If we knew that polyester releases millions of microplastics with each wash, would we still buy, use and wash and love those pieces?
The impact of clothes on the environment
What do you think about when you think about clothes? Are they just a means to an end? there because modesty calls and to fulfill the primary function of covering up, or are they the way you express your character and personality? Or are they the way you express your personality? Despite the differences between being of the former or the latter type, there is one thing we have in common: we all wear clothes. And the clothes we wear have an impact on workers, on wearers and on the planet. I used to be a fashion designer, I had a label called From Somewhere, which I started in 1997 and closed in 2014; we made our clothes out of found and reclaimed luxury pre-consumer waste materials and sold all over the world. We upcycled long before almost everybody else, and now, I mentor upcycling brands around the world. I co-founded and co-curated Estethica, which was the British Fashion Council’s sustainable fashion area at London Fashion Week and ran from 2006 to 2014. In 2013, only days after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed 1,138 people and injured over 2,500 (ninety percent of whom were young women), Carry Somers and I, as a result of the disaster, founded Fashion Revolution, which is now one of the biggest fashion activism movements in the world, with a presence in over ninety countries.
Fashion Revolution – Orsola de Castro
My career has centered around adoring fashion, but not being able to stomach its social and environmental practices. I care about clothes, and for this reason I have to know what they are made from, by whom and in what conditions. I am prepared to keep and maintain my clothes because my care for them is symbolic of my respect for the people who made them and the natural resources of which they were made. At Fashion Revolution we believe in a fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people, over profits and growth. Human and nature’s rights are interdependent; we are part of the wider living world and our prerogative to a healthy environment depends on the health of our planet. The human exploitation and ecosystem degradation we see all around us today are the product of centuries of colonialism and globalized exploitation. They stem from a western-focused world view in which human and environmental prosperity are seen as isolated and disconnected from each other, from an industry that reinforces inequality and devalues the voices of minority groups, people of color, women and non-western perspectives, and from an industry which operates opaquely and sidesteps responsibility. We cannot continue to extract resources from an already stressed natural world, pollute our land and our oceans, fall short of climate change targets and dump our waste on countries we have culturally depleted. (Quoted from Fashion Revolution Week campaign 2021).
The inequalities of the fashion industry
As professor Dilys Williams says, «The two fundamental parts of anything that is next to your skin right now is nature and labor». We need to understand the interdependency between our Earth and its people, because we can’t have one without the other. Covid has evidenced this, acting like a magnifying lens of sorts, showing us all the wrongs we need to make right if we want to continue on our natural process of evolution. In our quest to overpower nature and conquer each other, we have tweaked and disrupted the natural flow and we are paying the consequences of invading barriers that should have been respected; physical barriers, and moral ones. Which is why I am reminded of that day in 2013, when the Rana Plaza building collapsed; when something happens and the supply chain becomes visible, it evidences practices that are beyond indignity. The inequalities that characterize the fashion industry throughout its supply chain and beyond, have once again been thrown out into the open, this time due to a natural disaster, but again we have witnessed injustices done to people and to our natural world, and the lack of transparency, accountability and public disclosure that prevent us from finding out unless something brings them to light. What we are learning from the pandemic is not dissimilar to what we should have learned after the collapse; that, to some, human life doesn’t matter as much as big business does. According to Coco Chanel, «Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening», but fashion is also a global industry, one of the most environmentally and socially exploitative. The fashion industry’s supply chain involves other industries, from agriculture to communication, and nearly one hundred percent of the population wears clothes – meaning that we all have our part to play if we decide that we can become a part of the solution. To update Chanel’s quote to a modern-day scenario, it would read: ‘Fashion is in the polluted sky, in overcrowded streets, fashion has to do with the people who make our clothes, the way they live, what is happening to our planet’.
The need to consume in a different and more conscious way
I wrote my book between November 2019 and February 2020 and I sent in the first manuscript to my editor just one week before Milan went into lockdown. Its message of looking into one’s closet to find attainable, sustainable solutions seems fitting, as people have spent prolonged periods at home, re-examining their lifestyle habits, contemplating what holds value in their existence. As scary as it is to find ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic and a global environmental crisis, it is by finding out what went wrong that we can begin to think of how to make it right. We can redress the balance between mass production, over consumption and accelerated disposal by not shying away from in-depth conversations. We should, instead, try to pay more attention because there is enough information out there, online and offline, enough individuals with established and widely shared viewpoints, and enough proof to inspire us to act logically and creatively, not mindlessly and excessively, to help us make better decisions when we buy, and learn to keep the things we do buy for as long as possible. If we start from the premise that the only antidote to a throwaway society is to keep, then we will better understand our role as consumers, and if we also understand that our behaviors impact the entire supply chain, we will commit to consuming differently. Acquiring information takes time, but it will equip us with the knowledge and the power of our own informed opinions. What brands don’t tell us, we must ask. What brands don’t show us, we must see. What brands don’t give us, we must make. Before we can start to mend our clothes, we need to examine how to mend our ways, because when we talk about repairing clothes, we also need to include reparations to people and the planet.
Fashion Overproduction: unsustainable volumes and speed
Starting from our wardrobes makes sense. We may think that the fashion supply chain exists apart from us, but we too are in that chain every time we buy something, because in owning clothes we become responsible for its second phase: use, end of use and end of life. The majority of clothing production is damaging to people and depleting natural resources. As citizens we don’t know enough about the detrimental effects of our clothes’ lifespans, from toxicity to plastic pollution. Brands and media pressure us to normalize overproduction, encouraging us to consume more than we need, but the volumes and speed of overproduction are unsustainable. Supply chain workers need time to learn better skills, to engage with each other and to organize, and we need to foster a dignified and secure workplace and produce fewer, better made products, designed to last and made with respect. Clothes that can be repaired, reused, and kept in circulation, rather than bought mindlessly to be thrown away after a few wears. If we don’t understand the problems facing the supply chain before us, how can we act responsibly when it comes to our duties in this regard? And how can we make better choices when it comes to our buying and using habits?
Transparency in textile industry
Covid has magnified this inequality. The imbalances of power in our global wage system mean that brand owners earn billions, and supply chain workers struggle to live in dignity. Colonialism has globalized exploitation and most big businesses are still built on its foundations. To care for a piece of clothing, we need to know what it’s made of. If we knew that polyester releases millions of microfibers with each wash (microfibers that were found at the bottom of the deepest ocean and on top of Mount Everest), would we still buy a piece that needs frequent washing, like underwear or sportswear? Or would we buy a coat instead, that we could wash infrequently, while caring for it in other ways, such as with localized spot cleaning or brushing? Would we really keep buying something if we knew it was drenched in toxicants and restricted substances? This is where mandatory transparency and regulations should come into play, to give us all access to information which we, as consumers, are entitled to have. Because we cannot let big business thrive on human exploitation and the degradation of our planet, and in order to stop malpractice we must first see where it occurs. The fashion industry ignores injustices at every level of its supply chain; brands evade responsibility by blaming governments and suppliers, while governments lack policy and regulation to hold the industry to account. Radical transparency and exemplary accountability should be the norm, not the exception. A business without mandatory accountability is like a child without parental rules.
The ultimate responsibility to change the system falls on industry and governments, but we should all be incentivized to make changes. Earth is our shared asset, yet unfortunately the profound inequalities and the lack of dignity and equity in our society prevent us from being equally invested in the regeneration and conservation of our surroundings.This is why there is a need for mending clothes and mending systems, repairing something broken and calling for reparations where society and the industry have failed. Sustainability should not be exclusively for a restricted group of individuals with financial assets in a position to buy sustainable products, or shop plastic free; sustainability should be about society ensuring that sustainable solutions are available for everyone, from cheap mending in the community to alternatives to buying, like swapping or renting, available on our high streets. To normalize longevity in order to defy throwaway culture, we need to take care of the clothing we own, be intelligent and thoughtful with our consumption and invest in gratitude over growth. We must look for quality, both in the products we buy and in the lives of the people who make them.
I leave you with Fashion Revolution’s Manifesto: it’s the vision of the movement that I helped to create, and which still rings true to me.
Manifesto for a fashion revolution
1 – Fashion provides dignified work, from conception to creation to catwalk. It does not enslave, endanger, exploit, overwork, harass abuse or discriminate against anyone. Fashion liberates workers and wearers and empowers everyone to stand up for their rights.
2 – Fashion provides fair and equal pay. It enriches the livelihood of everyone working across the industry, from farm to shop floor. Fashion lifts people out of poverty, creates thriving societies and fulfils aspiration.
3 – Fashion gives people a voice, making it possible to speak up without fear, join together in unity without repression and negotiate for better conditions at work and across communities.
4 – Fashion respects culture and heritage. It fosters, celebrates and rewards skills and craftsmanship. It recognizes creativity as its strongest asset. Fashion never appropriates without giving due credit or steals without permission. Fashion honors the artisan.
5 – Fashion stands for solidarity, inclusiveness and democracy, regardless of race, class, gender, age, shape or ability. It champions diversity as crucial for its success.
6 – Fashion conserves and restores the environment. It does not deplete precious resources, degrade our soil, pollute our air and water or harm our health. Fashion protects the welfare of all living things and safeguards our diverse ecosystems.
7 – Fashion never unnecessarily destroys or discards but mindfully redesigns and recuperates in a circular way. Fashion is repaired, reused, recycled and upcycled. Our wardrobes and our landfills do not overflow with clothes that are coveted but not cherished, bought but not kept.
8 – Fashion is transparent and accountable. Fashion embraces clarity and does not hide behind complexity nor rely upon trade secrets to derive value. Anyone anywhere can find out where, by whom, and under what conditions their clothing is made.
9 – Fashion measures success by more than just sales and profits. fashion places equal value on financial growth, human well-being and environmental sustainability.
10- Fashion lives to express, delight, reflect, protest, comfort, commiserate and share. Fashion never subjugates, denigrates, marginalizes or compromises. fashion celebrates life.
Orsola de Castro
Is a pioneer and internationally recognized opinion leader in sustainable fashion. She is a regular keynote speaker, educator and mentor, Associate Lecturer at UAL, as well as a Visiting Fellow at Central Saint Martins. In 1997 she founded From Somewhere, a label designing clothes made entirely from pre-consumer waste. In 2013, with Carry Somers, she founded Fashion Revolution. Fashion Revolution has become a global campaign with participation in over 1000 countries around the world. Fashion revolution week 2021 is from the 19th to the 25th of April.