COP26: A Sobering Message for the Fashion Industry and its Consumers

Inside COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Getty Images.

As I dressed for an exceptionally cold day in London this morning, I took the time to read the label inside the jumper that would keep me warm for the day ahead. The care label read:

 

Made in China

42% Cotton

26% Acrylic

25% Polyamide

4% Wool

3% Elastane

Handwash at 30 degrees

Do not tumble-dry

 

I’m ashamed to say that it was the first time I read such a label and considered what it really meant, besides how to wash my beloved cosy jumper without shrinking it. Many questions came to mind. Where in China was it made? Who worked the sewing machine that put it together? How old were they? How much were they paid? What were the conditions of the factory in which it was made? Where did all these raw materials come from? And how did it travel from China to the UK? The questions go on and on.

These were just some of the questions explored last week in Glasgow at COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Countries present at the conference, and their industries, were expected to ‘show up with something to offer’ to the global pursuit of combatting the climate crisis (Rachel Cernansky, 2021). The fashion industry was not exempt from scrutiny. During the week, the UN Fashion Charter updated their climate commitment, with an aim to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030. British fashion houses (including Stella McCartney and Burberry, among high-street labels like H&M) participated in talks and shows to signal their allegiance to the cause. However, with the latest national pledges only estimated to achieve one-seventh of emissions cuts necessary, we must ask not only if brands are doing enough, but ourselves as consumers.

 

Image from the Fashion Revolution Instagram page (@fash_rev). Caption: Polyester = plastic = oil. But fossil fuels are part of our wardrobes even if there aren’t synthetics on the label. 27 October 2021.

Posters carried by attendees of the Climate Conference read: ‘Who Made My Clothes?’ and ‘What’s in My Clothes?’. These are the slogans of Fashion Revolution, a non-profit organisation and global movement that participated in discussions at COP26. The Fashion Revolution Manifesto calls for an environmentally sustainable and ethical fashion industry; dignified work, equal and fair pay, and conservation and restoration of the environment are just some of their global aims. Ciara Barry, Policy and Research Coordinator at Fashion Revolution, remarked that the organisation was ‘disappointed that fashion isn’t further up the agenda’ of discussions surrounding the climate crisis. Fashion Revolution reported that if fashion were a nation state, it would be the seventh-largest in the world, showing the magnitude of the industry and its contributions to global pollution. The global industry was in fact responsible for about 4% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, which is ‘comparable to the combined emissions of France, Germany and the UK’ (Madeline Speed, 2021).

In their panel discussion with questions from Scarlett Conlon of The Guardian at COP26, Fashion Revolution reminded members of the conference that these environmental issues are never divorced from ethical consequences. It was noted that ‘the global north is responsible for 92% of emissions while the global south bears the burden of harm’. Factory flooding, the pollution to local water sources, and – in the case of the 2013 Dhaka factory collapse in Bangladesh – disastrous damage to industrial regions is all too common in the areas that mass-produce garments for the global north. It is not the responsibility of workers to address these issues, but the ‘brands and retailers who must take a more active role in addressing these risks’. More than this, it is our responsibility as consumers to rethink our overconsumption of fast fashion goods which encourages overproduction, and inevitably leads to these dangerous worker conditions. Fashion Revolution prompt us, not only at COP26 but in their widespread campaigning for economic and social justice in fashion, that we consumers must rethink our out of sight, out of mind approach to fashion.

 

After the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 2013. Getty Images.

So, what can we do to rethink our consumption of fashion and combat these environmental and social issues? One place to start is addressing our relationship with fashion in social media, which largely feeds into our desire to consume more and more without considering the unseen consequences. In recent years especially, popular trend videos on platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram have encouraged ‘haul videos’ from high-street brands, where consumers show off their latest purchases. The garments in these ‘hauls’ usually fall into the ‘micro-trend’ category; made at a speedy rate to be enjoyed for the season, and probably discarded afterwards. Likewise, in the run-up to ‘Black Friday’ sales happening next week, many retailers engage in the social media frenzy of promising heavily discounted prices for end-of-season stock, which only encourages further overproduction at the beginning of the season. By taking the time to think about what garments we really need, rather than buying for the sake of buying, we can begin to curb the thoughtless shopping habits which lead to dangerous working environments and environmental pollution overseas. Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index is also a useful tool for consumers to research further into their favourite brands, with a breakdown of their sustainability in terms of shipping and raw materials, and socio-economic issues like worker wages and conditions.

COP26 brought a sobering message for the fashion industry, but it is also one of hopeful ambition towards the future. Indeed, brands must be held accountable for the environmental and ethical oversights of their suppliers, but it is we as consumers who must change our outlook on our speedy and thoughtless consumption of garments. If action is taken now, we might contribute to a future of fashion which is sustainable, ethical and considerate. Now is the time to ask: ‘Who Made My Clothes?’ and ‘What’s in My Clothes?’

 

The Fashion Transparency Index for 2021 by Fashion Revolution can be downloaded following this link: https://www.fashionrevolution.org/about/transparency/

Fashion Revolution Instagram handle: @fash_rev

 

By Erin-Atlanta Argun

 

References:

Barry, Ciara. Fashion Revolution at COP26, 15 November 2021.

Cernansky, Rachel. ‘What Fashion Should Expect at COP26’. Vogue Business, 28 October 2021. https://www.voguebusiness.com/sustainability/what-fashion-should-expect-at-cop26.

Chan, Emily. ‘How Fashion Is Ramping Up Its Climate Efforts At Cop26’. Vogue, 9 November 2021. https://www.vogue.co.uk/fashion/article/un-fashion-charter-cop26.

Conlon, Scarlett, and Fashion Revolution. COP26: Questions from Scarlett Conlon at the Guardian, 2021.

Entwistle, Joanne. ‘The Fashion Industry’. In The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.

Fashion Revolution. ‘COP26: Why Fashion Needs a Seat at the Table’, November 2021. https://www.fashionrevolution.org/cop26-why-fashion-needs-a-seat-at-the-table/.

Godley, Andrew, Anna Kersher, and Raphael Schapiro. ‘Fashion and Its Impact on the Economic Development of London’s East End Womenswear Industry, 1929–62: The Case of Ellis and Goldstein’. Textile History 34, no. 2 (November 2003).

Speed, Madeline. ‘Fashion Industry to Miss Emissions Target despite COP26 Pledge’. Financial Times, 9 November 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/92d64022-415c-4fa2-93a7-bc277c417544.

‘Handprint’: The Double Fingerprint of Fashion

One of the most powerful and memorable chapters I read as part of the History of Dress MA course was Kitty Hauser’s ‘The Fingerprint of the Second Skin’ (2005), in which she describes a series of bombings and robberies that took place in 1996 in the Spokane area of Washington. What was remarkable about this case was that the culprit was identified by his clothes: the seams and hems on their jeans showed patterns of wear and fade that were so distinct to the wearer that they acted almost like his fingerprint at the crime scene, allowing the detectives to eventually identify him.

Hauser’s article claims that each person’s clothes bear the imprint of the body of the wearer, becoming a second unique ‘fingerprint.’ However, it is not only the trace of the wearer that is visible on a garment. Clothing does not gain individuating features only from the consumer; the mark of the maker is also present. Visible traces of the creator’s hands can be seen in the structure of each garment, especially along seams and hems, where the subtle differences in the way they work the sewing machines will result in tensions building up in the material. Each piece is not a tabula rasa, it is already a highly personalized record of the maker long before it is worn.

Hauser’s article seems particularly pertinent in relation to the recent Fashion Revolution Day, which took place on April 24, and was conceived as a way to encourage consumers to be more conscious when making clothing choices and to consider where it has come from. It is especially concerned with raising awareness of the unethical sweatshop conditions that many thousands of people, often women, must endure for hours a day in return for very little pay. It encourages consumers to think about what the human cost of their cheap clothing is.

Last year, I attended a Fashion Revolution Day film screening and panel discussion focusing on the issue of ethical fashion. The film, directed by Mary Nighy and entitled ‘Handmade,’ was awarded silver in the Young Director Category at the Cannes Lions in 2014 and highlights the exact same concept that Hauser discusses. It begins with a scene that will be all too familiar to many fashion conscious women: clothes, accessories and shoes are strewn across the floor of a bathroom, while a girl wrapped in a towel washes her face and then proceeds to get dressed.

But it is not her hands that slip her dress over her back, zip it up, fasten her belt and put in her earrings. Multiple hands of different ages and ethnicities dress this glamorous woman; then, she looks in the mirror, and the faces of these people are revealed. The film ends with the quotation ‘you carry the stories of the people that make your clothes,’ forcing the viewer to be more conscious and curious when purchasing their clothes. As in Hauser’s essay, the dress already carries the identities and memory of the people who made it.

To the consumer, the people who make our clothes are completely anonymous, invisible and silent, however, their mark is all over our most personal objects, and therefore there may be more of a connection between creator and wearer than one might think.

 

Sources:

Kitty Hauser, ‘The Fingerprint of the Second Skin,’ in Christopher Breward and Caroline Evans (eds) Fashion and Modernity, (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2005) pp 153-170

http://fashionrevolution.org

http://eco-age.com/handprint-2/

 

Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday in June we will be posting the MA and PhD Dress History students’ responses to their chosen texts that constitute our ‘500 Years of Dress Historiography’ display, which is currently on show in the Courtauld Institute of Art. The display was created as part of our 50 Years of Dress History at the Courtauld celebrations, and was on display for our conference ‘Women Make Fashion/Fashion Make Women’. The display was a collaboration between the History of Dress department at the Courtauld and the Fashion Museology department at London College of Fashion. We hope you enjoy reading the posts as much as we did the texts and come back to the blog on Wednesday for the first in the series.