Finding sustainable fashion’s middle ground
Pioneered by influential figures such as Livia Firth and Lucy Siegle, ethical fashion is currently in the process of a much-needed makeover that is bridging the critical gap between ethic and aesthetic. Big names in the fashion industry are embracing change, from leading designers such as Stella McCartney and Victoria Beckham, to high-street brands such as H&M and Marks and Spencer. My issue lies in the two problematic extremes that these retailers represent and the solution, I believe, exists somewhere in the middle.
When it comes to implementing sustainable practice, the high-end model is one that is arguably easier to adapt than its fast fashion equivalent, with smaller quantities of clothes made using specifically sourced, quality materials. Firth’s consultancy company, Eco-Age, has already collaborated with an impressive number of high-profile designers to produce one-off sustainable products and a capsule collection of dresses, modelled by actress and eco-enthusiast, Emma Watson. However, by focusing on high-end fashion, which is only available to a high-profile minority, appealing to our celebrity-endorsed culture, sustainable fashion is in danger of garnering an elitist reputation.
At the other end of the scale, however, the fast fashion retailers catering for the mass market are also adapting. Last month, The Business of Fashion published an article on high-street giant H&M who claims to combine sustainable production with affordable prices. Head of sustainability, Helena Helmerson, who has worked for the company for 17 years, was quoted as saying: “We don’t aim for sustainability to be a luxury thing.”
Helmerson is right; affordability and accessibility must become an integral concept in the plight for ethical production. Sustainable clothing cannot be reduced to something exclusive; it must permeate all aspects of the industry in order to be taken seriously as the un-objectionable future of fashion.
Yet, making fast fashion sustainable is not the conclusive answer. The concept of fast fashion and the mentality of the fast fashion consumer represent a wholly separate issue that also needs urgent addressing. Ethical fashion is as much about how we buy as it is about what we buy. Although affordable clothes will always remain an undeniable necessity, the extortionately cheap high street prices stimulate a frivolous mode of shopping whereby we are swayed into buying more than we want or need.
The sheer amount that we buy is partially due to the incessant trends and multitudinous seasons that now dictate the fashion industry -primarily a consequence of the fast fashion model. Brands such as Zara institute a relentless turnover, producing a new line in as little as three weeks. 85% of in-house production starts after the season has begun, enabling them to mimic pieces straight off the catwalk. This increases our accessibility to the fickle high fashion trends and, in doing so, feeds demand for brief dalliances with clothes made for minimum wear. The life span of the clothes mirrors that of the season and, as a result, high street fashion is in danger of becoming almost entirely disposable.
The psychological result is a frightening disconnect. As well as no physical longevity, the ownership of poor quality garments induces no sense of investment or real value. It is integral that the mind-set and the approach of the consumer is addressed in order to change the relationship that we have with our clothes. Spending a little more time and money investing in quality pieces generates a sense of worth. Clothes must be reclaimed as treasured, meaningful pieces rather than throwaway items.
On a purely practical level, cheap, poor quality clothes are a false economy. Buying a t-shirt that is made to last three months will not save money in the long term. Not only seduced by trends, we are unwittingly drawn into the vicious fast fashion cycle by the short lifespan of our clothes; we end up buying more clothes, more often, in order to replace those falling apart. Customers are blinded by low prices, and the seemingly logical belief that it is more economically feasible to buy cheap garments.
I recently interviewed Noorin Khamisani, the designer behind the label Outsider. Noorin focuses on putting style back into ethical fashion with quality, timeless pieces. Outsider represents part of a burgeoning middle market that is aided and endorsed by the online communities emerging from social media and blogging platforms. “I wanted to provide a solution to as many people as possible, which the mid-market allows. I don’t feel that it’s ethical for sustainable fashion to only be available to wealthy people.”
The middle-market offers an alternative approach to the fast-fashion industry that remains both feasible and realistic. Though admittedly pricier than the high street, the margins do vary. The pieces available from Outsider range from very affordable basics – bamboo socks at £4 and vest tops at £20 – to dresses that range from £100-£200. “I’m asked a lot: ‘How do you justify people buying sustainably and ethically during financially difficult times?’ and I always say you’ve got to think about the cost per wear of what you’re buying. For example, I would expect one of my bamboo vests to last you at least three years minimum if you wash on a low temperature and a delicate cycle.” Equivalentprices are to be found on the British high street but Noorin’s garments are made ethically and with quality materials that ensure longevity.
Noorin advocates an ethos of ‘buy less, buy better’; spending more -sometimes even just a matter of £10 more- on fewer, quality pieces that will last. I agree whole-heartedly with this mind-set and believe it is the key to the future of ethical consumption. The concept of sustainability and the endurance of the fashion industry run deeper than the way in which the products are manufactured. Championing the mid-market in turn advocates the method of consumerism that it represents. Slightly higher prices and quality garments have the potential to naturally reinstate a thoughtful, purposeful and sustainable approach to buying, and thus, work to re-install a sense of investment, longevity and value in our clothes.
This article was written and submitted by Rachael Cooney for Round 1 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Rachael was invited to take part in Round 2. Read all the published submissions.