The Mode & Methodology Recordings: Sustainability is Up to You

The Mode & Methodology Recordings: Sustainability is Up to You

This week it's Fashion Revolution, and I've also been doing some research on cruelty free beauty, so obviously I  have a lot of thoughts about those two industries and what they're up to.  In a Recording that references polar bears (why not), I try to think my way to the answer to the question - who's responsible here?  It's not an area where I've been a perfect human, but it's certainly one where I'm trying to improve. 

For those who said you'd rather read than listen, the transcript appears below (it's not verbatim, apparently I go off script a wee bit), useful links included. 

Welcome to this month’s Mode & Methodology Recording!  Buckle in and get ready for some opinions and thoughts, which may or may not have been carefully considered.

This week on the blog we’ll be focussing on Fashion Revolution and #whomademyclothes, which I think is great, if I do say so myself because I think we haven’t responded quickly enough to the damage being wrought by the fashion and beauty industries.  That might be unsurprising when you consider the incredible rate of growth.  Anecdotally, I can tell you that the beauty industry seems to have exploded during the last ten years.  I’ve participated in the consumption of beauty products to some degree for a lot longer than that, but beauty influencers and the rise of an online community where you can talk about beauty products with similarly obsessed “friends” has added so much fuel to the fire – it’s unrecognisable from the world I inhabited as a woman in my early 20s.

Less anecdotally, over the past decade the fashion industry grew at 5.5 percent annually according to the The State of Fashion 2017, outpacing overall GDP growth.  The Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry describes the fashion industry as “One of the world’s largest consumer industries, generating €1.5 trillion in annual apparel and footwear revenues in 2016, it employs around 60 million people along its value chain”

It goes on to state – “To continue the growth trajectory, the fashion industry needs to address its environmental and social footprint. The earth’s natural resources are under pressure, and the fashion industry, although not the most obvious contributor, is a considerable one. Social conditions—also in the fashion industry—are far from those set forth in the United Nations’ goals for sustainable development. With current trajectories of production and consumption, these pressures will intensify by 2030 to the point of threatening industry growth itself. With resources becoming even scarcer, the industry will face rising costs from labor to materials and energy. Based on conservative projections, fashion brands’ profitability levels are at risk in the range of at least 3 percentage points if they don’t act determinedly, and soon.”

Unfortunately, if I know anything about human nature it is that we’re not great at acting to head off future issues.  That’s why polar bears are going extinct (warning – that link contains distressing images of starving bears) – in fact they’ll be gone by 2050, which is less far away from me today than my date of birth.  I can tell you those 32 years will go incredibly quickly, but they’re just long enough that most of us will do precisely fuck all to change the world we inhabit.  Even in this scenario, where the fashion industry is being told it will lose money if it doesn’t change, I suspect change will be incremental and too slow.

Much like the way it’s incredibly easy to become unfit, but really difficult to claw your way back to a strong core, it’s really easy to destroy a river and kill the local industry by building a polluting mega factory, but unbelievably difficult to undo that and bring back a local ecosystem.  There’s stuff we’ve done that we can’t undo, but there’s stuff we’ve done that we should undo – and I say “we” because it’s us, the people consuming the stuff that kills those rivers and enslaves those people – who are really responsible for what’s happening here. 

The problem, as I see it, is that there isn’t enough transparency on the massive scale we’d need in order to fight back against the deep commercialisation of style and fashion that has led to this rapid increase in the throw away culture and the pollution and working conditions that come with it – and modern life has us all so time-poor that we don’t have time to do any research and figure out for ourselves what’s up.  I need that time for sleeping, and if I was a 1970s hippie I’d say that’s just how the man wants it.  A system we know is fucked up and limited means to do anything about it.

However, I think things are changing.  Call me idealistic, but I think we really are reaching a boiling point in our expectations, and we might actually have a shot to change things.  That’s what a revolution is – not a hash tag, or a blog post by me about vintage or ethical fashion.  It’s a full turn of the wheel – it’s an uprising.  Humankind has done it before, and we’ll do it again.  I think it’s coming, relentless, for lots of reasons – from the gap between rich and poor, from developing nations to developed, from dissatisfaction and a constant sense that things aren’t fair.  And I think it’s right to make transparency part of the revolution – part of the resolution of those inequities.

So let’s riff on that.  What if instead of opting into the Leaping Bunny initiative, brands had to put a sticker on their products that said “we test on animals” with a picture of an animal that’s been tested on – a bunny with its skin red-raw, or its eyes burning from chemicals – just like cigarette packaging in New Zealand.  Would they change their practices then?  Would we, the people holding up this supply chain and funding this shitty practice with our money, be able to ignore it anymore?

How about a fashion label having to prominently label their clothes with “Child Slave Labour may have been used in the making of this garment” or “We have not committed to reducing waste in manufacturing” with a picture of a child working in a terrifying factory or a massive dump of garment manufacturing waste on the label? Surely that would make it so much harder to justify that cheap fix after a trying day at work.   

Looking at a comparable initiative – the use of graphic warning labels on cigarettes – what I can tell you is that opinion on effectiveness is mixed.  What we do know works in that sphere is raising the price, through taxes.  So let’s double down.  If you want to sell me that moisturiser, not only do you now have to clearly state that you test on animals, we’re also going to increase the cost by taxing that product.  And hey, why don’t we use that tax to create a subsidy for sustainable products, thereby making them more affordable?  Economists rise up, to tell me that messing around in market forces to this extent is a dangerous game – I feel you, don’t worry, I’m not actually in charge of anything so I shan’t be destroying our economy any time soon.

My hypothetical solution also ignores the reality that some people don’t buy a $4 tshirt by choice, but by necessity.  Arguably, they shouldn’t have to be confronted by the horrifying human and environmental cost of fashion every time they want to clothe themselves, because getting dressed is a compulsory element of human social participation.  Similarly, you should be able to clean yourself without having to explain to your children what happened to a bunny – although cruelty free beauty products are relatively freely available and certainly lower cost than a lot of sustainable fashion.

I do think transparency is the answer, but unfortunately I think that transparency has to be demanded.  That means we can’t claim to be too time poor to care – we have to choose to make this a priority. 

Lots of brands are much better at providing information about their practices, which is clear from the publication of the 2018 Ethical Fashion Guide last week.  What’s also clear is that some companies don’t publish information about their practices – and that’s entirely their call.  For me, that’s not good enough.  That’s not where we’re at in terms of the expectations and values that consumers have, and failing to be transparent tells me that those brands don’t share my values. 

I’m privileged, I know, and not everyone has the level of time and choice that I can throw at this issue.  Just know that if you only check one brand, or you only find one alternative, you’ve still chipped away.  Fashion is a business, and pressure comes from the consumer.  Rise up, and seek a resolution.