Slowing Down Fashion

We all know the importance of reducing our carbon footprint. Recently, the public emphasis has turned towards the aviation industry and many people have cut their flights down. This is excellent, of course, but the fashion industry is responsible for the emission of more CO2 than the aviation industry and shipping industry combined. Here are some shocking facts from the World Bank about the fashion industry:

  • It uses 93 billion cubic metres of water (enough to sustain 5 million people)
  • It generates 20% of global wastewater
  • 87% of all fibre input used for clothing is incinerated or sent to landfill
  • It generates 10% of annual global carbon emissions (and this is set to rise to 50% in 2030 if nothing changes)
  • Each year, half a million tons of plastic microfibres enter the ocean (the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles, but impossible to extract).

Why do they do this? Why do we allow this to happen? Because consumers demand fast fashion, apparently. Well, maybe it’s time we demand that fashion slows down.

What is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion is perhaps the buzz word of 2019. Let’s start 2020 by defining it. Merriam Webster says fast fashion is:

“An approach to the design, creation and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.”

It’s clear from this description that fast fashion is driven by capitalism. Supply and demand. But the cost of fast fashion is less obvious. This apparent consumer demand for the latest fashion trends instantly (and consequently a rejection of anything which is ‘last season’) has not only expanded the fashion industry exponentially but also turned clothes into, for many people, disposable products. We may be on board with a bag for life but for vast swathes of the population, a coat for winter is pushing it.

Let’s put some more numbers down. In 2000, most fashion chains released two collections per year (summer and winter). In 2011, on average brands were releasing 5 collections. Zara, incredibly, released 24! H&M released anywhere between 12 and 16 collections. No one needs to refresh their wardrobes 24 times a year. That’s once every couple of weeks! But it got crazier. In 2014, Topshop was introducing 400 styles to its website every single week. As a digital marketer, I can’t imagine the team of poor website developers responsible for that! And evidence suggests most people, when they are tired of their clothes, don’t recycle or donate them. They throw them in the bin and from there, the material ends up in incinerators, further contributing to the CO2 emission crisis.

And it’s not just new clothes which are an environmental disaster. For every 6kg of washing we (you or I) do, up to 728,789 microfibres are released into the oceans. Clothes don’t need to be washed every day, as long as you’ve not spilt your dinner down them. Washing clothes also, over time, causes fabrics to wear out so by cutting down on the regularity of your washes, you’re not only reducing pollution but you’re also prolonging the life of your clothes.

It’s Time to Slow Down

I’m speaking as someone who never indulged much in retail therapy so for me, the switch to slow fashion hasn’t been as challenging as I know some will find it. Over decades, we as a society have been conditioned to think it is normal to wander around town (or more recently browse websites) and buy a few items every weekend. It’s not normal. And it’s not necessary. Clothes may be a requirement for day to day life but not in the volume most of us are guilty of hoarding in our bedroom wardrobes, doors wedged shut to keep us from drowning under a fabric landslide.

For me, the decision to say no to fast fashion and embrace a slower, more mindful way of consuming fashion happened after seeing first-hand the fast fashion industry. I lived in Cambodia for 5 years which has a sizeable garment industry. In fact, garment workers are one of the few groups who has succeeded in securing a minimum wage from the government, but that’s a different story. It’s not the $182 monthly wage that distresses me, it’s everything else surrounding the industry. The number of women (and it is mostly women) assaulted, injured and, at worst, killed travelling to and from work in unsafe vehicles because there are no other options, the way you can see how the dyes used have stained the grounds around the factories and polluted waterways, the long hours, the poor conditions, the looks on their faces as you drive past; resigned.

Brands made in Cambodia include; Adidas, Asos, Armani, Gap, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Next, Uniqlo and Zara to name a few.

I was confronted, frankly. I felt guilty. And then I met Hanna Guy, the co-founder of Dorsu, and discovered the alternative. Alongside her Cambodian business partner, Kunthear, Hanna founded Dorsu in 2008. It is a brand and manufacturer which is committed to slow fashion. Dorsu’s products are all made in their small factory by a well-trained and fairly paid team of local women. With their wages from Dorsu, and their 5 day week, they can support their families and enjoy fair working conditions.

StaffPhoto by Rita Mcneil @rita_mcneill from @dorsu_cambodia

Hanna says:

“Fashion, and all business, shouldn’t impact any person involved in such a cruel way. We expect living wages and safe conditions in our workplaces so there is no reason that we shouldn’t expect that of the brands making the products we buy.”

In addition to their strong ethical practices, Dorsu is committed to minimising their environmental impact. Their clothes are made from remnant fabric, discarded in obscene quantities by large fashion corporates. You’ll never receive a plastic bag in a Dorsu store. They produce reusable shopping bags from their offcuts. And they don’t make more products than they know they can sell, so there’s no waste.

ProductionPhoto by Rita Mcneil @rita_mcneill from @dorsu_cambodia

Dorsu still releases collections. 4 per year, in fact. Their collections are focused on being versatile and suitable for everyday wear. We all have that one item in our wardrobe we bought for a special occasion which never came. Or a top which only goes with one set of jeans. Dorsu doesn’t believe in that. “Our clothing does not go out of style, you will wear Dorsu for years to come.” As someone who is usually wearing at least one item of Dorsu clothing at any moment, I can attest to that.

Seeing how Dorsu operates has opened my eyes to the importance of thinking about where our clothes come from. My own shopping slowed down considerably (once I’d bought one of everything in Dorsu’s Year-round Core range). I think more before I buy. And I buy less. It is true that ethically sourced fashion items tend to come with a higher price tag (if you’re comparing it with Forever 21 rather than Dior, both of whom have terrible records), but it’s worth it. Buying from ethical, slow, sustainable fashion means supporting fair working conditions, environmentally conscious companies and saying “no!” to everything we know is wrong with the industry.

I know it can seem hard when faced with such shocking data to feel like we can make a change. But we can! Hanna reminds us:

“The global industry is complex and confronting, but we cannot despair for a moment then turn off and forget it. We have great power as consumers and our small actions do matter.”

Are you ready to make your voice heard?

Here are my top 5 favourite ethical clothing companies:

  1. Dorsu (they ship to the UK!)
  2. Armedangels
  3. Stripe and State
  4. Patagonia
  5. People Tree

And if you don’t like shopping online and want to hop into a store, try Sancho’s on Fore Street in Exeter. There’s two shops (men and women) and they stock clothes from People Tree and Armedangles.

If you’re interested in learning more about the fashion industry and the amazing brands who working against the fast fashion pandemic, subscribe to these blogs to stay up to date:

  1. Dorsu (you also hear about the latest releases first!)
  2. Fashion Revolution (or Fash Rev)
  3. Ethical Consumer
  4. Centre for Sustainable Fashion
  5. Fair Wear

As business owners who are interested in minimising our environmental impact, we should lead the way, not only when it comes to how we run our companies but in the way we shop. Buy local. Borrow. Donate. And think twice before handing over your credit card. Do you really need it? And if you do, can you enjoy using your new possession knowing everyone along the supply chain has enjoyed fair and safe working conditions?

By Ruth Lemon