Written by Flora Meadmore
23rd October 2019
The Fashion Industry: Caught Between Two Worlds
Over the last several years, the fashion industry has entered a remarkable period of promoting eco-friendly, sustainable and ethical alternatives. It’s a welcome, long-overdue development, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Yet at the same time, despite attracting and being driven by young people, the fashion industry is in fact deeply conventional and slow to change. Fast fashion is at its peak, with more and more images filling our screens and fixating our minds on the next in item. It’s only once we buy that in item that a new one comes to the fore of our minds, and we find ourselves once again slightly dissatisfied by our lack of possession.
We don’t question how it got there; all we can think of is wearing that new item. The now-seemingly old one, which we so enthusiastically promised ourselves would be a timeless buy, gradually moves its way down our pile of clothes towards the inevitable. It will eventually be left at the bottom of our drawers until one day we realise it hasn’t been worn for a year and just doesn’t go with any of our other clothes, and would do better in a charity shop where someone else can take full advantage of its potential. It appears the industry is facing two polar trends that have been on the rise over the last decade: fast fashion and ethical fashion. ‘Fashion fashion’ is when people overconsume and underuse clothes.
In the UK alone, £140m worth of clothes goes to landfill every year, placing Britain as the highest consumer of clothes per head than any other country in Europe. Last Christmas, Britons spent a total of £3.5bn on Christmas party clothing. Most of those items are expected to be on their way to landfill or a charity shop after just one wear. Fast fashion has cultivated a throwaway culture, whereby clothing items can be bought at such a low cost that wearing them once is not abnormal and has become somewhat accepted. However, as climate change gradually seeps into our daily narratives, with Extinction Rebellion back in the media and Greta Thunberg’s name or face reappearing every so often, it’s foreseeable that the party could be coming to a slow end.
It’s not just the coffee cups and amazon’s ridiculously large boxes that are under scrutiny. A parliamentary report by the Environmental Audit Committee found that global textile productions emit 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases annually – a greater average than international flights and maritime shipping combined. If the industry doesn’t embody some sort of change, it’s projected they could account for 25% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. So where does this leave the fashion industry? With an increasing number of throwaway purchases, is there much room for eco-fashion in the market at all? Is there enough demand that would support the added cost of researching new eco-friendly materials to use as alternatives?
Half a year has gone by since Earth Day, when Extinction Rebellion took to the streets with a ‘Business as usual costs the earth’ banner, and clothing stores dressed their mannequins as XR protestors. Around the same time, a number of clothing brands including Burberry, Puma, Guess, Gap, H&M, and Levi’s pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030. H&M’s Conscious Collection had a leather jacket and cowboy shoes made from using Piñatex – a material made from the discarded leaves from the pineapple plant. The V&A’s Fashioned from Nature exhibition opened the eyes of its visitors to some of the stark realities of the fashion industry. For many brands and designers, as well as consumers, this has been a year of awakening. Or has it?
While some brands are developing new initiatives, we might ask ourselves if it’s simply reflecting modern trends (which at the moment happen to be centred around the environment) or whether they are genuine concerns from within the fashion industry. Retail entrepreneur and keynote speaker Mary Portas discussed on the BBC how style reveals the “attitudes, passions, desires, and beliefs not just of an individual but of an entire society”. If the attitudes and passions of our society are focused on climate change, then it’s in the industry’s best interest to show an awareness of the same. In that sense it’s difficult to imagine what the future of fashion will look like – only time will tell if it’s sincere or if eco-fashion is dropped the minute a new hype comes in.