Rarely a day passes without a big fashion headline - the glamour and the waste; top designers promising recycled thread; influencers on a beach; the rise and rise of Boohoo and Couture; whilst no end of stuff is being paraded, purchased, possibly worn and thrown away.
This phenomenon is surely not unique in the history of consumption, but it takes some beating (all that food waste for example). Agile, globalised production has produced something of a monster, with a few beneficiaries and loads of losers. And yet, the allure of a £2 t shirt seems to be unstoppable. And everyone needs clothes. And everyone loves a bargain. And so it goes on.
It may sound like I didn’t get the memo: that fashion is changing, H&M have got six organic cotton items in the range, and everyone’s looking at supply chain. But it’s hard to see the evidence. I still get a daily email from Uniqlo with something new. It seems there are 52 seasons in a year now.
But I’m curious. What will it take to nudge us into a slightly more (wait for it) sustainable fashion future?
I’m a big fan of secondhand. eBay. And I’m not alone. Specialists Vestiaire Collective and Depop are mobile treasure troves and even Selfridges is trialling a preloved department. This is an area where confident consumers get to have their cake and eat it: great stuff, often at bargain prices. Charity shops are booming - my friend unearthed a Joseph shirt in Oxfam on Marylebone High Street for £20, still on the website for £195. It’s growing (as are the prices) and it’s genuinely sustainable.
Secondhand September was an attempt to make it a movement. Maybe they should have called it Secondhanduary.
Focused is the new fast
But you have to be really keen - one person’s bargain is someone else’s smell of old people - and it’s not for everyone.
Local manufacturers are causing a stir. Online-only businesses with really targeted brands. High quality Instagram feeds ensure their loyal customer base remains engaged and strong stories keep them differentiated. Have a look at Hiut Jeans “do one thing well”.
Businesses like this are employing local people, paying them properly and in doing so contributing to the wider economic and social context - and the best of them aren’t braying about it - they’re just getting on with doing good business close to where they live. Wait, could this be... sustainable?
I reckon so. But it also tends to be a bit premium. Local manufacturing costs and having to charge the actual cost of postage all add up, so longevity is often an important part of the proposition, which is great for the style conscious middle-aged, but not really fashion.
Focused is the new fast. Technology solutions are piling in. From ASOS suggesting they are now a tech company, to FarFetch actually being one, the algorithms are humming as they burn all that data on their customer’s previous choices to make recommendations for the next.
Sprawling global supply chains are being refined to make fewer, more saleable items. The objective: sell the whole inventory. Inditex, owner of Zara, have been perfecting the model for years, and the rest are trying to catch up. Manufacturing technology, including ‘sewbots’ that have been developed to solve the tricky problem of handling softer, flexible materials are automating manufacturing and packaging with efficiencies that enable speedy production of smaller minimum orders.
Nike iD exemplifies this exciting approach with direct to consumer, one of a kind designs (from a pre-selected palette of choices) built on a highly engaging digital platform.
A new take on individuality finds Paris-based 1/Off upcycling with collections of repurposed garments assembled from preowned designer wear.
It’s proving to be a real hit as people seek individual garments that don’t exist anywhere else. Their Chanel x Levis hybrid jacket is a bit of a treat at €2,850 but it’s completely desirable and suggests a new concept for luxury streetwear.
But whatever the fashion industry says, it’s going to be hard to slow the landfill. Even if we’re not interested in fashion, we all need clothes and we like new things. I’ll self-righteously stick to secondhand, I think. So long as it smells like it’s been washed, I’m happy.