The fabrics you’ll want to wear all autumn
Shifting seasons demand a material change. Swerve sweat and shivers with the fabrics that can weather anything
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Fashion is an almost entirely unmitigated environmental and humanitarian disaster. In 2015, the fashion industry emitted 1.2bn tonnes of carbon dioxide globally – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Worldwide textile production, meanwhile, guzzles 93bn tonnes of water annually and is responsible for 20 percent of industrial wastewater pollution, often with toxic chemicals that linger longer than the clothes they’re used to make. Countries such as China, India and Pakistan suffer water shortages in order to slake the UK’s thirst for cotton.
That’s just production. Every time you wash a garment made from polyester, it sheds up to 700,000 non-biodegradable microfibres that pass through sewage and water treatment facilities into the ocean. There, they’re eaten by plankton, then fish, then us. Yum. For all our efforts to stop using disposable coffee cups, they’re a drop in the ocean, as it were, compared to the plastics that pour out of our clothes; by some estimates, 35 percent of ocean microplastics come from laundering petroleum-based textiles such as polyester, nylon and acrylic.
Fashion is the fourth largest polluter globally. But it’s easily the most gratuitously wasteful. “Three in five garments end in landfill or incinerators within a year,” concluded Labour MP Mary Creagh, chairwoman of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, which compiled many of the facts and figures above during its recent inquiry into the impact of “fast fashion” and the wider clothing industry. If the UK continues to burn through clothes at its current rate, then by 2050 around a quarter of our climate change impact will come from what’s in our wardrobes.
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“The simple truth, as it stands at the moment, is that the fashion industry is totally fucking unsustainable,” says Patrick Grant. He’s the owner and creative director of Savile Row-inspired ready-to-wear brand E Tautz, and the more affordable Hammond & Co range. At both labels, he makes using the right materials in the right way his lodestar. “The industry cannot continue in its current form, because it is clearly wrecking the planet. And it is causing an enormous amount of human misery.”
Pointing the finger is simple; identifying solutions is anything but. “One of the big problems with sustainability is that it’s all really complicated,” says Grant. “Then you bring ethics into play and you add another layer of complexity.” The terms are often used interchangeably, but they’re “two very different things”. Vegan leather might be ethical, but it’s plastic, so it’s not sustainable; conversely, fur has been used in clothing for 35,000 years, but gives rise to abhorrent animal cruelty. “It’s deeply, deeply unethical,” says Grant. “But it is sustainable.” Fake fur, on the other hand, is ethical, but sheds microfibres like a synthetic Akita and creates millions of unrecoverable bits of plastic.
“The simple truth is, we have to make the best stuff we can out of materials that have the least environmental impact,” says Grant, who studied material sciences and engineering, not fashion. “On the whole, for me that means using natural materials.” But growing cotton for the price that the bottom end of the market wants to pay necessitates the use of “extraordinary amounts” of pesticides and fertilisers and the creation of irrigation systems that divert water from its natural course, creating deserts.
Man-made fibres, such as polyester, are responsible for up to 35 percent of ocean microplastics. So whenever possible, opt for natural fabrics like wool and cashmere instead.
On the surface, recycling would seem another obvious way of minimising that impact. But well-meaning brands turning plastic bottles into puffer jackets may be doing more harm than good, says Grant: “You’ve turned three million pieces of collectable, manageable bits of plastic into literally billions of microscopic particles that you could never get out of the ocean."
Less well-meaning brands meanwhile “with a lot of clout and a lot of money” are clouding the issue and obfuscating the best course of action by jumping on the sustainable and ethical bandwagons for profits, not principles. But there are designers for whom the right way is the only way, and has been since they were founded.
“Everything that Private White V.C. stands for is what I stand for, personally, politically, socially, morally, ethically,” says James Eden, founder of the brand that sources 90 percent of its raw materials from within 40 miles of its Manchester factory. Those ingredients – cottons, wool, cashmere – are all natural, sustainable and traceable. “If we were a restaurant, we’re only working with the best cuts of meat,” says Eden. Owning its own factory gives Private White V.C. “total ownership” of its supply chain: everything is made in its own factory, or by like-minded proprietors.
Eden sees ethics in all parts of the life cycle and ecosystem of a garment, including how the various links in the chain are “treated, conditioned, maintained”. The machinists at Private White are, he says, the best-paid in the UK: “We’ve got limited labour, extremely high skills, so we have to pay people brilliantly because they do a brilliant job.”
Unfortunately, not everybody in fashion feels the same professional or moral obligation to remunerate machinists commensurately, or treat them like human beings: something that Eden feels “very strongly” about. “There are real, real issues with the amount that machinists are paid not just in the UK but also further afield,” he says. “Someone is getting a bad deal when you’ve got a peacoat on the high street for £19.99.”
Leicester’s recent ‘renaissance’ provides an important lesson. The city was a booming garment manufacturing centre in the industrial age but fell into decline as production was shifted to the developing world, where labour costs are cheaper. Then, over the past decade, it’s become a fast fashion hub.
But research has shown that workers there are typically paid far below the legal minimum wage of £7.83 an hour for over-25s: the going rate, as the Environmental Audit Committee was told, is more like £3.50 or £4 – maybe £5 if you’re really skilled. And the phenomenon isn’t restricted to Leicester, which one factory owner called “a country within a country”, although it’s most concentrated there; it’s also reportedly happening in London and Manchester. This is illegal, and known to the government. But protracted supply chains make shutting these homegrown sweatshops down close to impossible.
“The garment industry is one of the murkiest out there,” says Caroline Lewis, director of fundraising at campaign group and workers’ cooperative Labour Behind The Label, which represents the Clean Clothes Campaign in the UK. “Unfortunately, most brands are unaware of what is happening in their own supply chain so it's very difficult for consumers to know for sure.”
Nevertheless, you should look at brands’ websites, ask direct questions and, if needs be, apply pressure. “Consumers actually have a lot of power,” says Lewis. Labour Behind the Label maintains that brands should implement due diligence plans to mitigate labour rights in their supply chains and ensure that victims of exploitation are able to access remedy easily; trade unions should also be supported. “Ultimately we need to know more about what’s happening in the UK,” says Lewis, who with her colleagues is currently organising a campaign on the “huge issue”. (Join the mailing list here.)
Although some Victorian workhouses still stand in Leicester, subdivided into tens of hard-to-monitor ‘dark factories’ of 10-20 employees, they’ve predominantly moved offshore to poorer countries such as Cambodia, which exports £3.2bn of clothing a year to the UK. The average daily wage of garment workers there is £3.37; after living costs, they’re left with a pauperly 31p.
They clock 60-hour weeks in factories that boast modern technology such as biometric finger vein scanners to monitor their output, including toilet breaks, but apparently not to lower temperatures below 40ºC: workers frequently faint, sometimes en masse, and are given paracetamol before being sent back to their stations. Seeing a day in their life would, says Eden, make the biggest impact on blissfully unaware consumers: “ I think they’d be horrified.”
In March last year, the charity Traid, which uses funds raised by reusing and reselling clothes to improve the lives of their makers, posted a series of ten two-minute films on YouTube documenting the plight of Cambodian garment workers. Much of the footage was recorded by the workers themselves, mentored by human rights and social injustice documentarians and trainers the Rainbow Collective, on their smartphones. Symbols of economic exploitation don’t come more apt or vivid than workers rubbing each other with coins in order to bring blood to the surface and cool down, leaving bright red weals on their skin.
Sadly, few of the videos have been viewed more than a handful of times. “Accessing mainstream audiences across the media with these issues isn’t easy,” says Leigh McAlea, Traid’s head of communications, marketing and digital. For instance, the recent BBC documentary Fashion’s Dirty Secrets aired the first prime-time mention of the desertification of the Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan due to cotton production. “It’s not that people don’t care, it’s mostly down to the fact they don’t know.” Pressure to produce fast, cheap clothing precipitates environmental catastrophe and endemic exploitation -– but it doesn’t have to be this way: “The fashion sector should be work which lifts people out of poverty, rather than consigning them to it.”
Both Eden and Grant think that clothing labels should mimic food ones by including granular information on provenance: the hourly rate of workers, say, or price of fabric. Until that becomes standard, you should treat brands that aren’t forthcoming about how they produce their products with suspicion. “If you’re hiding anything, it suggests that there is something to hide,” says Eden. In line with its “open-book” pricing manifesto, Private White V.C. shows its financial workings on its website, so customers know precisely what they’re paying for. (The single biggest expense is “our people”.) That also entails revealing that the retail price is marked up or three times from the cost, but that’s less than the five to seven times of most luxury brands.
“The really easy thing to do is don’t buy anything that seems too cheap,” says Grant. Take the example of a £5 T-shirt. Then take out 80p for VAT, leaving you with £4.20. Now take out the brand’s profit, marketing, transportation and the rest, and you’re left with not an awful lot with which to actually make an item of clothing. Most of those costs aren’t squeezeable, but labour is. Which means that someone is paying for it somewhere, probably far overseas. If you buy garments made in Europe, you can be “more certain that they’re made to a good conditions”, says Grant. But to say that something’s “made in the UK”, only the last significant manufacturing process has to occur on these shores; there could be six or seven stages before that. And if it’s from the trashy fast-fashion brands who are shortchanging Leicester’s garment workers, then “made in the UK” has no value.
Too often, people buy clothes with less care than they would a sandwich or coffee, says Grant, not least because they’re the same price: “You’re supporting a chain of badness.” With clothes, as with food, we should consume less, and better quality. The UK’s appetite for new clothes is greater than anywhere else in Europe: 26.7kg per capita per year, versus 16.7kg in Germany and 14.5kg in Italy. The average yearly spend on clothes in the UK, meanwhile is £1,000. Instead of 200 garments at £5 each, Grant’s advice is to buy, say, 20 garments at £50. Obviously, outerwear will be more expensive than underwear: “But for every piece, try and buy something that is made out of something good, that is made with care and that will have a life beyond half-a-dozen wears.”
As a nation, we’re buying twice as much clothing as we did a decade ago, with half as much consideration. “What you have to do as a consumer is say, ‘Is this product that I’m buying made out of stuff that is good enough that I can feel happy with it?’” says Grant. “‘Will it last five years? Will it last ten years? Will I still want to wear it in five or ten years?’ And if you don’t – well, we just need to think much more carefully.” As above, that doesn’t have to mean spending more. Grant’s high street brand, Hammond & Co, is “a million miles away from fashion fashion”, producing affordable, Goodyear-welted shoes that can be resoled when they’re down at heel, and paying more for its yarns than competitors making garments at similar price points to ensure that they’re ethical.
Slovakian brand Novesta's shoes are all made in Europe from ecologically sound materials like natural rubber and linen. They look good, and they do good.
Flying in the face of brands that actively encourage the vicious cycle of throw away and purchase, Private White V.C. strives for quality and longevity. “If you want a peacoat, come with us and buy the best peacoat money can buy and keep it, wear it, nurture it,” says Eden. “If there’s a problem with it, we’ll repair it. Keep it for a lifetime.” It’s that quality that “first and foremost” drives Private White V.C.’s sales, not its brand story or principled stance: “Because even if you’ve got all the greatest, greenest virtues, ethics and all the rest of it, if you don’t have a strong product, people aren’t going to come back.” They also buy the brand’’s classic, understated styles knowing that they’re not going to go out of fashion. As Creagh has said, there’s a fundamental problem with an industry predicated on persuading people to discard perfectly good clothing because it’s “last year’s colour”.
Brands have a duty to make better stuff, but also to not stimulate consumers to replace it unnecessarily. Patagonia has won plaudits for what The New Yorker called its “anti-growth” strategy: its Worn Wear campaign has seen the brand promise to repair, resell or recycle its built-to-last products, while customers pledge to buy only what they need and not bin it thoughtlessly at the end of its useful life or before. (Clothing and textile banks can be found at most supermarkets and car parks, while some councils and charities such as Traid will collect for free.) Patagonia’s increasing popularity begs the question of just how successful that strategy has been, but hey, that’s capitalism.
Clothing is a deflationary product that gets ever cheaper thanks to relentless undercutting, which also makes it hard to get a fix on which brands are above board. “For example, if a supplier in Indonesia undercuts another in Bangladesh, then all production could be moved immediately to a potentially unsafe factory, leaving workers unemployed,” says Lewis. What’s needed is truer appreciation of a garment’s worth, the natural and human resources that went into it, and a depreciation of newness.
“People aren’t embarrassed by wearing the same watch time and time again, or the same pair of shoes,” says Eden. “Society recognises the value of a timepiece. But with clothing, the majority of society doesn’t. And that’s something I think is wrong.”
Words: Jamie Millar
Photography: Jon Cardwell and Chris Howlett
Styling: Millie Rich
Shifting seasons demand a material change. Swerve sweat and shivers with the fabrics that can weather anything
Send less to landfill by making sure that your old wardrobe gets a second life. Because green is a colour that looks good on everyone