LONDON, United Kingdom — Fashion encompasses a wide spectrum of activities — from agriculture to communications — so it is perhaps not surprising that it also has a huge impact on people, places and the planet. Eighty billion garments are produced every year. Just imagine the resources this requires. And underneath it all we have an army of millions of humans, tilling the soil and picking the cotton; ginning, weaving, dyeing; working looms, sewing embellishments and sequins and buttons in huge factories.
But today, as British journalist and environmental writer Lucy Siegle puts it, brands, retailers and consumers have all become fantastically adept at divorcing fashion from the very fact that it is been made by an army of living, breathing, human beings. Over the last few years, I have had the pleasure of meeting some of these workers — many of them women, who work day and night on our wardrobes — and I am often reminded of Ali Hewson, who set up the ethical fashion brand Edun, and her motto: "We carry the story of the people who make our clothes around with us.”
It was with this quote ringing in my ears that, in 2009, I set up The Green Carpet Challenge (GCC) through my company Eco-Age, a brand consultancy that enables businesses to achieve growth by adding value through sustainability. This adventure has taken us deep into the supply chain and what a voyage of discovery it has been as we try to uncover more and more of the stories behind our wardrobes.
One of these stories has to do with cows. We carry huge leather handbags, but rarely connect them to the cows from which the leather comes. Alongside China, Brazil is one of the world’s top exporters of tanned leather. (Nearly 10 percent of its hides are sent to Italy and re-tanned in facilities where they become “Italian leather,” which goes some way in explaining Italy’s phantom cows. To quote Siegle again: “If all the Italian leather was truly Italian, we would have cows drinking from the Trevi fountain!”).
Driven, in part, by the demand for fashion and accessories, the Mato Grosso region in the Amazon rainforest is now home to the bulk of Brazil’s 200 million head of cattle. That’s roughly one cow per person. And cattle ranching is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation. But it needn’t be this way.
The rather beautiful and sophisticated image above was taken by the legendary Lilian Bassman in 1956. I love both the image and its title: “More Fashion Mileage Per Dress.” I’m sure Lilian did not mean this in the context of sustainable style. She could not have predicted what fashion consumers have become: voracious and caught up in a highly unsustainable vortex of micro-trends, over production and disposability. But nonetheless the title of her image contains a central piece of advice that we should all heed. Buy carefully and get more “fashion mileage” out of each piece. Buy with heart and commitment — and wear with heart and commitment too. We need to fall in love, not just with a fleeting trend, but with the stories of the clothes that we own. We must love them more and for longer.
For the last 15 years, we have been doing the opposite. Buying clothing in a rush and discarding it just as quickly. Meanwhile, the cost of fashion has plummeted. You can buy full outfits for the same price as a sandwich and a cup of coffee. But the true cost is picked up by those unseen in the supply chain, working anonymously in difficult conditions, sometimes enslaved, and rarely mentioned — certainly not on the swing tag.
It is time to change the terms. Fashion brands must begin to acknowledge their debt to both the natural world and to the people who make their business possible. They need to invest in sustainable approaches both for their future and our future. Why in haute couture do we talk about the hours of work that go into hand embellishing a garment, but in fast fashion we ignore it?
It’s time to have these conversations, have courage and fling open the doors on the skeletons in our global closet.
Livia Firth is the creative director of Eco-Age.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.
How to submit an Op-Ed: The Business of Fashion accepts opinion articles on a wide range of topics. Submissions must be exclusive to The Business of Fashion and suggested length is 700-800 words, though submissions of any length will be considered. Please send submissions to contributors@