Why fashion matters

The True Cost, a film exploring how are clothes are made, is released globally today. Lucy Siegle explains why we should care

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By Lucy Siegle on

Fashion matters. But it’s often cast as an irrelevance when it comes to global matters, written off as a frivolous side show. In fact, this is an industry involving millions of people, from workers in vast sewing factories to employees in retail outlets worldwide. On paper, it has a huge amount going for it – it affects the lives of millions and is incredibly popular – but there are too many skeletons in this closet. We’ve been seduced by low-cost, on-trend wardrobe filler, for which someone and somewhere else has picked up the cost. 

The “somewhere”? Take your pick. From the cotton fields or the refineries to the huge factories, there’s plenty of scope to poison landscapes and cause acid rain clouds. Whole ecosystems have been trashed and fashion’s carbon footprint is enormous.  

Meanwhile, so is its human legacy. Working in “cut, make and trim” garment factories should not be inherently dangerous – it is not like workers are packing live ammunition or clearing land mines – and yet, statistically, the assembly phase makes you one of the most vulnerable workers on the planet. So, one morning in April 2013, the “someone” happened to be the garment workers putting in another long shift at the Rana Plaza complex on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The day before, they had raised concerns about a large crack that had appeared in the side of the building, but were sent in regardless. Within hours, over 1,000 were dead, when the eight-storey complex fell like a house of cards.  

Over the past decade, a small but determined coterie of designers, activists and consumers have come together to create an alternative: ethical fashion, also known as sustainable style. These brands do a wide variety of things, but essentially this is fashion that minimises the environmental impact of our rapacious consumption of fashion and maximises the opportunities of the millions who work in the fashion supply chain. There’s no legal definition of ethical fashion, but there are many ways to be an ethical dresser: some seek out fairtrade brands, some eschew mainstream fashion in favour of recycled charity-shop clothes. 

More than 1,000 died, when the eight-storey complex fell like a house of cards

Ethical fashion has also had some big moments in the sun. In 2005, the ethical-fashion business in the UK was valued at over £40m. Not long after, the vice president of Barneys in New York declared, “I do not think the eco/organic/fairtrade movement is a trend. I think it is the beginning of a major shift in consciousness in the fashion business.” Stella McCartney, whose commitment has held fast, called it back in 2007: “This is not about the new colour for spring. It’s actually about the new direction of our industry.” A number of the world’s biggest brands appeared to rise to the challenge. In 2010, H&M became the biggest consumer of organic cotton and, in 2012, M&S gave the UK “shwopping" as a means of increasing recycling rates for fashion. 

But, in truth, ethical fashion hasn’t mainstreamed to the extent that you can be guaranteed it has all been produced in conditions that are clean, green and free of exploitation. It is tempting to suggest this is because we just don’t care, particularly as, in the months after Rana Plaza, the biggest fashion brands – including those producing in the complex – posted their biggest profits yet. Rather than witnessing the death and destruction on the news and deciding to withdraw our patronage, as consumers we had apparently decided to do the opposite. How do we make sense of this?

The answer is that we’re trapped in an unprecedented fashion system. The whole system of production has changed from a “push” system, where the designer dictates trends, planned well in advance and unveiled at fashion weeks, to “pull”, where consumers demand new stuff, based on what micro-trend a Kardashian has sparked, and everyone else leaps into action. Instead of two seasons a year, we now have 50 to 100. 

Out of all the brands that dominate our wardrobes, it is Zara that set this new pace, constantly bringing new designs into store. The typical Zara customer shops 17 times a year, as opposed to the average 3.5 visits across the industry. In a very short space of time, retailers who wheeled out just a few collections were being described as “Jurassic”. Nobody wants to be a fashion dinosaur, so famous brands that don’t own factories place vast orders, and workers must complete orders at all costs. 

This is not about good and bad countries – it’s about production that will change the status quo

That’s what’s in it for them, but why did we buy in? According to research by US neuroscientists, the formula of new + cheap does something to our brains. Analysing brain activity during the purchasing of fast fashion confirms that it’s all about the chase allied to the positive response we get when we think we’re getting a bargain. This makes us sitting ducks for fast fashion. 

No wonder we’ve had problems entertaining another system. But, while consumers can be forgiven, there is a real sense among campaigners that it is time to demand substantive change. In the aftermath of Rana Plaza, a number of voluntary initiatives were created by major brands and NGOs, but these haven’t achieved much.  

For real change, we need to be braver. Ecologists may often be badly dressed, but we should follow their example. They know that, in nature, if you destroy diversity and use the space to plant one crop, you’re asking for trouble. Conversely, biodiversity, in the form of lots of species of flora and fauna, breeds resilience. Our fashion landscape should work like this, too: instead of monolithic brands calling all the shots, we need to spread our style pounds around a little, patronising smaller brands and individual designers. 

That landscape is developing and, crucially, offers a range of product. Before, we might only have thought of buying major items from an ethical source, but why not a pair of knickers? gets women into the job market and supports a local industry. Nudie jeans are all about buying for the long term and repairing and reusing. At, 75 to 85 per cent of the price goes to brands, compared with the 0.6 per cent earned by a garment maker from an average T-shirt. Are you an online shopper? or are smart and well-edited ethical fashion websites, along with, and 

Since Rana Plaza, Bangladesh has become synonymous with “bad” production. But this is not about good and bad countries – it’s about production that will change the status quo. After escaping Rana Plaza, Sabina, a garment worker in her early thirties, went back home to Thanapara, Northern Bangladesh. Traumatised by the catastrophe, she agonised over how she would support her family, but vowed she’d never return to the assembly line in Dhaka. She didn’t have to. Sabina now works in Swallows, a fairtrade fashion production facility close to home. Like many women here, she’s working on a forthcoming collection for Out in June, this is the brand’s collaboration with Zandra Rhodes and utilises the first organic cotton woven on handlooms by women – who are not ordinarily given this higher-paid job. For Sabina, clothes like this represent a different life: one where she has made the leap from an assembly worker, toiling long hours in one of the world’s most lethal sweatshops, to a fully fledged tailor, who now knows how to make a whole garment, and is paid accordingly. That’s why fashion matters.

Lucy Siegle is executive producer of The True Cost, which is released today

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