A fashionable new ism

As a society, we like our clothes cheap and fast. But the impact that’s having on the people that make them, and on the environment, is ruinous. What would a fashionable new ism look like?

Alexandra Matthews: This week is the ninth anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, when a building housing five garment factories in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring thousands more. It was the fourth-largest industrial disaster in history. The tragedy shone a spotlight on the global fashion industry and society’s obsession with cheap, ‘fast’ fashion – with terrible consequences for both the people who make them, and for the planet. 

Fashion Revolution was founded in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster and has become the world’s largest fashion activism movement. Every year, in the week of the anniversary of the disaster, they run a campaign that reimagines a just, equitable fashion system for people and planet. 

The change that Fashion Revolution is driving is so important – the fashion industry is hugely polluting for the planet and damaging to the people that make our clothes, and yet the price tags do not reflect the social and environmental cost of what we wear. We have come to expect to be able to buy cheap clothes, and are shielded from the consequences of our fashion fixes. This is something that would certainly have to change in a new ism – but how?

Mel Young: Yes, that disaster was awful and hopefully lessons have been learnt. The real challenge is about over-consumption. We don’t really need all the clothes we buy. But lots of people buy for what they look like rather than for the basic needs like a raincoat to keep dry, for example. In the post-war years, it was standard practice to mend clothes and shoes if they became worn whereas now we simply chuck stuff away and buy something else which looks “cool”! Or actually, people might buy two of something and I know people who have bought clothes but never actually worn them. There is a kind of obsession with shopping! 

So, we should stop buying as much as we do in order to protect the planet but every action, however well-meaning that might be, has consequences. Thousands of people are employed in some way through the global fashion industry, so if consumption was halved then it would have massive consequences. The challenge is how do we become responsible shoppers whilst at the same time protecting people’s livelihoods? 

AM: Yes that really is the problem – and the third element to it is protecting the environment as well. I think the first thing to do is to lose our expectation that clothes are cheap – they need to be priced in a way that pays all the workers fairly, and that allows environmentally responsible production methods to be used. And if they are priced in that way, then we will inevitably buy fewer of them as they will be significantly more expensive. Unfortunately, I think that strategy would inevitably mean that not as many workers would be needed – but the fashion industry employs a shocking number of children, so perhaps there could be ways to ensure that some of the extra money in the system could pay for them to go to school. This new way of thinking wouldn’t be easy, but it is really important that it happens, as the fashion industry is so ruinous for so many reasons. 

There are some great companies that encourage thoughtful and socially and environmentally sustainable practices, and we should hold them up as a beacon of best practice. And, as you suggest above, we also need to become less susceptible to the powerful advertising of the fashion industry, which tells us that fashions change twice a year so we have to keep buying new clothes!

MY: I think one answer might be to change the way the global fashion industry is structured. So, we would create our own fashion industry using environmentally friendly materials with people in the sector respected as professionals rather than as economic units and therefore paid properly. It would mean that clothes would be more expensive but the sector in each country would be sustainable. That would stop the global trade which is so damaging and help to protect workers. It would shrink the sector but create more quality rather than quantity. 

AM: So are you suggesting that each country creates its own clothes? Would that not be disastrous for a country like Bangladesh whose economies rely in large part on the global fashion industry? 

MY: Yes, that’s what I am suggesting and yes it would be disruptive in the first phase and we would have to look at how to protect people in any potential fallout. But if we want to protect the planet and stop exploiting people then we have to change radically and in the process of that, there will be consequences. We know what those consequences are likely to be, but if we plan properly then we can manage the change in a positive way. I am not saying my answer is right or it is the full answer but we have to do something, don’t we? The fashion industry is an example of what is wrong with the whole system. We have to change our lifestyle and our system as we move forward and that means that there will be changes to our current “normal” way of life but if we all share the same vision and create inclusive planning then we can create something which is positive.

AM: You’re right, it’s a classic case of short-term pain for long-term gain. It’s incredibly complex but it’s so important that it changes, and fast, because we are ruining people’s lives and the planet because of our determination to have lots of cheap new clothes all the time. We need organisations like Fashion Revolution to lead the way and create a plan for a fashion industry that is thriving but still respects both the people who make the clothes, and the environment. We as individuals need to buy less, mend more and resist the messaging coming from the fashion industry. But it’s crucial that the whole system is transformed if we are to have a sustainable, socially responsible fashion industry in a new ism.


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