Fashion operates on desire. How we dress feeds off cravings to be different as well as part of a tribe; to be en vogue but ahead of the pack. The message from the high street is that such wishes can be fulfilled, and fast fashion plays on the idea that hunger can be sated immediately. But to overcome such urges we need to reflect on the fragility of our planet. This means accepting that there is a better way to keep the pleasures of fashion open to all parts of society than promoting disposable clothes as desirable. This is not just about the high cost of the GBP4 dress; luxury retailers such as Louis Vuitton have offered small collections every two weeks.
The fashion industry has benefited from globalisation to mass-produce goods by externalising the costs of production in the form of human and environmental damage. Every year, 100bn new garments are produced by one out of six people worldwide. Yet only 2% of them earn a living wage. In this country it is an open secret that some garment factories are not paying the minimum wage.
Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth. But the industry has for too long promoted overconsumption as a good thing. About a fifth of mass-produced clothing does not even sell and ends up being buried, shredded or burned. Garments now account for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Synthetic fibres are being found in Arctic sea ice and in fish.
Britain has too readily embraced throwaway society. Shoppers in the UK buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe. It was a mistake last year for ministers not to take up MPs’ suggestion to reward via taxation companies that design products with lower climate footprints and penalise those that do not. Messages from public figures, such as the environmentalist Greta Thunberg, about not buying clothes has helped to persuade people to turn their backs on fast fashion. New research shows that 51% of Britons are opting to purchase expensive but longer-lasting clothes rather than cheaper throwaway items, up from 33% a year ago.
The market is belatedly responding to the mood. Big brands such as H&M and Zara have made new commitments to sustainability. John Lewis has this week introduced labelling to encourage a culture of handing down children’s clothes. Nudie Jeans has become a success, with organic products and stores that promote repair services and resale.
At no other time in human history has fashion been so accessible to so many people. Technology will help to make fashion greener. Better regulation of supply chains will help too. There is a discernible shift from discarding clothes to repairing, reusing or even renting them. However, it is hard to see how this will be enough to make fashion truly sustainable if the industry still produces more and more clothes. Once normal service is resumed, we need to think again about the wisdom of fostering competitive consumption, which upholds the persistent demand for expansion, in our society.