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.

Alice V Robinson: Confronting Consumerism

‘374’ is a collection of accessories and outerwear that includes: sleek, tan knee-high boots with a mid-heel; a belted suede mac with silver fastenings (and a second, interchangeable belt featuring cowhide pouches); a tan leather bucket bag with a silver clasp; suede mules; a cowhide jacket. Part of the collection – conceived, designed and created by Alice V Robinson – went on display at the V&A in 2019 as part of the exhibition Food: Bigger than the Plate. Visitors were able to get a closer look at the solid silver plates and leather tags engraved and embossed with the number ‘374’, a reference to ‘Bullock 374’, a longhorn bullock from whom the entire collection was created.

Alice V Robinson graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2018. Her degree collection, the predecessor to ‘374’, involved her purchasing a sheep (‘11458’) from a farm nearby where she grew up, attending its slaughter and designing a collection to make use of the entire animal. The resulting cream-coloured knitted jumper, finger gloves and butter-toned leather bag, shoes and purse are elegant and contemporary. Burgers made from the leftover meat were served at the degree show, shocking some attendees.

Robinson’s approach to the ethical and environmental concerns of the fashion industry was based on the attempts of the food industry to tackle their own similar production problems. Using a by-product of meat, Robinson was able to address the issues around sourcing fashion’s materials: the hide of ‘374’ would have otherwise been incinerated, at cost to the farmer who raised him. Her resource-led process and a zero-waste objective enabled her to work creatively and respectfully within the limits posed by what was available: ‘it is all defined by the animal used’. While supply chains can be murky in both industries, Robinson’s small-scale, entirely localised production allowed for complete traceability and transparency. Her process also demanded slowness, that desirable but elusive antidote to rampant consumerism, leaving her ‘unable to stick to the same deadlines as others in my class’ as she awaited the completion of each step. Style, too, is one of the most significant aspects of the collections’ sustainability. Classic pieces designed and made thoughtfully from durable materials, they are built to last without needing replacement, thereby negating the need for future production.

It would be impossible to label this experiment as half-hearted greenwashing: it rips apart received ideas about sustainable fashion. Leather goods, like fur, have been demonised by some animal rights activists since the 1990s (unlike fur, however, leather remains prevalent and widely accepted) and, as in the food industry, veganism is considered by many to be the only ethical and environmentally-sound choice. Instead, Robinson confronts the reality of the cycle of production and consumption, including the violence, sometimes overlooked, that is undeniably present within the fashion industry. By identifying the once-living source of her materials by name, Robinson plays on the shame of many carnivores who admit that they would feel uneasy witnessing the death of their future food, or in this case, garment. The numerical name tricks the viewer-consumer, putting a figure to a life and, once the significance is illuminated, revealing the distance created between that life and its outcome. Wearing, like eating, is an embodied experience, which adds emotional weight to the subjects of fashion and food. Robinson’s method is certainly shocking to consumers accustomed to facing only the end product but, in some ways, violence seems the appropriate response to a system that is so frequently violent to its workers and ecosystem, in often only thinly veiled ways.

The ethics of Robinson’s project are far from clear-cut, but her exploration is valid and thoughtful. In its refusal to shy away from reality, it demonstrates a kindness that is missing from many attempts at sustainability in fashion. By borrowing lessons from the food industry, it builds ‘a bridge between farming and fashion where values between the two [are] mirrored’. This uncomfortable collection reveals that the most important directive for a sustainable system is to keep questioning, experimenting and reworking, because there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution.

By Lucy Corkish

 

Alice V Robinson, 374. Installation image at FOOD Bigger than the Plate © the artist. Photo Victoria and Albert Museum, London (https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/inside-the-food-bigger-than-the-plate-exhibition)

 

Sources:

Catherine Flood and May Rosenthal Sloan, Food: Bigger than the Plate (2019)

Alice V Robinson, personal website (https://alicevictoriarobinson.com)

Rebecca Speare-Cole, ‘Budding London designer who makes clothes from entire animals to promote zero waste on show at V&A’ (2019) (https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/budding-london-designer-who-makes-clothes-from-entire-animals-to-promote-zero-waste-on-show-at-v-a-a4230996.html)

Rosario Morabito, ‘Fashion is a living thing: the RCA fashion show 2018’ (2018) (https://www.vogue.it/en/vogue-talents/fashion-schools-vogue-talents/2018/06/22/rca-royal-college-of-art-londra-fashion-show-students-2018/?refresh_ce=)

Ekocycle: Make Do and Mend for the 21st Century?

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‘Will.i.am is building a whole new world, one recycled micron at a time.’ That is the claim made by the website of Ekocycle, the brand he founded in collaboration with the Coca-Cola Company to promote, design and sell clothing made from recycled materials. The company sells trendy, eco-conscious clothing created in conjunction with many different designers both online and in Harrods.

The whole thing is done in a very over-the-top, very will.i.am-ish way. However, it’s hard to forget that what they’re doing is actually a really good thing. Amidst the silliness – ‘until now recycling hasn’t been the stuff of legend- not the best selfie material’ – there is a hard-hitting and important message. The website states: ‘we see sustainability as “the” revolutionary social material of our time. Efforts to combat climate change and green initiatives are often sidelined by propaganda and political shuffling- but our goal is to help sow the seeds of change…’

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Many of the garments are made from 100% recycled plastic or PET bottles and are produced using the most energy-efficient methods available. The aim is to encourage people to recycle by demonstrating how already used things can be turned into some new, completely different and exciting. The idea is to evolve from a clothing range into a whole movement, which encourages people to recycle and encourage others to follow suit.

Exploring the Ekocycle website, and snooping through their range in Harrods (perhaps the only retailer where a backpack can sell for £1,415), I am prompted to consider the role fashion has to play in the future of sustainable living. Fashion is, by its very nature, one of the least sustainable commodities. In today’s culture, where novelty and individuality are desired above all else, clothing is bought, worn and discarded on a near seasonal cycle. We are taught to value the new to such an extent that our clothing habits can become somewhat wasteful. We rush to buy cheap clothing that we can wear once and throwaway, to ensure that our look is constantly being updated. However, this is causing huge problems for our planet. An estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothing (worth 140m) is thrown away each year. Consumers today need to learn to change their shopping habits from bulk-buying cheap, disposable clothing to reusing, adapting and upcycling old garments. Ekocycle is attempting to pave the way for a new consumer who shops ethically. The problem with this plan is the cost. It is inconceivable for most shoppers today to spend the kind of money Ekocycle is demanding for its clothing. Until sustainable fashion is more budget friendly, it seems the inevitable truth is that people will continue to buy the cheapest clothing they can, and indulge their desire to constantly refresh their wardrobe.

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However, this view of clothing as something disposable is very modern. During the Second World War, and in the years that followed it, clothing was rationed, and so it was seen as a precious commodity. Nothing was thrown away if it could be restored, and old things were constantly being adapted into new garments. Campaigns such as ‘Make Do and Mend’ encouraged the kind of resourcefulness that is lacking in today’s consciousness. People were expected to wear a garment until it no longer fit, or had lost all structural integrity, but then, instead of throwing it away, it was changed into something new by reusing the material.

Perhaps what Will.i.am and Ekocycle are doing isn’t so modern, despite the futuristic designs of their clothes. It seems, in fact, that they are merely resurrecting an old ideal of reusing and readapting to prolong the life of a material. Our Grannies- the kind of women who would repair continuously to avoid throwing something away- would recognise something of themselves in this brand. The old curtains and tablecloths that fill anecdotal evidence about wartime clothing have been replaced by plastic bottles, however the concept of turning something old into something new remains exactly the same.

‘Second Skin’ Exhibition at London’s City Hall

Jennifer Rothwell's garment

Jennifer Rothwell’s garment

Natalie B Coleman's garment

Natalie B Coleman’s garment

Joanne Hynes' garment

Joanne Hynes’ garment

London’s City Hall is perhaps the least likely venue for an exhibition on sustainable fashion, however it was the setting for the recent ‘Second Skin,’ an exhibition that first opened in Ireland and came to London for a week in late March. It was part of the Irish Design 2015 programme and posed a challenge to four Irish fashion labels to source and create a garment totally within Ireland.

Lennon Courtney's garment

Lennon Courtney’s garment

The exhibition, nestled right at the bottom of the round glass building, displayed the finished garments, as well as photographs from the process of their manufacture. Starting with a series of fairly shocking facts about the fashion industry, such as ‘the Chinese textile industry creates about three billion tons of soot each year,’ and ‘in the UK 1.4 million tons of clothing is dumped onto landfills annually,’ it highlighted the ethical issues caused by the production and consumption of clothing.  In the past three decades, one third of the planet’s natural resources have been consumed, and therefore it is vital that the fashion industry adapts its practices. There are, of course, also the humanitarian concerns that the production of clothing creates, such as the sweatshop conditions that many people, often young children, must work in to make the garments that we buy. It is often easy to overlook the ethical and environmental issues posed by the fashion industry, so displaying them so starkly is an important wake up call for many people. The objects on display in ‘Second Skin’ address these issues, as they are created using purely locally sourced materials and by Irish workers who were paid a fair wage.

 Curator Louise Allen writes that ‘today we have become used to fast fashion [however] we don’t tend to consider the collective impact of our individual buying patterns.’ This desire for cheap clothing that is not made to last is a fairly new phenomenon. For most of the twentieth century, the emphasis was on high quality clothing that could be worn for a long period of time. Our contemporary throwaway attitude is one of the main problems facing, and indeed caused by, the fashion industry, and something that the designers in ‘Second Skin’ seek to address.

The garments created by brands Natalie B Coleman, Joanne Hynes, Lennon Courtney and Jennifer Rothwell for the exhibition are the opposite of cheap, convenience clothes. They are handmade and unique garments, all inspired by aspects of Ireland. Natalie B Coleman, for example, was inspired by books from her childhood, such as ‘The Enchanted Wood’ series by Enid Blyton, and worked with textile artist Caroline Schofield to create objects both dark and whimsical. Jennifer Rothwell drew her inspiration from folklore and mythology, working with artist Harry Clarke to create a dress that resembled stained glass windows. She used vivid purples, blues, oranges and reds to depict the Eve of St Agnes. She claims to want to reignite the Celtic revival of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries today.

Sonya Lennon, of Lennon Courtney, worked with a local furniture designer to create the wooden shoulder pads that adorn her dress. She says that ‘the real value of producing in Ireland is in developing collaborative relationships.’ This intimate working relationship, that used to be so important in homemade and handmade clothes, is lost when garments are made by many different people who are part of a large system. Joanne Hynes also worked with local craftsmen to create her knitted garment, however, her use of 3D printing is aspirational and looks towards the future of textile production.

The 'Second Skin' exhibition space

The ‘Second Skin’ exhibition space

This exhibition served to highlight the importance of sustainability in fashion, especially in the years to come. It also showed how unique and beautiful clothing can be when created by local craftsmen and using locally sourced materials. It also provided an interesting insight into the contemporary fashion manufacturing process. The one shame is that it was on display in London for such a limited period, and in such an unheard of and little advertised exhibition space.

 Sources:

http://www.nationalcraftgallery.ie/secondskin/essay