Column inches and radio airwaves have been buzzing this week with news of the UK Governments stance on tackling the issues surrounding fast fashion. From calls for Home Economics to be brought back into schools so children learn a love of sewing again, to a 1p tax on every garment to contribute towards the cost of disposing of a garment at its end of life. Strategically timed headlines straight after London Fashion Week, a tad contradictory don’t you think? Let’s all swoon and croon over the latest looks and the following day we are told consuming clothes is a very planet un-friendly thing to do, so much so our new featured Instagram stars are those who haven’t shopped for a whole year.
This seesaw of contradictions reflects the dilemmas in most women’s minds when it comes to acquiring something new to wear. She’s increasingly becoming aware of the damage of fast fashion but the lure of new things to wear and that tingly good feeling and dopamine hit is very hard to resist.
“Ohhhh that’s gorgeous..love the colour, look how pretty that is, it feels amazing, I like the way I look wearing this, it’s a pick me up, a treat. I haven’t bought anything new for ages". All are various reasons why women will continue to shop. She is not even one of the twenty-something-year-olds who couldn’t possibly be seen in the same outfit twice brigade.
Before you commit to the I must not buy ANY new clothes ideology and solely purchase second hand, swap or resort to making your own from fabric remnants, please consider the bigger picture.
There are 73 million people employed globally by the fashion industry. Many of them in the poorest parts of the world making the cheap fashion that sells in high volume in the UK. If we stop buying new clothes what is going to happen to the livelihoods of those that often need the food, shelter and wage (although it is far too small a wage in many cases) that the clothing industry provides?
I learned the necessity of supporting those that live in developing countries first hand. On December 26th 2004 the worlds news headlines were filled with reports of the Tsunami that hit Indonesia and in particular Sri Lanka. I had developed strong sourcing links for my garments with manufacturers there and in particular one family run business. I had orders placed with them for in excess of 20,000 garments. My fabrics that had been specifically commissioned for that order were made in South Korea and due to dock into the Port of Colombo on Boxing Day. The very same day as the Tsunami hit. I spent the next 48 hours trying to reach the owner of the factory to find out if he was OK – after my numerous visits to Sri Lanka, I considered him a friend as much as a business colleague and was in complete shock and bewilderment with the images from the disaster. The factory where the bulk of my garments were being made was based in Galle. With the images of the yellow buses of Galle bus depot swirling like toys in a bathtub being shown on television screens everywhere and no contact from the owner, I was numb. Two days later the owner called. He was safe, his family was safe. He had as yet not been able to get to his factory in Galle. The following day he called to say that miraculously the ship with my fabric had docked 2 days earlier on the 24th of Dec and that it was all secure and safe from water damage. The news of his factory in Galle was also encouraging. Quite literally the tidemark of the wave stopped at the first step up into the factory. My feelings of complete despair and the end of my uniform supply business (because I had so much cash outlaid in raw materials which are uninsurable against natural disasters) was now turning to hope, that I would be able to fulfil this order in time for the critical deadline and launch back in the UK at the beginning of March. However, there was a big but. He was unsure how many of his staff had survived…
I booked myself on a flight against all UK government travel advice and headed to Sri Lanka on the 29th to asses the situation and arrange I thought, to have the fabrics, patterns and trims sent to a factory in Portugal to be able to deliver my precious designs in time for my UK client. The flight to Colombo from London was surreal. Its cargo hold was full of aid and supplies but there were only about 40 actual passengers on the jumbo jet. Rescue workers, Red Cross volunteers, a handful of other businessmen aboard and little me. With Air Force One sat on the tarmac next to where we disembarked the plane it was very much like this has to be a movie set, as it can’t be real, but sadly it was.
The journey from Colombo to Galle was long and slow due to the fact that in places the road didn’t even exist anymore. It had either been swept away or was impassable due to rubble and debris left behind by the wave. But there were Sri Lankans at work quietly, diligently, clearing, sweeping and gathering with their bare hands and twig and leaf brooms they had made. Trying to bring back order and calm to the utter destruction that the wave had brought.
On arrival at the factory, there was not the normal buzz or energy in the workplace. Instead, there was a sprinkling of workers dotted around, incomplete sewing production lines, empty seats, empty workstations at pressing and finishing. Only two men working on the cutting table and the sample room was silent with only one man in the room that once was overcrowded and full of bustle but now seemed like a huge echo chamber. Many of the staff had not returned to work as they were still searching for missing loved ones.
We went into the owner’s office which looked out onto the semi-empty factory floor to have our meeting. The meeting where I was going to ask for his help to bundle up all my fabrics etc and get them back out of Sri Lanka and onwards to Portugal. I’d seen and heard enough from the workers in that first thirty minutes at the factory to know there was no way they could achieve the production timeframes my critical order required.
He told me “We need your business now more than we have ever done.”
He didn’t need to say anymore. The penny dropped for me instantly. These people had just had their families destroyed, their homes destroyed and most of their possessions taken by the sea of sand and mud. For some, work was the only shelter they now had.
If we all stop buying fashion today, those who will be hit hardest are those who need it the most. The growers of the crops, the producers of the fabrics and those who make our clothes; in the third world. Yes some of these people are trapped in modern-day slavery and that has to end but by encouraging us to simply stop buying has consequences beyond the shutdown and loss of jobs that will also happen on our own retail high street.
The real solution is that we need much less clothing produced, using ethical and sustainable methods where workers and suppliers are paid much more for what they do and we as customers will have to pay more for an individual item. The part of fashion that needs to be completely overhauled and rejected is the tier where the most damage is being done to people and the planet.
The Sri Lanka factory lost over one-third of its workforce in the Tsunami but they still delivered on time and my customer received the exact high-quality product they were expecting.
5 Reasons We Should Buy New
1. It will give you many more ways to wear other items in your wardrobe that you would otherwise want to discard, (because without that linked piece you feel you have nothing to wear with the other items).
2. You’ve worn out the previous item. Clothes don’t last forever and if you have quite literally worn something until it can no longer be repaired or be worn and function as that item (I’m thinking about my favourite 14-year-old jeans which are so thin and threadbare in places I might as well not even be wearing them!) it’s OK to replace.
3. Buy from brands who have ethical and sustainable products to show your support and love for things which can be made well without harming people or the planet. Fashion, done well, is a great industry worth supporting and consumption isn’t all bad.
4. Many do not have the disposable income to shop anywhere other than in charity or thrift stores. Those privileged enough to have a disposable income to spend on new clothes, I encourage you not to switch to filling your wardrobes with the best of second hand, leaving less for those that genuinely have little or no other option available to them.
5. It’s going to make you feel fabulous! It might be the one thing which tips your confidence to go shine in an interview, to be more body confident, to help you feel relaxed and comfortable, whatever positive emotion it provides you with. With a caveat of course; it can’t be just a short-lived whim of one wear, then discard type purchase.
A balanced and considered approach is the way to plan your fashion purchases.