Left: vintage cotton floral dress and brooches, Hunter boots (stylist’s own)
Right: Vivienne Westwood cotton shirtdress and climbing ropes worn as belts, vegan Dr Martens boots
The current state of the world sometimes reminds me of a short story by Daphne du Maurier which I read by a while ago, called ‘Don’t Look Back’. In it, a hotel room is described as a borrowed place to stay, somewhere to arrange one’s things as at home, and once left, the room and all its memories cease to exist. The very idea of this feels in line with a percentage of people in power at the moment. The attitude that once we die, the state of things will be insignificant. Perhaps Du Maurier describes our self-importance here perfectly and the note of arrogance is palpable. It is inexcusable for anyone in a position of power to have their eyes and ears closed to the current issues of climate crisis and its causes at this point in time.
You would have been hard-pressed to miss the ongoing work in the media by environmental pressure group Extinction Rebellion, with activists risking arrest to compel governments around the world to listen to the unprecedented global climate emergency we’re now facing. One of the protests around London Fashion Week really hit home for me. It was a protest of activists dressed in black who hosted a funeral for the fashion industry. This felt morbid to say the least and left me searching for the reasons I had become involved with one of the most polluting industries out there. Was fashion a loaded gun aimed at the planet and if so, should fashion as we know it die?
Vivienne Westwood cotton shirt dress (stylist’s own)
The fashion industry is a massive contributor to pollution. According to the 2017 Global Fashion Agenda Report, the average kilogram of textiles has an estimated carbon footprint of 15kg and a 10,000 litre water footprint. This derives mainly from cotton, with much of this taking place in some of the most water-stressed locations on the planet. Economically speaking, fast-fashion in the UK is big business. According to the European Clothing Action Plan, we buy more clothes per person in Great Britain than in any other country in Europe. The fast-fashion market is designed to target consumers who like to keep up with the latest trends for a fraction of what garments should actually cost. This system doesn’t pay workers a living wage, which should cover a worker and their family’s basic needs, like food; housing; water; clothes; education and medical care. Everything we’d expect in this day and age.
Although environmental issues are perhaps one of the highest priorities for someone like me who is working in the industry, there are many more issues that need to be addressed. The fashion industry relies on a subterranean set of skills and the current supply chain is a tricky one to manage. We need to look at the fashion industry as a ‘farm to wardrobe approach’ (and by farm I mean cotton, not animals). If you think about all the different skills required to make a pair of jeans for example, it’s mind-boggling. From workers who grow the cotton, to the pickers, the designers, pattern cutters, manufacturers and marketers – the list is endless. With this in mind, some of the larger fashion companies have no idea who actually make our clothes, as companies within the supply chain will out-source work to the best possible price. How then, can they guarantee that everyone is paid fairly? And surely the UK is different, right? Wrong!
It is often thought that illegally low wages and poor working conditions only relate to workers in low-economic countries. I was shocked to follow some of the work by journalist Sarah O’Connor in Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability Report by the House of Commons and Parliament, published in January of this year. O’Connor found that the going-rate for a factory worker in Leicester supplying lots of the larger fast-fashion outlets was on average £3.50 – £4.00 an hour. This is well below the national minimum wage and doesn’t correlate to the ‘real cost’ of the items being produced.
Vintage cotton floral dress and brooches
Another issue we need to be mindful of, is that we’re now seeing the term sustainability used so much more this year and a great point I heard in a debate on the topic was, that if companies are claiming that they’re now sustainable, then what were they offering before? What’s worse than not doing anything at all, is the greenwashing that we as consumers are now experiencing. Greenwashing is when a company appears more environmentally friendly or conscious than it actually is. As an example, there have been a lot of recycling initiatives in fast-fashion outlets – offering vouchers for any donated second-hand clothes. These stores haven’t changed their systems sufficiently to create a positive impact. Fast-fashion brands stocking ‘organic cotton’ may also seem like an environmentally sound option, but this is just a carrot. Organic cotton is a far better material than conventional cotton, but when sold alongside synthetic materials and continuing to produce 50 collections per year, the issue hasn’t actually been addressed holistically – it’s a cover-up. I’ll admit that the sheer idea of actually cancelling Fashion Week feels uncomfortable, but a complete overhaul is fundamental.
Vegan cotton knit from Cats Protection charity shop
But signs of progress are showing. London Fashion Week presented a completely fur-free season last year, which was a massive moment and was all down to the incredible work that PETA do. There were a number of sustainable fashion designers that stood out this year, with the emphasis on ‘made in Britain’ – however, disappointingly a lot of these were still using animal-derived materials.
One brand to watch is VIN + OMI, a UK designer duo sourcing plastic from areas that need to be cleaned up and turn the plastic into bold, sculptural clothes. Although there is an argument that plastic releases hundreds of thousands of microfibres into our waterways, recycling needs to happen with our existing plastic. They will also offer a ‘buy-back’ scheme encouraging customers to sell back their clothes for recycling – a concept I found interesting. VIN + OMI’s fabric made from nettles also made a big splash at London Fashion Week. Another label to keep an eye on is Riona Treacey – although not 100% vegan, this brand only uses vegan leather and manufactures everything locally in the UK instead of overseas.
Vegan cotton knit from Cats Protection charity shop, dress from Oxfam charity shop, Hunter boots (stylist’s own)
On a personal note, I’ve always used fashion as a way of expressing myself. The pieces that I always draw on are old, trusted favourites, like the Isabel Marant cotton blazer I found second-hand, or a pair of earrings I hardly ever take out by jewellers Zoe & Morgan. These pieces have been well-worn and looked after. Even when shopping in charity shops, I always buy quality over quantity. Fashion can be frivolous, but it can also mark your identity and to take that away would be detrimental. The reality of the situation is that we need to pull together and vote with our money for the type of fashion system that we want moving forward. Choosing second-hand clothes is one of the best ways of supporting workers, animals and the environment and you can still stay authentic to your style without plundering the world’s finite resources. Mending is also a fantastic way of keeping clothes out of landfill and as Carry Somers from Fashion Revolution once said, it’s a political statement in itself, because its showing everyone that your clothes are made to last.
Vivienne Westwood cotton shirtdress
To me fashion will never be dead, but with our current fashion system on its head, we need to look at ways of expressing our individualism through shopping less and valuing what’s already in our wardrobes moving forward. How we collectively act and move forward now to save the planet is perhaps the defining challenge of our time.
Styling & Artistic Direction: Meg Pirie @meg_pirie_stylist
Photos: Nansi Marshall @nansimarshallyoga
Models: Chelsea Moody @itschelseaajadee / Bethany Robers @bethx45
Makeup: Heidi Owen @makeupbyheidianna
Very interesting perspective on fashion in 2019.