by Colwyn Elder (@colwynelder) The recent Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh calls to question whether the sustainability movement has achieved anything at all. That such a tragedy can – and did – happen in these times of social audits and supply chain monitoring seems astounding. Is the language of embedding sustainability into business practice and creating shared value for all stakeholders nothing more than empty rhetoric? Does the corporate pursuit of profit and shareholder value at any cost, include human cost? And have CSR departments evolved no further than reputation management? It paints a bleak picture. And as consumers of fashion, we need to acknowledge our place in it.

[pullquote]The dirty face of cheap, disposable, fast fashion is waste. In the UK 1.5 million tons of unwanted clothes end up in landfill every year. In the US that’s 11.1 million tons. Every year.[/pullquote]

The fashion industry is predicated on the continual replacement of clothes. With each new season comes a new range of new-look must-have garments that make us feel hip and on-trend. The notion of ‘fast fashion’ was born when retailers started reproducing runway collections virtually overnight, making high fashion accessible at high street prices.  Endorsed by the likes of Kate Moss, this democratization of style was colwyn elderperceived to be smart and savvy (why pay 500 pounds when you can pay 25?). Knock-offs aren’t made to last nor do they need to be, as fashions change so quickly, and a new t-shirt costs the same as a cup of coffee anyway. As a result clothing has become disposable – from one-season-only to one-night-only.

The dirty face of cheap, disposable, fast fashion is waste. In the UK 1.5 million tons of unwanted clothes end up in landfill every year. In the US that’s 11.1 million tons. Every year. In addition to waste the fashion industry produces 3.1m tons of CO2, and let’s not forget the vast amount of herbicides, pesticides and toxic chemicals that get released into the environment. Planet aside, there’s the social cost of poor working conditions and wages as low as 25 pounds a month. And with over 1000 people dead, the Rana Plaza tragedy calls to question the real cost of our demand for cheap fashion.

So what’s the answer? Peter Madden at Forum for the Future says: “the fashion industry has to crack two things…bringing garments to consumers that they can wear and wash with a fraction of the environmental impact, and focusing on materials like organic cotton, which are responsibly produced with natural ingredients”.  As consumers, we also need to shift our mindset to a less-is-more mentality that quite simply means buying fewer clothes.

Here are some trends that show positive behavioural shifts toward buying less.

1.    Swishing

The Art of Swishing involves getting your friends together to swap gorgeous clothes and party at the same time. “We all bring nice, clean, presentable clothes that are lurking unloved in our wardrobe, and other girls fall in love with them and give them a good home…you might bring one sweater and take two pairs of shoes, or hang a party frock on the ‘swishing rail’ and take a pair of skinny jeans and feather boa”.

2.    Transumerism

Transumers are consumers who increasingly live a transient lifestyle, freeing themselves from the hassles of permanent ownership and possessions…more services, less goods, more re-use by buying and selling second hand goods, more shared ownership.

Examples of this within fashion include designer handbag rental such as Bag Borrow or Steal, jewellery rental like Borrowed Bling, and rent a dress options like One Night Stand and Girl Meets Dress.

 3.    One for One

Last year I worked on the launch of M&S Shwopping, a big bold initiative that sets out to completely reinvent the concept of fashion by selling and repurposing garments on a 1-to-1 basis. One in, one out. Every time you buy something new, you also recycle something old at an M&S Shwop Drop. Clothes are then resold, reused or recycled in partnership with Oxfam. Interestingly Swedish retail giant H&M launched a similar initiative earlier this month. But whilst certainly a move in the right direction, this could also be seen as ‘guilt-free’ shopping, more offset scheme than cutting consumption.

4. Another kind of exchange

Closer to home, The Exchange opened at Cavendish Square in Cape Town earlier this month as a cashless fashion boutique. Clothing is donated by SA’s top fashion designers and “bought” by signing up to become an organ donor. This initiative by NATIVE for the Organ Foundation was born out of attempting to answer the question: can fashion save lives? Ryan McManus, ECD at NATIVE says: “Fashion has typically been synonymous with consumerism. We were looking for a way in which we could change the currency of meaningless consumerism and shift it to the currency of life by purchasing fashion with organ donor registration.”

5.    Slow fashion

The Slow Food movement helped to reconnect people with where food comes from, how it is grown, how it tastes, and how their choices relate to human and environmental impacts.  Likewise Slow Fashion refers to clothing and accessories that have thoughtful beginnings, are constructed by well-paid individuals, and are intended to remain wearable for years to come.

On the one hand Slow Fashion presents a conundrum – slowing down in a culture that is all about keeping up – but it also presents us with a new fashion narrative that’s about provenance and choosing items that are both designed and well crafted enough to last beyond a single season.

Icebreaker features a unique ‘Baacode’ that can be used to trace the wool in a garment to one of 120 sheep stations in the Southern Alps of New Zealand.

A customer can view the living conditions of the animals that produced their wool, meet the farmers who run the stations and find out about their production process.

Eloise Grey’s inspiration and starting point for her collection of tweed coats, jackets and skirts is the Isle of Mull Weavers at Ardalanish Organic Farm in Scotland who’s aim is to sustain and develop the traditional art of weaving whilst simultaneously pioneering organic practices. Eloise Grey is “Clothing Made to Keep”, a product to be “treasured rather than lusted after guiltily…wear your garment year after year and hand it on”.

Much loved Welsh clothing brand Howies sums it up: “Buy once. Buy well.”

So where does this leave garment workers in Bangladesh?

At the time of writing and just three weeks after the Rana Plaza building collapse, several of the world’s largest clothing retailers including H&M and Zara have agreed to sign a plan to help finance fire safety and building improvements in their Bangladeshi factories. What’s more the local government has agreed to allow the country’s four million garment workers to form trade unions without prior permission from factory owners. They have also announced a plan to raise the minimum wage for garment workers (currently some of the lowest wages in the world). Amazing positive steps. If only it didn’t have to take real human tragedy in order to escalate real world progress.

Y&R strategy director Colwyn Elder (@colwynelder) has 17 years of experience in strategic planning, together with specific credentials in sustainability communications, social marketing, corporate social responsibility and cause-related marketing. She contributes the monthly “Green Sky Thinking” column on sustainability issues to MarkLives.

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