With sustainability becoming a more pressing issue, it’s easy to overlook the contribution the fashion industry makes towards our planet’s degradation – does the answer lie in the ‘slow fashion’ movement? Hannah Collins and Sarah Bowdidge examine the benefits and challenges, and what we can do in Wales to help.
You may have noticed recently that major clothing brands and retailers are suddenly developing an environmental conscience in Wales and the rest of the UK. The term ‘fast fashion’ is one you’re also likely familiar with already, referring to quickly and cheaply produced clothing that is just as quickly discarded by fashion-conscious consumers.
Fuelled by low labour, material costs and the fibre-optic speed of social media trendsetting, the pace at which we’re consuming and binning clothing is estimated by Global Fashion Agenda to be a 92 million-tonne landfill per year. This is expected to reach 134 million tonnes in just under a decade. Barely 15% of all that waste will be recycled.
But it’s not just about textile waste. According to the UNEP, 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the fashion industry, as does 20% of the world’s waste water. A big part of this is changing consumer habits. Around the world, most of us are simply buying far more clothes than past generations – fashion spending is up by 60% compared to 15 years ago, as reported by the UN Alliance. Research from Oxfam reveals that the UK is at the epicentre of this: we buy more clothes per minute than any other European country. According to My Recycling Wales, almost half of Brits aren’t aware that they even can recycle textiles. If they were, researchers reckon the industry’s carbon footprint would be reduced by 10-20 percent.
What’s the solution to this continuing crisis, then? Do we log out of Instagram, Marie Kondo our wardrobes, and rediscover sock darning? Questions like these are what ‘slow fashion,’ the antithesis to fast fashion, aims to solve. Coined by Britain’s own Kate Fletcher of the Centre For Sustainable Fashion in 2007, slow fashion is one of many branches of the ‘slow culture’ movement, itself rooted in the viral spread of McDonald’s restaurants in the 80s.
Slow culture stands against the capitalist, pro-consumerist notion that human progress means getting faster and faster, but not necessarily in favour of making the pace of modern life unilaterally slow. “The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed,” Carl Honore writes in his 2004 book In Praise Of Slow.
Crucially, Slowness isn’t controlled by one entity – be that a person or business. Instead, it’s an ideology that said entities can be incorporated into their lives and practices. This naturally – or unnaturally, perhaps – feeds into environmental issues, such as the damage the fashion industry is inflicting on our global ecology.
Fashion is all about creating the next big thing and is perfectly poised, at the intersection of art and commerce, to push consumers to buy that next big thing every waking second of every day. That isn’t to say that fashion isn’t a legitimate art form or doesn’t have an important role to play in human identity and expression. But it’s also an industry that’s infamously less concerned with practicality or longevity than it is in love with the new.
Advocates for slow fashion believe that changing the industry to be more sustainable is a process that relies on both producers and consumers. Producers have a responsibility to manufacture clothes that will last longer and try and use materials that already exist rather than make more of them.
Keep Wales Tidy describes this process as a “circular economy,” advocating that the nation adopting it means “all this ‘stuff’ will have a much longer lifespan and we move away from a ‘single-use’ or ‘disposable’ culture and look to extend the lifetime of the things that we own.” (Wales’ circular economy is hardly a fantasy, either: the Welsh government has sunk £6.5 million into its acceleration.)
Other financial incentives like this – and penalties – could be greater taxation on businesses that avoid doing their bit. Consumers, meanwhile, have a responsibility to learn about how the clothes they buy have been made and shop more ethically as a result. That’s why companies like Primark, perhaps the first name you think of when you hear ‘fast fashion’ in the UK, are now keen to advertise the percentage of recycled textiles they’re using when you walk through their doors.
A major criticism of environmental campaigns that target consumers, however, is that no matter how much we ‘do our bit,’ it won’t move the needle anywhere near as much as, to give a hypothetical example, Coca-Cola choosing to scrap plastic bottles forever. Report after report telling us that it might already be too late to save our planet for future generations, meanwhile, only adds to this sense of powerlessness. When it comes to fashion, this psychological barrier is compounded by other more tangible problems, like accessibility and socioeconomics. Fast fashion has grown as big as it has because it’s affordable and accessible to most.
There have been lots of discussions lately over how to make slow fashion accessible. The two most prominent factors are high price points and lack of representation. In order to pay workers a fair living wage, items cost more to produce. In addition, ethical materials and finishings are more expensive to use, making it incredibly difficult to create cheap sustainable fashion and sell it to the average consumer.
The other complaint is that slow fashion lacks diverse representation. There needs to be a focus on creating clothes for various genders, disabilities, sizes, and styles of clothing. To make sustainable fashion accessible, these businesses must find more diverse models, advertise in more inclusive spaces, and style their clothing in new ways. By bringing in new voices to their brand, they will be able to reach far more customers who feel that the brand’s clothing was made for them.
All of this underscores an aura of elitism. To combat this, homegrown Welsh designers are increasingly turning against the homogeneity of the fashion industry and to their roots, instead, using patriotism to incite passion about clothes that stem from a proud, local manufacturing and crafting tradition, blending socialism and environmentalism.
However powerless we may feel, it’s worth remembering that businesses are at the mercy of consumer habits. Therefore, it really is up to those of us who can make our voices heard with our wallets. If Slowness is a mindset, transforming the fashion industry into a sustainable one means changing how we think about clothes: what we wear, why we wear it, and where we buy it from – from disposable to sentimental, and brand new to pre-loved. Fashion is culture, so culture is where change needs to begin.
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SUSTAINABLE FASHION RESOURCES IN WALES
The more you know, the more action you can take! Online resources like SustFashWales, WRAP Cymru, My Recycling Wales, Wales Recycles and Keep Wales Tidy are full of easy to read and nicely presented data for you to use.
Most companies that recycle textiles in Wales are members of the Textile Recycling Association. A full list can be found at its website.
For alphabetised recycling services in your local area, simply search for ‘A-Z of recycling’ along with the name of your council. Nationwide resources, services and initiatives can be found at www.gov.wales/recycling-waste.
words HANNAH COLLINS / SARAH BOWDIDGE