The fashion industry, which has become one of the most damaging to the planet, is having a moment of reckoning. But which changes make a difference, and which ones just come out in the wash?
A FRIEND of mine runs a vintage clothes shop in north London. Every few weeks, she visits a vast warehouse on the edge of the city to rummage through piles of discarded clothing. Most of it is worthless, but if you know what you are looking for, there are diamonds in the rough.
The warehouse has a long history. It was once a clearing house for the low-quality wool scraps called shoddy that were used to make cheap clothing for the masses in Victorian Britain. A century on, little has changed. Nowadays, it is full of modern-day shoddy: low-quality cotton, polyester, viscose and nylon, all in the form of cheap clothing made for the masses around the world. Except that this stuff is going to landfill and incinerators, not being reused.
The items are the products of an industry that, in the past 30 years, has become one of the most successful and also most destructive on the planet. Known as fast fashion, it has filled our wardrobes with cheap and cheerful clothes. But after three decades of remorseless growth, the model is butting up against fundamental environmental limits and there is widespread agreement – even from within the industry – that it is time to hit the brakes.
“The fashion industry represents a key environmental threat,” says Kirsi Niinimäki at Aalto University in Espoo, Finland. “Ultimately, the long-term stability of the fashion industry relies on the total abandonment of the fast-fashion model.”
Like fast food, fast fashion is all about instant gratification on the cheap. …