Do you remember the old phrase ‘Cheap and Cheerful’? Every day we are enticed to buy cheap clothing but we now know that this doesn’t leave the farmers and garment makers feeling cheerful at all. Plus there’s the devastating effects of pollution and waste on our planet, a frightening and growing concern. But is there such a thing as cheap sustainable fashion?
We don’t have to go back very many decades to understand that our culture of clothes shopping has drastically changed. The advent of fast fashion brought with it a downward spiral of mass production, over consumption and corresponding human rights and environmental degradation. Unfortunately it also changed people’s expectations about what they should be paying for their clothes. Why should we pay £20 for a t shirt when we can buy one for just a few quid?
I was moved to write this article after working closely with an organisation who wanted to buy ethical and sustainable T shirts from Where Does It Come From? for their brand. They wanted these T shirts to represent their ethics – using sustainable cotton, ethical farming and with the garments tailored in social enterprises. The T shirts would be printed with their own branding and, of course, would come with our USP garment story with photos and interviews of garment makers doing traditional and carbon free things. They wanted quality garments, provenance and peace of mind. This is what we do. Following our chats we researched and presented a proposal based on their requirements, then it all went very quiet. Eventually we were told apologetically that they’d sourced a ‘totally sustainable’ alternative for £6, less than half of our quote. It was disappointing. All organisations face budget constraints – their business would fail otherwise – but being sustainable is going to take a change in mindset.
The sustainability dilemma
Sustainability is not an on/off switch. There are many aspects to consider, from the farming of raw materials, fabric creation, dyeing and printing, tailoring and whether or not the clothes will biodegrade at end of life without harming the environment. There are many areas where sustainable and ethical choices need to be made for a garment to be totally sustainable. On top of that there’s freight, tax and fair wages to be paid so, in my view, It’s not possible to be truly sustainable across all of this for just £6.
Unfortunately the good reasons why we need to pay more are not sufficiently ‘in our face’. Information about the people who farmed the fibres used and the people who sewed your clothes is rarely available. How do you know if they were treated fairly?
What about the planet – how do we know if our fibres were farmed ecologically, or our garment production done using processes that consider the environment?
Then there’s the whole circular economy thing – what makes us consider the long term effects of what we wear? Weighing up a low price tag against some nebulous people and planet benefits is very hard decision. For a society trained to look for instant gratification there’s just nothing in it for us.
One of the big challenges for those of us who create products that are kind to the makers and the environment is people’s perception that they are too expensive. More enlightened customers – and there are a rapidly growing number – do want the reassurance that what they are buying is sustainable. Unfortunately there is no simple ‘yes/no’ answer to sustainable fashion, it’s more of gradient – from slightly sustainable to very sustainable. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to process the complexity.
Sustainable Fashion or Greenwashing?
In recent months there have been big moves by market savvy and well-meaning fast fashion brands to offer a sustainable collection alongside their usual range. This is immediately attractive to customers who want to continue buying fashion regularly but are influenced by ethical issues such as climate emergency and trade justice. They want the reassurance that what they are buying is sustainable. This option means they can keep buying from their usual highstreet brands, pay a very small premium and get peace of mind too. ‘Cheap sustainable fashion’ – very clever marketing.
The movement of brands such as Zara, H&M, Primark and Net a Porter into ethical and sustainable fashion is a really good thing – it puts the issue of ethics much more firmly into the mainstream and has tackled the bit at the top of the iceberg, such as sustainable fabrics. However, I’m sorry to burst the happy bubble, but the iceberg analogy is pretty key here. Under the tip of the iceberg there are many, many different strands that make up sustainability – just because the fabric is claimed to be ‘sustainable’, it doesn’t mean that the workers were paid fairly – or any of the other considerations. My main concern here is that customers will think that the fast fashion ‘problem’ is solved and it isn’t.
Mass consumption – yes I’ve said it. It’s not a nice phrase or a popular idea, but the truth is that if you want to be sustainable you just can’t keep buying whatever you want. Unfortunately brands that keep producing huge amounts of clothes and relying on mass stock turnover are not sustainable. The effects of mass production on water, the soil, the air, our seas, the treatment of farmers and workers and in our landfill just doesn’t stack up with the mantra of ‘sustainable fashion’. We have to create much less clothing and do it better.
Clothes will – and should – become more expensive, better quality and more versatile. We need to wear them a lot, mend them, and finally dispose of them carefully – re-selling, gifting, recycling, upcycling or biodegrading. It’s time for that mindset change, not just for retail customers for for businesses too. There’s just no such thing as cheap sustainable fashion.