Words → Aja Barber

In order to meet the demands of the global climate emergency, all brands and businesses must urgently assess the harm they cause to the planet. Activist and writer, Aja Barber, looks at the fashion industry’s impact on the natural world, and on the people who make the clothes we wear or who are burdened with the waste we produce. Aja outlines ways that brands, retailers, and consumers can build a sustainable future for retail, together.

Some say there can be no ethical consumption under capitalism, and they might have a point. Still, it’s impossible to imagine a world without fashion — and I wouldn’t want to, I love the fashion industry and I want to see it thrive. A world without fashion, makers, crafters, and creative folks of all kinds is a world that is missing some of its better qualities. There is no denying that things need to change, the current system is harming the most vulnerable people on both ends of the supply chain, and killing our fragile and beautiful planet. 

The production of textiles ruins eco-systems. Cotton is a notoriously thirsty crop that drinks up a lot of water, and conventional cotton is often farmed with pesticides and chemicals that seep into the earth and waterways, ending up in the food supply. The speed at which our clothing is made harms garment workers, and encourages exploitative labour practices. And the waste produced by the processing of textiles aids in climate destruction — just think of toxic dyes and chemicals flowing into eco-systems from factories. But on top of that, because of the speed at which we now buy and consume, we’ve created another ecological disaster. We’re constantly disposing of what we already have in order to ‘make space’ for new and better in our wardrobes. We’re either dumping our clothing in a country in the global South (that mostly doesn’t want it), or we’re putting it in landfill. And that’s just the clothes we are tired of, not the ones we don’t want — the sped-up cycle of production means that many garments don’t even get worn before they go straight to landfill. According to Greenpeace, the UK throws away 350,000 tons of clothing every year, and (according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017) less than one per cent of textiles and clothes are actually recycled into new textiles. All things considered, it’s clear that the system of production need to urgently change in order to lessen its negative impact on the planet, and slow the damage we are doing to the environment. 

The modes of production are no less harmful to the people in the supply chain than they are to the environment. Unequal trading relationships foster exploitative labour conditions. The people who make the clothes we wear (or don’t wear) are marginalised, poorly paid, and are working in unsafe and sometimes inhumane conditions. The folks who end up dealing with our fashion waste are also marginalised (whether from the effects of factory run-offs, or because they are saddled with garments at the end of their short life cycles). Now if you want to add race and oppression to the picture, think about the countries in which our clothing is produced. What face do you imagine? Now think about when you donate your clothing and it gets sent to a country in ‘need’. Where does it end up? Many charity shops struggle with all the clothing donations they receive, often selling only about ten per cent of donated stock. The rest gets shipped to countries like Kenya, Rwanda, or Ghana where the clothing sits in piles, sometimes rotting and stinking. This practice also floods local markets, which means makers and garment workers in those countries cannot sell their wares for a fair price — because no one can compete with a ten cent t-shirt. 

Our appetite for ‘fast fashion’ is fuelled by the sped-up hyper calendar of fashion deliverables, which encourage brands to produce more, and people to buy more, and everyone to throw away clothes more regularly. The global South is on the losing end of all of these systems. It is experiencing the effects of the climate emergency already, and will ultimately be hit harder by those effects than the global North. We are only beginning to grasp the scope of the problem. It’s okay to have not known, none of us did. But now that we know, what do we do next?

We must pump the brakes on everything, immediately. Sustainable retail has to be our future. Brands, retailers, and shoppers all need to think about how they can be agile, consistently moving towards shared goals that are ‘good for the earth and good for the people’, in the words of Celine Semaan (founder of The Slow Factory). 

Some might argue that the onus of shopping sustainably shouldn’t be on the consumer, but I feel like it’s on all of us. Just like many consumers read the packaging on their food and make a choice between one option or the other, we should view fashion with the same pair of critical eyes. I wouldn’t rely on a food seller to tell me what to eat, and I refuse to rely on a retailer to tell me what to buy. But brands and retailers have to play their part in ensuring they provide the right conditions in store for consumers to make better choices. How great would it be to walk into a massive department store, and shop with the assurance that every item you pick up and consider has been stocked specifically because some element of that product has been made with consideration to the environment? How thrilling would it be to visit a store, and shop knowing that every garment worker within that production chain was paid fairly to produce the item you purchase? How amazing would it be for department stores to stock an entire floor of beautifully-curated second hand clothing? When visiting Tokyo in 2019, I was blown away by the culture, the fashion, and the second-hand clothing market, which boasts a huge range of second-hand shops — some of them the size of small department stores. You wouldn’t know the clothing was second-hand, because the buyers have done their job so well. This feels like a much more considered approach to sustainability in fashion, from both buyers and retailers. Of course this involves more education for the buyers (who already have so much on their plate), but it also means truly tackling consumption at its root, and doing away with the idea that new is always better, or that second-hand cannot possibly be high end. 

At brand level, businesses need to make sure the materials they source, and the processes they use, are ethical and sustainable right up and down the supply chain, and they need to do their part in slowing the pace of the fashion cycle. Manufacturing should begin and end closer to home, because flying materials and product halfway across the world isn’t good for anyone. In May of this year, the designer Dries Van Noten (along with other leading voices in fashion) delivered an open letter urging the industry to rethink the way we are doing business, for the good of both the designer and the planet. I couldn’t have agreed more. This commitment needs to be right across the brand, not siloed into sustainable capsule collections. Capsule collections are everywhere you look, and shoppers are rightly becoming suspicious of these token efforts — because what does it mean for the rest of the brand’s offer? Why aren’t brands more focused on reforming their entire lines to make sustainability the thing they lead with?  

Of course, retailers need to take on greater responsibility for the products that come into their stores. I recently learned of the notion of exclusives, which retailers seek out from designers to make their brands stand out. Surely practices like this are just driving the old consumption and production machine? It puts unnecessary strain on the designer to produce something special for every retailer, and ultimately leads to a lot of wasted material and energy. In order for smaller, ethical, and sustainable designers to thrive within big retail, the relationship has to be mutually beneficial. Better terms, and higher priority, should be given to companies with proven sustainable and ethical standards if we want to see real, and lasting, change in the retail offer. 

In short, we need to unpick the systems which brands and retailers rely on to produce the fashion we consume or sell. We don’t want a society that encourages endless and reckless consumption at the cost of people and the planet. We have an opportunity to build back better after the pandemic, and both brands and retailers can demonstrate leadership and provide their customers with a safe place to shop — embedding a sustainability strategy across business that respects workers and makers, underpinned by long term targets to use more sustainable, lower impact material. The Selfridges Project Earth programme is a fantastic ongoing initiative, offering options like rental, second-hand shopping, and repair — paired with a commitment that by 2025 the most environmentally impactful materials will all comes from certified sustainable sources. But the end goal for me will always be to get all retailers to prioritise sustainability from top to bottom on every floor of their stores. We need all brands to change the way they do business, and how to inspire their customers to change the way they shop. And I know we can get there together.