Linen suit, vintage Yves Saint Laurent, purchased at a flea market in Bushwick, New York in 2015. Shoes, Veja at Brown Thomas. White T-shirt, Cos.
It’s the prevailing topic of conversation in the fashion world right now. Brands who haven’t previously tackled the subject are stepping into the conversation, and those who are well versed are helping to lead the way. Just last week LVMH announced that they have purchased a minority stake in Stella McCartney (the brand has been one of the forerunners in sustainable fashion since its launch in 2001) and that McCartney herself would be advising the company, and CEO Bernard Arnault, on sustainability for its other brands going forward. In other news, Zara announced that all of their cottons and linens will be “sustainable” by 2025 and that they will only use recycled cellulosic fibres. Along with introducing “green” packaging, the company have also put ambitious targets in place to tackle their energy usage in store and during production. Considering Zara have been one of the biggest culprits in the fast-fashion industry (it was previously revealed that Zara have a lead time from design to final sale of just 13 days – it doesn’t get much faster than that) it is interesting to see them increase their efforts so drastically. Have they begun to realise the detrimental effects their business model is having on the environment and decided to row back – or is it a convenient way for them to cash in on the zeitgeist?
While these efforts from clothing brands are vital, a change in practices from consumers is possibly even more so if we want to curb the extreme effects the fashion industry is having on the environment. Sustainable fashion, ethical fashion, eco-clothing, whatever way you want to put it, what we are talking about is clothing, manufacturing and production processes that are as kind to the environment – and the workers employed to produce them – as possible. There is so much to discuss on the topic that it can be offputting and consumers can easily put it down to the responsibility of clothing brands and makers, but in reality, most of the power lies with us. While fashion brands can implement green initiatives and track their goals for the future, it is down to us as shoppers to change our habits.
In our fast-fashion led capitalist society it has been ingrained in us that more is more. It is believed that millennials and Gen Z own four times the amount of clothes than our parents did. Along with the increased availability (and the speed with which new collections are released) this is largely down to the disposability of fast fashion. We are no longer (en masse) purchasing clothes that we plan to have forever, instead we are buying clothes that have a finite life span. According to The Guardian, this summer alone British shoppers will buy 50 million throwaway outfits, with the expected spend among the population to reach £700 million. Going to a wedding? You buy a new outfit. Going to another wedding? You couldn’t possibly wear the same dress again, another new outfit it is. Sound familiar? The stigma around re-wearing clothes has become even more apparent with the rise of social media. While our parents and grandparents would have had their good clothes or “Sunday best”, our generation is buying on demand when and where ever they feel like it. In order to tackle what is being referred to as an environmental crisis, what needs to change first is the attitude toward clothing and shopping. A new purchase shouldn’t be a throwaway piece that you wear once and relegate to the back of the wardrobe; each item of clothing you buy should be a conscious and considered purchase that you plan to wear long term.
Consumers also need to be more educated on the brands they are purchasing from. I’m not saying we all need to stop shopping from the high street entirely, a lot of clothes I’ve purchased from high street shops are pieces that I’ve worn for years and will continue to do so, but reducing your purchases and being more educated is important. Before you make your next purchase, visit the brand in question’s website and take note of the information they disclose on their fabrics, factories and workers. If a brand is open and willing to share this information freely, it’s likely that they are working towards being more ethical and sustainable in their practices. If it is hard to find any information (or if the product details are filled with polyester, polyester and more polyester) take a step back and reconsider your purchase. There is a useful app called GoodOnYou that breaks down valuable information on different fashion brands and rates them on their sustainable and ethical credentials and is worth taking a look at. Consumers also need to be aware of what’s called “greenwashing”. Greenwashing is the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice. It can make a company appear to be more environmentally friendly than it really is. GoodOnYou can help to clear up any confusion in relation to greenwashing of brands.
To tackle this colossal issue and each play our part in assuaging it even remotely, what it ultimately takes is some small changes and further consideration before making a purchase. Before you buy something new, think about these simple steps.
Firstly, and this may sound silly, but shop your own wardrobe. Do you really need something new, or do you have something existing that will fill the gap? We are all guilty of buying things and forgetting about them over time. The next time you feel the need to buy something new, go through your wardrobe and root out some pieces you haven’t worn in a while. Styling them in a new way can sometimes make you feel like you’ve got a brand new piece of clothing. Plus it’s free!
The next best thing you can do is to try and buy second hand pieces, that way you are contributing to the circular economy and giving items that have already been produced a longer life span. Swap shops with friends are also great for this. I recently attended an event where Taz Kelleher spoke about sustainable fashion. Taz hosts regular talks and organises charity shop crawls and swap shops around Ireland to raise awareness for sustainable fashion. Visit her Instagram for dates and further information.
Next think about the wearability of the piece: will you be able to wear this piece in multiple ways and in a number of different scenarios (work, weekend, holiday etc)? A one wear item is not an option.
Always check your labels: in terms of fabric, aim to buy natural fabrics like cotton and linen rather than man-made materials (like polyester which is made from plastic and not biodegradable). Even when buying natural fabrics you still have more to consider; always look for organic fabrics, this means that the plants or trees the material is made from were not treated with any harmful chemicals which are damaging to both the workers and the natural resources. While there are still issues with natural fabrics, such as the excessive water usage when producing cotton, it’s a step in the right direction.
Consider timelessness: ask yourself if this is a piece you can see yourself still wearing in ten years’ time. If not, why not? Clothing should be bought to be savoured, loved and enjoyed for years to come. An item that is simply filling a gap for now is not good enough.
Shop local: there are so many amazing Irish designers making brilliant collections both ethically and sustainably. Not only are you supporting the local economy, you are also taking steps to protect the environment by reducing transport and extra packaging and in turn pollution.
Invest. Buying fewer, quality pieces is guaranteed to help shape a better future. Consider spending more on good quality basics like T-shirts and jeans that will last. In the long run, your cost per wear will often work out at a lot less.
Care for your clothes. Do you have a good tailor and cobbler? By mending your clothes and accessories you can extend their lifespan for years. A new sole on a pair of leather boots can get you another few winters out of them and leather bags with tired straps can often be replaced. And get creative with alterations, places like Zipyard can recreate your clothes into entirely new pieces (think a maxi dress or jumpsuit altered into a top and skirt). Find good menders (or get crafty yourself!) and your wardrobe will thank you.
Lastly, help to spread the word by telling your friends and family to do the same. This will only work if it becomes the norm. Start by picking one thing from this list, and work up to using it as a checklist every time you need to go shopping. Every little helps when it comes to saving our planet (or even helping to limit further damage) and the fastest way to help us get there is by joining and getting involved in the wider conversation.
There’s no perfect solution and there’s no easy quick fix. But what we can do is introduce these small changes. What we need to aim for collectively is a complete slowing down of the system. Slow fashion needs to replace its fast alternative. Shoppers need to digest their purchases, taking time to wear and re-wear over and over again. You don’t have to completely avoid the high street, but when you are shopping from H&M, Zara or Mango, keep the above tips in mind and make sure you’re not purchasing a single-wear piece. Clothes from the high street can and will last if they are cared for properly and chosen with longevity in mind. But do pay attention to where you are buying your clothes. Not all high street stores are equal. And as mentioned above, it is preferable to purchase second hand where possible – you may be surprised what you find.
The suit I’m wearing in these pictures proves this point. It’s vintage Yves Saint Laurent and I bought it at a flea market in New York in 2015 from a girl whose mother has collected vintage pieces for the past 40 years. I stumbled upon the flea market accidentally just three blocks from where I was living in Bushwick and couldn’t believe my luck when I found this piece. It’s easy to think vintage or second hand clothes won’t suit your shape or style, but remember they can be altered to fit. This suit was one size too big, but I had the trousers taken up and in at the waist, and I’m happy to wear the jacket slightly baggier. It’s one of my favourite outfits in my wardrobe and I love the fact that I have a story to tell when someone asks me about it. Clothes hold history and this is something to be remembered. When you wear them they become an extension of your self – what do you want your clothes to say?
Photographs by Liadh Connolly