The highly-competitive fast fashion industry is one in which consumers expect instant access to the clothes of their choice, colour, style and price. Guest blogger Rosily Roberts, of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF) at London’s University of Arts, writes about a debate that CSF co-hosted with ETI asking students to decide if fast fashion can ever be ethical.
The question of the ethics of fast fashion is, admittedly, too big to be answered during a ninety-minute event. But the speakers at the CSF drew on their own experiences within the fashion industry to try to provide a concise overview of the ethical issues surrounding fast fashion.
Those taking part in the debate included:
- Professor Dilys Williams, Director and Professor of Fashion Design for Sustainability, Centre for Sustainable Fashion
- Lars-Ake Begqvist, Sustainability Expert, H&M.
- Liz Parker, workers' rights campaigner and former head of Fashioning and Ethical Industry.
- And… Tamsin Lejuene, founder of the Ethical Fashion Forum and The Source.
Of course, initially, asking if fast fashion can ever be ethical, is one of definition.
What do we mean by fast fashion? What do we mean by ethical?
It was these questions, along with many others, that the panel and audience, which was made up of a mix of UAL students and industry experts, discussed, debated and responded to.
There’s no such thing as fast fashion, just increasingly accelerated consumption.
That was the argument Dilys put forward, emphasizing the millions of years required for crude oil – that eventually becomes polyester – to form, and the six months that cotton takes to grow from seed to crop.
In some ways, fashion is still very slow. It is just part of the process, the making, buying and discarding of garments that is being increasingly accelerated at a worryingly fast pace. Most of them don’t then disappear but continue to be present in various, mostly unvalued states, long into the future.
In its broadest terms, ‘ethical’ was defined by the panel as ensuring a balance between personal expression through fashion and honouring the people, skills, time and natural elements involved in the process.
It’s about creating the opportunity to express individuality through adornment – in essence, what makes us human – but without compromising the rights of other people and the balance of nature.
As Tamsin succinctly summarized, it’s about maximizing the benefits to people while minimizing the impact on the environment.
Said so simply, it seems like it should be an easy balance to strike.
But how can we reconcile a business model that encourages people to buy more and more and abandon garments when they’re no longer in fashion? And at the end of what can be as short as a month-long season?
The pressure the fast fashion model puts on both natural resources and the people who make clothing is clearly enormous and unfeasible. There is also evidence that it puts stress on customers.
There is an inverse correlation between having more “stuff” (beyond a certain point that many have already reached) and increased happiness. The expectation to keep up with ever-changing trends, refreshing your wardrobe every three weeks, is also unhealthy.
At CSF, our work seeks to explore better lives for all involved, directly and indirectly in fashion.
The current fast fashion model, Liz argued, is therefore not inevitable. The system is relatively new, and could – and should – change.
Liz talked about ethical fashion in terms of philosopher Joana Macy’s idea of The Great Turning.
The Great Turning, is the name that Joana Macy gives to the transition from an industrial-growth society to a life-sustaining society, and one that recognizes people’s relationship to the planet.
As such, the movement towards ethical fashion is not isolated, but rather part of a larger cultural movement towards environmental and human sustainability.
Moving away from exploitation
After the panellists presented their ideas, it was up to the floor to draw their own conclusions.
Students from across UAL mixed with employees of such brands as Debenhams, Next and Beyond Retro to discuss the different steps that each is taking to address ethical concerns, as well as new ideas from the next generation of fashion designers.
The consensus from students, overwhelmingly, was that the model itself is problematic and needs to change.
Making new clothes when the system involves the routine exploitation of workers and irreversible damage to the environment, is not something that they want to be involved in. They seek livelihoods in fashion, but not at human cost.
Yet, as Lars reminded the room, H&M employs over 100,000 people worldwide, and to stop making clothes would mean job losses on a huge scale.
To simply say ‘no more fast fashion’ would mean the redundancy of millions of people, including those in the supply chain.
Clearly, we must recognise that fashion is important to all who make and wear clothes, and that involves most of us, one way or another. What’s also important – and what we need to base our education and our businesses on – is living by our values.
When that happens, through our collective interests, this debate will be realized in better lives for all.