December 26, 2019

Tailoring our future

How did we get here and sustainable alternatives to fast fashion

Cinemagraph by kpoldnk

Disclaimer: The goal of this article is not another guilt trip about how you live your life, and how much water you need to drink. My intention is to create awareness about this situation in a society that normalises consumerism. I also offer alternatives on an individual level

If the price of two products is similar, aren’t you more prone to consume things that have a smaller carbon footprint, less wasteful production process, better worker conditions, or made of a durable material? Of course! No one wants to impact the world negatively because of a pair of trousers. The thing is: we don’t usually have that information on hand, but we can use the internet to look for it. Thanks to a better informed society, people’s sustainability expectations on products is growing by the day.

Some fashion industry giants have lately been so wasteful, polluting, and worsening their worker’s conditions, that they now have their own definition: Fast Fashion.

Brands like Zara or H&M are following an unsustainable operational model. The current speed of retailers to move their collections from runways to stores, and their accelerated manufacturing production process creating a collection every two weeks have lead to brands using fashion FOMO-Fear Of Missing Out-as a business model. Of course, in most cases without hiring more people or paying them any better. Fast fashion is contributing to the global climate crisis with its waste while profiting from vulnerable places.

This wasn’t the future capitalism had planned

Born in the UK in the XVIII century, capitalism was based on a super elitist idea of the world, were men (only men, and only white) basic desires were pushing the economy to a balanced status. According to consumerist John Maynard Keynes, one day we will all be rich, we won’t need to work so much, we will consume less; and all we’ll do is to watch our flowers grow. Keynes idea was that greed was good, and consumerism was the better rational and temporal option for achieving that human limited” greed. Unfortunately, he didn’t take into consideration hundreds of years of accelerated consumerism couldn’t all end in one day–or one decade–. Plus the naïveté prospect of everyone –even taking his definition of everyone as white rich men–or anyone saying Ok, I have enough, I’ll now watch my flowers grow”.

Right now, for instance, too many sectors would crush if we stop all the consumerism machinery at once.

How did we get here, then

In the XVIII century, women were expected to fit their garments as the yearly trend dictated. Wealthy women had their dresses created ad hoc for every trend. Less wealthy women adapted their clothes, shortening theirs skirts or adding a different neck to their old clothes.

The textile industry was leading the Industrial Revolution, which main changes were the use of machines as a manufacturing production process replacing manual labor, and dividing such work into little steps within assembly lines.

Average income and population began to exhibit unprecedented sustained growth. […]GDP per capita was broadly stable before […], and the Industrial Revolution began an era of per-capita economic growth in capitalist economies.

Lucas, Robert E., Jr. (2002). Lectures on Economic Growth.

With factory workers and military personnel as their main target, men clothes were the first to have homogenised sizes and tailoring cuts. During the next century, offering high-end garments made by a tailor was a differentiation value for wealthy people, and fashion houses were born.

The XX century started with well-off women dressed extravagantly corseted to display economic wealth. As their lifestyle became a bit more independent they started demanding more practical clothes, like garments that could be put on without a maid’s help. On the less-wealthy side, women had entered the factories workforce massively during wars, so they were not only starting to have some kind of economic independence, they also needed outfits with better mobility.

Fashion houses added a pret-a-porter line–literally ready-to-wear– to their half-year collections during the 50s. Pret-a-porter fashion was more affordable for the public, and more profitable for brands, and soon haute couture was replaced by it.

Fast forward a few years and we have globalised fashion producers and trendsetters thanks to magazines, movies, … And in the 70s Zara appeared on the scene. A tiny fashion store on the Northwest of Spain that copied and simplified those pret-a-porter pieces they saw on the runways and remade them with affordable garments.

Zara changed small stores fashion expectations and the way fashion was designed, manufactured and distributed. Its owner called it instant fashion”. They could produce trendy clothes faster than ever before. Zara then went from being the tail of the lion, to be the head of the mouse, to create a completely new animal. They became so popular they started creating their own collections–mixed with the runway copies–. And soon enough they were the ones getting copied by new brands. Gossip apart, the fashion industry, sorry, the high fashion industry, wasn’t happy about being copied or losing customers because of this.

Zara just started the trend

Globalisation, lower shipping costs and quality, and internet stores have amplified and speeded up this copying cycle. Brands and fashion houses, trying to be unique, used this new more affordable way to exploit the whole supply chain. They wanted to wow’ people more and more often, so they created middle-season collections, and then half-middle-season ones. And a set of sales right in between. So much so, there are stores right now with a section that’s always on sale.

The impact was similar to computerisation on the workplace. As Javi Loureiro once pointed out: when computers were able to calculate x2 faster, people expected to work half of the time; instead, companies asked to double the amount of work done.

Middle-season collections fall into this category. Almost no one on the chain was paid more, teams weren’t growing, they were asked to double their work. These triggered a discomfort and lack of value inside fashion brands. They, for example, started copying illustrations they found on the Internet, provoking a lot of public brand shaming and litigations.

Once upon a time, buying clothes was limited to a particular time of the year, like children’s clothes at the beginning of the school year. During the 90s, shopping was made popular as a form of entertainment. This was shown in a lot of movies and tv shows.

Fast fashion dark patterns

In 1993, Lefties was created, a store where Zara’s defective clothes were sold for very low prices. They used the mindset of cheaper products are held to lower standards and, soon, Lefties evolved into a full low-cost clothing store. The business model wasn’t about Zara’s residuary anymore, they were creating lower quality clothes at lower prices and standards. It was so profitable they extended this model onto the main brand.

In 2013 job conditions deteriorated even faster than before. The Subprime mortgage crisis rose unemployment rates, and companies were making mass early retirements and firing waves. Low-cost brands where growing and, in this scarcity of jobs, they hired people for lower salaries and more precarious conditions along the whole production chain.

At the same time, social media platforms exploited the exposure of people with good personal branding, called them influencers, and paid them to promote their products. Having followers brought status, status brought money from brands which lead to more followers. Influencers and their clothes were an aspirational persona, and we started talking about personal branding’ even for regular people. We could all be influencers in our own circles, getting likes for social status. There was a social pressure to fit in, and to look as trendy as often as this or that influencer.

A lot of fast fashion brands monetise this in a well-thought evil way. Brands release collections every two weeks now (Dec-2019). They use specific patterns, colors, and shapes for every collection. I’ve lived in a very crowded place with a lot of fast fashion stores nearby and after a while, with my crazy-for-patterns brain, I could spot if someone was wearing a shirt from three or six weeks ago. Clothes get old fashioned pretty fast right now.

In every new collection, new items are created that match the colors of the last collection but with a twist. This twist is what makes it recognizable as a brand new item that week. But three collections from today, your garment won’t match the colors or style of the new one. So the consumer is pressured to throw away or hide their clothes from six weeks ago.

This consumerism epidemic led the fashion industry to become synonymous with disposable fashion and textile waste.

Due to poor quality and manufacturing, the benchmark for fast fashion companies is expected to last 10 washes until an item no longer holds its original quality and subsequently falls apart. Approximately 500 million pounds of textile waste exist in Canadian landfills.

The last straw

From the producers perspective, the story is much worse. I remember the Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013. An eight-story commercial building with around 5,000 people working on foreign retail brands collapsed. The worst part is that workers, mostly women and some as young as twelve years old, had seen cracks growing on the walls but were threatened to be fired if they refused to enter the building.

It was a turning point on fast fashion acceptance because a lot of international brands were involved: Walmart, Primark, Carrefour, Benetton, Mango, Children’s Place, … The Accord on Factory and Building Safety in Bangladesh was created after the tragedy to protect workers conditions with safety training, factory inspections, etc.

Please don’t let the next social and economic change wait until the collapse of a building with 5,000 people in it.

Alternatives to fast fashion

I’ve been thinking and writing notes for this article for a while now. And the main proposal I got is:

On top of consuming less items, let’s consume better ones–if you can, quality isn’t always affordable–; and be aware of and reject the feeling of needing to own everything you like.

💊 Capsule wardrobe, a design system for your wardrobe

This is my favourite one because it fits my minimalist mindset and because it’s flexible enough to be trendy if you care about fashion trends.

A capsule wardrobe is the conscious choice of owning 20-25 pieces for every season, excluding underwear. The idea is to have a minimum amount of clothes, all easily paired with each other. It’s like a design system inside your wardrobe. The choosing process include having all pieces fitting you perfectly, so you love every piece you own, making it more probable that you’ll be wearing them. It’s less about quantity and more about quality.

One thing that has helped me maintain the number of items I own is to go shopping only when I need a specific piece; and to take the old garment out of the wardrobe every time I add a new one.

I’ve kind of had a capsule wardrobe before I knew its name because I don’t like to spend time shopping. Whenever I’m about to buy an item I ask myself:

  • does it fit my body the way I like?
  • does it fit with my kind of life? (all night gowns are automatically eliminated, as much as I like to think I’d look sickening on a red carpet)
  • do I really need it, or do I have a similar piece?
  • do the colors or shapes combine with my current pieces? Or in order to wear it I have the obligation to buy another item?
  • did I come to this store needing this?
  • would I still love it in six months?
  • do I really want it?

This final question reminds me of Marie Kondo’s: Ask yourself if it sparks joy”.

I normally choose plain neutral colors: black, white and grey, for the pieces I wear more than once, like sweaters, jackets, shoes, trousers and skirts. It is easier to combine them with new pieces that way. I like to play with the texture, the shape, the overall style, and the structure of those neutral-colored clothes.

For example, I own a very basic black skirt that’s transparent to the eye, nothing super special. But if you look closer it has a Japanese martial arts vibe that makes it [chef kiss].

I choose more colorful or special pieces for things I change the most, like shirts and t-shirts.

If you want to be trendy with the least amount of garments, you can be extra with your shirts, or play with accessories. A simple black dress, for example, can be worn with white converse shoes and no accessories to have a coffee with friends. The same black dress, combined with elegant shoes, an updo, and long earrings and boom!, you are ready for an elegant night event.

I like how capsule wardrobe guidelines are flexible enough to fit most people, and you can still be trendy if you want.

🍍 Piñatex: a sustainable business model

Piñatex is a vegetable leather and its story is one of my favourites about thinking twice and acting once.

Dr Carmen Hijosa, Piñatex founder, was a leather exporting expert in a UK firm for a long time. She knew the industry well enough but wanted to improve the leather extraction process. She started by travelling to the countries of origin, following each and every step of the leather production chain to see if anything could be better and/or more profitable. She found out the deplorable worker conditions, like people being regularly surrounded by dead animal parts. She returned to the UK with a broken heart and a new goal.

To improve the process, it needed to change completely. She saw that if a plant-based fabric was made, with no animals involved in hot and humid areas, the starting point would hopefully have a less toxic environment.

She hired a team to research what kind of plant based fiber could be used to get a leather-like texture. Being an experienced leather trader, her standards were pretty high and specific: durability, flexibility, appealing, easiness to work with, …

After a while, they discovered a way to transform plant-based fibers into a leathery texture. It wasn’t entirely ready but it was good enough to start looking for the best fiber to use. They had multiple plants in mind that could work, but buying or even cultivating them was too expensive. One of the things she wanted was to pay workers better, so lowering costs needed to happen on the raw materials.

They started looking for a cheap vegetable fiber in the countries they had shipping connections with, and they discovered pineapples were the second most cultivated fruit in the world. No only that, they also found out pineapple leaves weren’t used at all and were thrown away! They sure found the cheapest most spreaded vegetable fiber.

Pineapple was it, then. They had this plant fiber leftovers to experiment with, and the rest is history. Dr Hijosa had enough knowledge about how and where to ship this pineapple based fabric. She also knew the market was starting to open to sustainable options, so the timing was also spot on. In my opinion, it was smart not to try and design clothes themselves, but to sell the material to others. I’ve seen too many startups collapse because of a blurry and boundless scope. They initially launched the fabric in three colors: white, black, and gold. Brands like Hugo Boss or Nae shoes trusted this new vegan leather called Piñatex.

One of the solutions to fast fashion is to make sustainability trendy. We, as individuals, don’t have enough power to change the entire system, but our purchases (dollar votes) and public concerns are now too loud to ignore.

♻️ What’s coming

Circular economy is now the main approach behind any sustainable product. Its goal is to waste less, or having no waste at all, in any manufacturing production process. You can know more about it from the leading organisation at the moment: Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Other models include recycling clothes, using fabric off-cuts for new pieces like this zero waste clothes by Kye Shimizu, or renting fancy garments for special occasions so we only have the essentials on our shelves.

The room for improvement in the ethics department of the fashion industry is still too big, and it’s not only about the manufacturing process. During the research part of writing this article, I found so many things that aren’t quite right. For example, brands showcase non-binary models while forcing their online users to filter between women clothes’ and men clothes’. I’ve also stumbled upon offensive terms like age appropriate’ too many times. Clothes are a form of expression and you should have the freedom to choose your own adventure. You decide what sparks joy for you, what’s a good fit and what’s your style today.

Although it may look like buying clothes that aren’t part of the fast fashion industry is difficult and too expensive, remember slow fashion takes clothes durability into consideration. You’ll be needing less clothes, less frequently.

As Greta Thunberg said as individuals, our most powerful tool is to inform ourselves, and use that to pressure our governments into making the necessary changes.

fashion communication