Opinion

Podcast: Tamsin Lejeune, Access Over Ownership

Back in 2006, Tamsin founded the Ethical Fashion Forum, the industry body for sustainable fashion. Her team also brought us SOURCE, one of the first platforms to list sustainable resources and suppliers in one place.  This experience led to launching Common Objective in 2018 as an intelligent business network for the fashion industry.

How much has changed since 2006? How far off is sustainable fashion from being the norm? What tools do we need to do fashion better?

In this absorbing interview we discuss what’s going on with fast fashion and why the model is broken. We decode the discomfort some feel when fast fashion giants launch eco capsule collections while still making most of their stuff the same old way. 

What we talk about

Decoding fast fashion

Is fashion too fast in general? Is the slow fashion movement growing? Are sustainable fashionistas in a bubble?

Yes, yes and yes.

Read Tamsin’s article “Fast Fashion: Can it Be Sustainable?”

We’ve been steadily speeding up our consumption over the last two decades. A Cambridge University study showed that in 2006 people were buying a third more clothes than they were in 2002, and women had 4 times as many clothes as they had in the 1980s. 

In Australia in 2017, "4 out of 10 people surveyed by YouGov said they had put unwanted fashion items in the bin, rather than trying to repair or recycle them. As Australian fast-fashion booms to an industry worth $2bn a year, the YouGov report found that 75% of Australian adults have thrown clothes away in the past year; 30% tossed more than 10 garments. The throwaway culture is creating a serious environmental problem, with 24% saying they threw out a garment after one wear. One in six people binned at least three garments they’d worn only once.''" Via Guardian Australia.

Between 2000 and 2015, global clothing production approximately doubled. Globally, we are now buying over 100 billion garments a year.

Polyester

“We have been persuaded by a huge marketing machine to believe that what we need and want is lots of cheap clothes made from plastic,” says Tamsin. But why?

Marc Bain explains in this excellent article for Quartz, “If Your Clothes Aren’t Already Made of Polyester, They Will Be”: 

Polyester is used for 65% of all textiles

“Polyester has been a fixture in our closets since 1951. That’s when the first polyester suits, made from fabric created not by a textile mill but by the American chemical company DuPont, went on sale.

Today, polyester is no longer the ugly, uncomfortable material of awful 1970s double-knit leisure suits, the kind that necessitated a marketing campaign to rehabilitate the fabric’s image. Nowadays, polyester is easy to miss unless you check fabric tags rigorously. It’s already ubiquitous in our most basic garments, such as t-shirts, dresses, and jeans, while calling almost no attention to itself—and that’s the point. It has become essentially invisible, even as it rapidly takes over our wardrobes.

Because it’s inexpensive, easy to blend with other materials, remarkably improved in its look and feel...it has allowed us to keep churning out more and more cheap clothes without a hiccup.” 

Polyester is a polymer, or a long chain of repeating molecular units. The most common variety is polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, a plastic derived from crude oil that’s used to make soda and ketchup bottles. When melted, it has the consistency of cold honey, and if you squeeze it through a spinneret, kind of like the shower head in your bathroom, you get long, continuous filaments. Draw those filaments out into thin fibres, weave lots of those fibres together, and you have a fabric. In the last few decades, production of the material has surged. Between 1980 and 2007 the amount of polyester produced annually increased from 5.3 million tonnes to 30.9 million tonnes. Via Quartz.

By 2025, the volume of all synthetic fibres is expected to reach 134.5 million tonnes annually. Experts predict that 98% of this growth will be from polyester alone.

Microfibres

In 2017, 83 % of tap water samples, taken from 159 different taps, in 14 countries on five continents were contaminated with microscopic plastic fibres. 

Learn more about microfibres on CO.

What’s with PVC shoes?

“It’s like looking at the foot with clouded vision, in a very literal sense: They fog up from heat. In fact, plastic shoes act like their own transparent miniature ecosystems, with a perpetual film of condensation caused by perspiration generated when bare feet get steamy. (And as science tells us, moisture and heat cause things to grow.) Read the US VOGUE story on sweaty PVC shoes here. Gross.

Could some clothes be being designed to be thrown away?

According to Daniel Milford-Cottam, a fashion cataloguer at the V&A, London: “There are some deliberate measures being taken so clothes will not last as long. Some of these ‘tricks’ go from using inappropriate fabrics, to delicate materials roughly stitched together – things that accelerate wearing and tearing, especially during washing.

Most clothes manufacturers are also aware that people don’t usually check washing labels too carefully, or use too much detergent, and take this situation for granted. Moreover, many clothes are a blend of two or more materials, such as cotton and polyester – which shrink differently in the wash, destroying the shape of the clothing in the process. 

Buttons are also not properly sewn on, and they’re almost guaranteed to fall off. Manufacturers also know that many people are too lazy to sew them back on, preferring instead to buy a new garment instead.”(Interview in Daily Mail.)

The rise of fast fashion “sustainable collections”

H&M launched its first Conscious Exclusive collection in 2011. The A/W 2018 iteration features velvet made from recycled polyester and recycled cashmere, and 10% of the sale price from each product will be donated towards WWF’s conservation work. “H&M has partnered with WWF since 2011, focusing on water stewardship, climate action and sustainability strategy, with the aim of making H&M and the broader fashion industry more sustainable,” they say. 

While they’ve copped their fair share of criticism over tokenism - even during the very short period it was available Conscious only accounted for about 8% of their whole offering in 2017 - H&M does by far the most work out of all the fast fashion giants in the fabric innovation space. 

Zara launched its sustainable line in 2016. Called Join Life, it’s pitched as “a selection of the most sustainable materials and raw processes that helps us take care of the environment,” it uses a few elementary “green” fabrics - including organic cotton and Tencel

Shoes carry the explanation: “Leather tanned using the most sustainable methods. These products were made with certification from Leather Working Group, using renewable energy and technology that reduces water use,” although they are not vegetable tanned.

A parka is “at least 25% recycled polyester” - big wow! Why isn’t it 100%? Predictably, it copped a lot of flack when it launched. 

“After numerous accusations of ripping off independent designers, fast-fashion retailer Zara is attempting to make amends,” said Fashion Journal.

Mango launched their effort in 2017. It was called Committed. Amusingly, there’s no sign of it on their website today. Not so committed after all, eh? [Ed: Since this podcast was published Mango have now released a second Committed capsule collection.]

Tamsin says that many sustainable capsule collections offered by the big high street brands are subsidised, so there is no transparency on costs. “If it’s a loss leader for fast fashion, it’s never going to become more than a capsule,” she says.

Get the CO data on UK high street retailers and their sustainable collections.

Slow fashion & upcycling

Junky Styling was formed in 1997 by Annika Sanders and Kerry Seager, who made clothes for themselves to wear out to clubs in the early 90s, during their late teens. Everything was recycled from the best quality second-hand clothing, deconstructed, re-cut and completely transformed into a new product that belied the former identity of the raw material. They used to have a shop in Brick Lane in London's East End. 

Howies is is a Welsh activewear company that was founded in the ‘90s with a sustainable ethos. They use organic cotton, recycled cotton and merino wool.

Meet the new generation of upcycling designers 

Finally...

“Jobs in fashion don’t have to be drudgery. Fashion should be something we can enjoy and we can admire, no matter where you are in the supply chain” - Tamsin Lejeune


This is a slightly edited version of a piece first published on Wardrobe Crisis as part of Clare Press' weekly podcast series.

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Author
Clare Press

Sustainability Editor-at-Large at Vogue Australia and 1 other

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