An introduction: hanging fast fashion out to dry

Our Style and Sustainability Columnist, Rosily Roberts, thought we should bring it back to basics to give our readers a little taster of the textile industry, to help us understand what we can do to stitch up some serious sustainability issues in the world of fashion.

Sustainable fashion is undeniably gaining traction in mainstream consciousness. Major high street fashion brands including H&M and Zara are releasing ‘sustainable’ or ‘conscious’ collections, and offer clothing recycling services in their stores. Documentaries reporting on the problems of fashion waste or unfair working conditions by such journalists as Stacey Dooley are on the rise, and globally recognisable celebrities like Emma Watson are propelling the movement towards a cleaner fashion industry by wearing sustainable gowns on the red carpet.

It can, then, be difficult to know what you, as a consumer, can do. There are so many different problems with the fashion industry, from the way cotton is grown, to the working conditions of the people who sew that cotton into clothes; the pollution caused by washing garments during their so-called active life, and then perhaps most disturbing of all, what happens to them once that active life is over. As our understanding of the problems facing the fashion industry improves, and we have access to a wider choice of both sustainable and non-sustainable products, the inertia that often accompanies an overload of information can creep in. With so many things to consider and the stakes inching ever higher as the need for serious action to combat climate change grows more imminent, our natural reaction is to switch off, and opt for a mantra of ‘it’s not my problem’.

Typical ‘sustainable fashion’ is undeniably more expensive than its throwaway, high street counterpart, which unfortunately makes purchasing eco-friendly fashion items seem ever more exclusive and inaccessible. However, there’s a very simple way to improve the sustainability of your wardrobe, without the extortionate price tag.

By far the most crucial contribution you can make to improving your fashion footprint starts with being conscious of what you are buying. It doesn’t matter where you shop, H&M can be as sustainable as Hermès with a little bit of thought. The simplest way to develop more conscious shopping habits is by asking yourself, before buying anything, whether you love it, whether you will wear it repeatedly and really care for it, or whether it is something you may only wear once and then consign to the back of the wardrobe for a year before dumping it in the nearest charity shop or — even worse — the bin.  Only buy things that you can see yourself wearing for years to come. Those in the sustainable fashion industry know call it ’30 Wears.’ Can you see yourself wearing it at least thirty times, if not more? If the answer is no, put it back on the rack.

Wear your items until they come apart at the seams, and the UV rays slowly work to drain the colour from the folds of fabric. Then, fix them, or repurpose them into something else. Cleaning rags, even. Only when every ounce of use has been twisted and squeezed from them, when they’re truly at the end of their ‘active life’ should you consider getting rid of them. And then, of course, recycle. Although textile recycling isn’t yet widely available — at least not in the same way that it is for plastic or glass — there are many initiatives that serve to remaster your old clothing items, in whatever state they’ve been worn in to. These clothes are then either used to make stuffing for airplane seats, insulation for houses, or for testing to develop better ways of textile recycling.

Clothing is one of the few commodities left that is made almost entirely by hand. Every garment in your wardrobe, whether a £5 t-shirt from Primark or a £150 dress that you splashed out on for a special occasion, has been made by the hands of other humans. From stitching hems to sewing in labels, a person has been involved in every part of the making process. When we buy clothes just to wear them once, we’re inadvertently throwing away not only the weeks it took to grow the cotton — not to mention the litres of water involved in the dying process — but also the hand craftsmanship of a person who dedicated their attention and care to that piece, no matter how seemingly insignificant it is.

The way that clothes are showcased today — particularly by means of fast fashion or online outlets — can make this difficult to appreciate. When faced with clothing in such extreme quantities, often piled together or falling off racks, it can be hard to remember that each of them is a piece of handmade art, for want of a less trite word. Instead of mindlessly scrolling and adding things to your basket with one click, or wandering around a shop pulling things from racks, we all need to slow down a little bit. In the words of Vivienne Westwood, ‘buy less, choose well, make it last.’ It really is as simple as being a bit more conscious. Giving our clothes the respect they deserve, and subsequently giving respect to everyone involved in the process of making them, is the single best thing any of us can do to improve our fashion footprint.

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