The notion that fashion can be sustainable appears contradictory. After all, we are dealing with an industry that is constructed around the fundamental necessity for continual stylistic modification. And this inevitably requires material. Lots of material.
Our world is increasingly focused on the here and now. From one trend to another we flit and feed these bodies of fashion with the monetary fuel to continue keeping up with the popular image and for them to continue producing it. A recent report by BBC Future (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200710-why-clothes-are-so-hard-to-recycle) revealed that 92 million tonnes of textiles are wasted every year, an average American disposing of 37kg of clothes each year.
From a viewpoint concerned solely with sustainability, we can easily minimise the cultural benefits of fashion, to shun it as an unethical, pretentious activity, and eclipse the artistic beauty that can arise from sartorial endeavours. What a stagnant world we would live in if designers like Vivienne Westwood, Tom Ford or Marc Jacobs were limited to a measly selection of material. Fashion is an art form, and just as painters require paint, so to do designers require textiles. And not just top designers either. Part of our identity is moulded around the clothing we choose to wear (I, for one, am currently sporting a grey hoodie, which I believe reflects my sombre mood, stuck indoors with Greggs an agonising five miles away). We should not have to sacrifice creativity or individuality in favour of a minimalist collection, that does not reflect our fashionable aspirations.
There is some light at the end of this tunnel, however. Already companies have started releasing clothing that is designed with sustainability at the forefront. There is PANGAIA, who uses recycled plastic bottles to manufacture their clothing; Noctu, the nightwear store who works with completely organic cotton; Lucy and Yak, who not only are 100% sustainable, but also ensure a salary above minimum wage for all their workers. One of my personal favourites was the launch of the Petit Pli collection by aeronautical engineer Ryan Mario Nasin. Employing a special pleating method, Nasin developed a series of garments which grow with the child, meaning that parents are not having to constantly buy new clothes. While the result of this highly engineered, highly stylised, highly sustainable clothing does end up looking like a tiled roof, who really cares? We have exposed an entire generation of children to Crocs, and, I’m sure you’ll agree, it cannot get any worse than that (Crocs are in fact notoriously bad for the environment as they are, like most synthetic plastics, not recyclable). And so through our organic fabrics, plastic bottle sweatpants, and our kids looking like a long line of terrace houses the earth is beginning to heal…
Well… not quite.
In adopting an environmentally conscious mindset there is a price to pay. PANGAIA’s clothing is in the $100 range, Lucy and Yak, around £60. Even for the children’s section of Petit Pli most price tags are set to £70. So instead we opt for the more unethical choices, shops like Primark or Shein to supply us with cheap and affordable clothing. And in a country where we are offering out weekly food parcels to desperately hungry children looking like the pathetic leftovers of a village sandwich shop, it is hardly surprising this issue is low on people’s agenda. It is the reason why at 5am after lockdown hundreds were queuing outside Primark, and not outside Lucy and Yak. After all, who can blame anyone who chooses to put money towards more pressing concerns like their next meal than whether they will harm the environment by buying a plastic coat from Poundland?
However, change is certainly happening. Boohoo recently was forced into the spotlight for its ethical misconduct over the Leicester factory scandal. Slowly, companies and individuals are beginning to recognise that we should be more aware about how our choices are impacting on the environment. Sites like Depop encourage its users to sell their old clothes for cheaper prices; thrifting is increasingly popular, especially amongst young people. Furthermore, we are becoming more inventive over the way we shop. One article featured on Palatinate (which I would highly recommend you read) suggested that by limiting your wardrobe to thirty items of clothing there is the possibility of making 25,178 unique combinations out of them.
There is still, of course, work to be done. Major fashion brands, despite signing various optimistic environmental agreements, are in reality performing poorly, with companies like Dior not acting upon their initiatives to reduce wastage in production. They should be setting the example, and that isn’t just through making a one-off statement at New York Fashion Week by wrapping a dustbin liner around some models and calling it ‘the waist bag’. It is about innovating, providing those alternatives that do not restrict creativity, that may be foreseeably available for all sectors of society. As Cary Somers, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, once said, ‘if everyone started to question the way we consume, we would see a radically different fashion paradigm’. Together, through brand initiative and personal responsibility, we can collectively make a fashion statement, a sustainable statement, that has a positive impact on both the inside and the outside of our shops.
Illustration by Verity Laycock