Environmentalist writer and journalist for the Guardian, Lucy Siegle explores the effect our 'throw away' culture has had on our attitudes towards consuming fashion and the destructive impact it has on the lives of those in the third world as well as the environment.
Siegle takes on the task of educating the average fashion consumer on the exploitive and destructive journey our clothes take in order to reach the shop shelves. Done with wit, Siegle dissects the fashion industry as a whole and scrutinises the product life cycle from design stage to the time we throw our clothes away, as well Siegle also provides antidotes of evaluating of her own imperfect wardrobe and teaches us how to read 'behind the label'.
Siegle begins with an accurate evaluation of our current fashion consumption habits and explains how globalisation and sourcing in
Far East regions have bought about a fast fashion model.
Not just a concept adopted by high street fashion, Siegle identifies how the fast fashion model has been integrated into luxury fashion to keep up with demand.
This helps to explain how high street chain such as Zara who are said to change their stock every 2 weeks, have pushed design houses to show 'cruise collections' in addition to the traditional twice a year fashion calendar.
Also discussed was how cheap fashion reinforces our 'throw away' culture. Gone are the days of mending and preserving our clothes instead we are prone to hysterical panic buying frenzies at the sight of a new Primark store opening or a new H&M designer collaboration.
Using the Primark London, Oxford Street store opening as an example, Siegle, writes of a witness account where a shopper was forced to abandon shopping bags on the side of the road as she had bought more then she could carry!
Interestingly Siegle manages to connect our culture of over consuming fashion with the relaxed attitude the middle class have adopted towards fashion. The concept is 'cheapskating' (not a term coined by Siegle), the practice of shopping for cheap clothes but splurging on designer accessories such as the 'It' bag or shoes. This mixing of high street and designer fashion has lifted the stigma once associated with shopping at Primark and peacocks
Another factor in understanding our over consumption of fashion is the idea of keeping up with the Jones or celebrities. In the book Siegle introduces us to university graduate Lucy, who had amassed large amounts of debit keeping her wardrobe up to date in the latest fashion worn by celebrities; many of which would be worn once then discarded.
Siegle dedicates a whole chapter to the secret second life of the clothes we 'donate' to charity. According to Siegle only 10% of all UK charity clothing donation are actually sold in the UK, instead most of our clothing donations will be proceed (as in cleaned and sorted) then sent to Africa where they will be sold to local traders in batches.
This is called salaula or mitumba and it is a source of income for many independent African traders, though they are bought blindly since African traders are not permitted to inspect or choose the contents of the salaula they are buying. This Siegle explains is a big problem since fast fashion has caused the quality of our donations to have gotten worse, rendering these traders at times with unsellable junk! Though this is not the only problem, the fact that there is money to be made processing and selling our unwanted clothes has seen the rise in rogue donation collectors, so be careful who you donate to!
This culture of cheap throw away fashion has made us somewhat ignorant when appreciating the quality and workmanship that goes into designing and producing our clothes, with few of us aware of the fabric composition of our clothes or ever considered who hand embellished our favourite pieces or sand blasted our crease streaked jeans (yes a hand done process); nor do we consider the conditions our fibres are produced, our clothes manufactured or the effect all these processes have on our environment.
We have all heard about the sweatshop conditions in overseas factories, along with the use of child labour, long shifts and poor pay. Though Siegle explains that this is just the tip of the iceberg, in reality many of those that work in factories are subjected to intimidation, abuse, have their government documents taken away and are locked into factories over night - it is also not uncommon to hear than factories locked over night are swept with fires that kill many of its staff!
Asides from manufacturing Siegle offers up a crash course on the extraction and refining processes involved in producing fibres such as cotton, polyester, cashmere and leathers; in fact a large chuck of the book is dedicated to the materials and fibres that give fashion its appeal.
Siegle exposes the hidden horrors involved in cultivating natural fibres, from the child slave labour used in
cotton fields to harrowing statics from the World Health Organisation that 20,000-40,000 cotton farm workers will die each year from handling dangerous chemical pesticides used in producing non-organic cotton; to the damaging effects on the environment such as deforestation in the Amazon to polluting local rivers. Uzbekistan
The holy river Ganges in India is used as an example in the book, known to have been polluted to an alarmingly high level with the carcinogenic chemical compound chromium V used by local tanners in the process of preserving leather and other skins. This has caused many cases of chromium poisoning among the locals who rely on the river as a water supply, though little government action has been taken eradicate this practice.
With all this considered you can understand Siegle's passion and enthusiasm to promote a new ethical and environmentally sustainable model of fashion and fashion consumption, which she describes as 'slow fashion'.
Slow fashion is to much extent a reawakened love and respect for fashion which is consumed at a much slower pace, it requires us as consumers to consider the ethical and environmental footprint of the fashion and brands we choose to buy (with means moving away from high street) and buying quality pieces that will last a lifetime over the cheap stuff you have to dump each season.
With this in mind Siegle encourages us to take more care with our clothes to prolong its lifespan, for example washing our clothes less often, washing at 30oc, not using the tumble drier and mending or reworking our old clothes. Siegle explains that there is a dying industry of clothing experts and menders out there eager for our custom.
I found the book to be well researched and very informative, it provided an actuate description of an unsustainable industry being feed by insatiable demand.
Though some in the industry my feel the books paints a bleak picture of the fashion industry, particularly of the Buying and Merchandising departments, I must agree with Siegle's sentiment that as an industry based on forward thinking and innovation we need not see sustainability and ethical practices as a hindrance but as a positive design and self improvement challenge.
It would be naive to think the industry can change overnight, or that nothing is already being done to address this issue. As many of our high street brands are slowing jumping on the bandwagon and trialling sub-collections or integrating ethical and/or sustainable designs into their main range, such as the All Saints Not For Sale campaign, M&S with Plan A and Puma with their use of organic cotton.
These my only be baby steps taken by the industry, though what is needed is to educate a consumer base out of the cheap fast fashion mind set in order encourage demand for a more ethical and sustainable fashion model.
For this I must pay dues to Siegle on a successful offering of fashion enlightenment that is easy to read and not condescendingly written.
Interview with Lucy Siegle
How long did it take for you to research and write the book?
Lucy Siegle: "It took me quite a long time - about three and a half years working on it (although not full time). I had already done a lot of research before and of course knew the basics about specific techniques such as environmental foot printing from my other work, but it was amazing how much the industry changed even while I was writing my book, so I had to research in depth and project as much into the future as I could."
How much did you know of the exploitative side of fashion manufacturing prior to researching and writing the book?
Lucy Siegle: "I knew there were major social justice issues. I have been writing about 'ethical living', looking at social and environmental issues since 2004 and have always been interested. Remember there have been exposes on the fashion supply chain, originally involving Gap, Levis etc since the early 1990s. And in history the textile and garment trade has been a hot bed for labour rights debate and protest so this is obviously fertile ground for a person with my interests. I didn't however feel that there had been much on the environmental impact of fashion, or a book that could address the two and show the importance of that interplay."
The process of writing the book seemed to have had a detrimental affect on the way you consume fashion; you also mention in the book buying into many western ethical fashion brands, though what are your thoughts on opening trade to non-western ethical fashion brands?
Lucy Siegle: "I don't think it had a detrimental effect. Quite the opposite. The book is framed from my position as an enthusiastic consumer of mainstream, high street aka Fast Fashion. Who had bought in, originally readily and then because I was addicted on some level. When I was able to stop doing that, I would call it liberating and or empowering. I suppose it was to the detriment of the brands/retailers who used to be able to rely on me as an enthusiastic customer."
I'd probably need you to be more specific here on 'non-western ethical fashion brands.' I am broadly supportive of brands that define themselves as ethical no matter where they are from. I certainly think diversity is helpful if only that it means that the fashion pound is not channelled into the hands of a few all powerful conglomerates who control how we dress and why we dress like that. From a sartorial point of view it would also help us to move away from an increasingly homogenised high street and look."
In regards to your stance as an ethical and consciousness fashion consumer do you apply the same thought process when consuming non-fashion products? And how would you rate other industries ethical practices in comparison to fashion?
Lucy Siegle: "Yes where possible. I have written a generic lifestyle column on 'ethical living' since 2004 for the Observer, so I have of course engaged with energy, transport etc. There I answer reader questions. But I tend not to use myself and my lifestyle as an example purely because I am rather private about that. I don't do TV shows about how to be green in my house with my husband and family etc. I am a commentator on what's available and what is best practice and happy to answer anybody's questions.
Of course, I have a detailed knowledge. Sustainability is a big word so when you say about rating ethical practices between sectors, that is impossible to do in precise summary. Overall, fashion is behind because it has not had much of the legislative spotlight. Automotive industry for example has been driven (excuse the pun) by legislation governing air quality and then carbon emissions targets which are legally mandated. So you now have a situation where everyone is used to seeing CO2 emissions on posters for new cars. Any equivalent in fashion? er no! The car industry also adopted clean, Japanese production techniques many years ago - Honda/Toyota where resource minimisation and waste minimisation (key 'green' features for a sector) were made part of the production process. Other consumer goods have driven a sustainability agenda because they've been criticised for being un green, say using carrier bags or they've found a commercial advantage to being perceived as green: think B&Q / Waitrose. Fashion has been slow to arrive here. The rag trade has always liked to be perceived as a bit lawless. It also offshores production to such an extent that it is able to sidestep pollution controls that have forced other industries to go green. When parts of the supply chain - dyeing/finishing etc - were found to be poisoning host environments, the production chain just up sticked and moved somewhere even further out of range (which was probably cheaper too). Some big brands have played a great game in flouting social justice concerns and distancing themselves from issues such as sweated labour because the supply chain is so long (lots about this in the book). Meanwhile the consumer has been so satiated by cheap, on trend fashion that it’s been pacified. The big retailers are also very important to successive government's idea of wealth creation. There hasn't been much appetite to take retailers to task or rock the boat. Consequently fashion is behind.
The good news is that the potential is enormous. Fashion is connected to its source material - often a natural plant i.e. cotton! - Like no other industry. The steps to turn that plant into fashion can (managed properly) provide a route out of poverty for millions. Processes can be made more efficient with minimal investment but huge enthusiasm and suddenly this industry that was lagging behind becomes a world leader!"
You personally endorse the concept of a slow fashion model (in alternative to fast fashion), though since the principle of fast fashion is that large order quantities make cheaper retail prices, is the intent of the slow fashion concept to eradicate fast & cheap fashion as we know it?
Lucy Siegle: "I endorse it to the extent I think it's a healthier model! I don't think there's a latent intention to 'eradicate' anything. It's more that fast fashion - in the form we are currently witnessing - is not sustainable on any level therefore it will die out. Can it reform? Possibly, but there's a great deal to prove that that fast fashion business model can reform quick enough. I'm doubtful as I can't see much innovative thinking. It is still based on selling vast amounts of units of super cheap product."
One of the many points raised in the book that I found interesting was the disturbing reality of our clothing donations. Considering also that clothing in landfills can not degrade properly, what would you suggest is an ethical and more environmentally friendly way of disposing of old clothing, accessories & footwear?
Lucy Siegle: "The ultimate goal is a zero waste approach. Why does old clothing have so little use that it would need to either be dumped in the developing world or thrown in a hole. Again, more innovation needed. Cradle to Cradle is an interesting model. There is no waste - the product disassembles to either biodegradable or technical nutrients in an endless cycle. Clothing donations can be handled well - if properly sorted and passed down an equitable chain but the point is they quash any indigenous textile industry because they operate at such scale and with so little integrity. There is simply no evidence that a country can make an economic transition from poverty to wealth without an indigenous textile industry. But we're in the real world and this is happening. What about industries and schemes that give local people more control and say over mitumba/saluala - at the moment many people hand over a month's wages to buy a bale blind (ie they don't know what it will contain or how well sorted it's been!). Or schemes that add value by customising, altering or 'upcycling' these recycled clothes?"
You advocate additional labeling on clothing and footwear products to state the products green/ethical footprint; from an industry perspective this will be very costly. How effective do you think these addition labelling would be on impacting the consumption habits of the average fast fashion consumer (such as the uni graduate named Lucy you mentioned in the book)?
Lucy Siegle: "I advocate information on products so that consumers who want to buy easily can find out. These basic pieces of information would include the real country of origin rather than 'made in Italy' which means nothing or whether or not the piece is made from real fur. You would imagine in this day and age that wouldn't be like asking for the moon on a stick! That’s about consumer choice and not being conned. I say that personally I'd love labels that are as long as cows' tongues with all the info about product, place and material because I am a curious consumer and personally I subscribe to the idea that this protects what Wendell Berry calls the 'degradation of product, person and place.' Consumers who don't feel the same, won't care. However we shouldn't write off 'average fast fashion consumers' such as Lucy. A lot of them consumer in good faith. They buy in bulk but they don't want a person to die from silicosis from sandblasting on trend jeans. They'd be horrified. Any consumer deserves to know where their purchases are from."
Finally, what ethical fashion brands do you buy & wear?
Lucy Siegle: “Stewart + Brown (US brand), Christopher Raeburn (UK designer, outer garments), SUNO (New York label), Sikha, Monkee Geans, From Somewhere, Timberland earthkeepers and sometimes I don't buy brands at all! I knit sweaters and I recondition old clothes! "
*Article also published on Africa Fashion Guide blog site.