the aim of allowing every garment to have its own digital i-D which will allow brands to track how much stock they have and – in theory – produce less as well as giving citizens the ability to track their garments at every step, including while they are in their care.
The world of digital traceability is a hot topic. Google announced its partnership with Stella McCartney to track the environmental impact of cotton and viscose. By pulling together data from a wide range of sources – NGOs, brands, manufacturers, and academics – they hope to stitch all the available data together to reveal the hidden environmental costs of the industry’s most widely used materials.
There were other companies working to make supply chains more visible – and standard practice – for consumers to access on the shop floor. The garment tag will become the key to a whole world of information designed to help concerned citizens make the best choices if they need to buy a new item of clothing. TrusTrace is an 18-month old start-up based in Stockholm where it benefits from the Swedish government’s innovation fund (other governments, please note!). One of the founders, Saravanan Parisutham told me how he had been inspired to start his business after the realisation that his father’s coconut farm in south India was being fed contaminated water. He said the water in the wells and rivers, used to irrigate the coconut farms, was being contaminated by local dyeing units. “The system accepts multiple levels of certification,” he explained. TrusTrace is already working with 1200 suppliers worldwide, in 20 countries. The 25 brands who pay to use the service include, Vaude and Filipa K.
Designers can’t do this on their own
One of the criticisms from the UCRF was that fashion designers do not necessarily have the power to make decisions about material sourcing and production processes and assuming they do lets business leadership off the hook. That message is getting through to some brands who are joining the dots. Noel Kinder, Nike’s Chief Sustainability Officer talked about using waste as a ‘feedstock for new products…you have to start from the very beginning,” he said. Designers, supply chain officers, finance officers and CEOs all need to be united in their efforts to change the supply chain, materials and entire production systems. However, Christopher Raeburn, who recently took over as creative director at Timberland as well as running his own brand Raeburn, emphasised the importance of creative directors having a strong vision: “It’s our obligation as creatives to think about the products we create,” he said. “This isn’t a trend. We need to fundamentally change what we do as an industry.” He added that access to more sustainable materials has really shifted and stated that “transparency on every level” is key.
The voice of the youth – and the desperate need for greater inclusivity and diversity
The most clarity however, came from the Youth Summit, brought together to imagine a fashion industry that is built around Sustainable Development Goals 3 and 5. They came up with eight demands which you can read here (just to give you an idea of the tone, no. 5 starts with “We are done with your bullshit”). Their demands are for an industry that is based around core values of empathy, transparency, collaboration and equality.
“Look around and see whose voices you are missing…After 10 years of Copenhagen Fashion Summit, we still don’t have equality in the fashion industry,” said student activist from Cornell University, Hansika Iyer. “We are the future and we want to act now!” she told the audience of industry leaders. The anger and the frustration was palpable.
If real, systemic change is to happen with the urgency it needs, the sooner the next generation take control and relentlessly tackle the crisis of waste, spiraling levels of consumption, over production, labour abuse and inequality, the better. Forget profits and bonuses. The incentives driving the entire industry forward should be the goal of zero carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases. As we see from the past 10 years this generation of leaders has spent talking a lot, but not actually achieving very much, there’s a colossal amount of work to be done.
As Katharine Hamnett, who has been talking about the environmental impact of the industry for three decades said, “we’ve got to get our shit together.” It was time to act 30 years ago. Unfortunately, not enough people were listening back then. Emanuel Chirico said that it was “another world” ten years ago. Well, it wasn’t. The house was on fire back then, but the industry wasn’t interested. Industry leaders need to take responsibility for their inaction and complacency. At least now, eyes and ears are fully open and with enough will and urgency, we can all do our bit to put out the flames.