As someone who is both interested in fashion but very much concerned about the increasing environmental threat we are facing, I jumped at the opportunity to attend the Lumsden Leadership Summit talk on sustainable fashion, and it did not disappoint. The talk was facilitated by Ella Davis, a St Andrews alumni who founded Sulke, an ethical vintage clothing brand, and was in discussion with Alina Bassi, Ann Lindsay, and Ayesha Barenblat. Bassi is a chemical engineer who founded Kleiderly, a company that aims to transform textile waste into products. Lindsay started out working in couture, from which she became a journalist both of fashion as well as other topics such as politics, then transitioning into writing books and public speaking. Barenblat works to bring justice and equality within the fashion industry and founded Remake to enforce this further and educate civilians on the disparity within the fashion industry.
Three main themes emerged out of the discussion. The first was around the idea of multi-billion fashion companies. Barenblat mentioned a good indicator of whether a company was treating its workers right was the number of products they sell and the price of the products. If a company is selling a lot of products at a price that is exceptionally low, it is likely that they are not paying their workers well, the majority of whom would be women and from ethnic minorities conveying a real lack of care for these people. We need to be aware that by buying from these companies, we become part of the issue. Companies such as Shein and Boohoo have multimillion pr teams that perpetuate that they are sustainable when in fact it is just a façade. Bassi mentioned how many of the heads of sustainability in these fashion brands that she has worked with had no adequate experience or training for the job that they were supposed to be undertaking.
On the other end of this fast fashion, is where our clothes end up. Bassi shared that a staggering “87%” of textiles go into landfills, with Charity shops getting the pick of the best of the bunch because of this constant cycle of buying and chucking that has become so normalised today. This segues nicely into the real crux of the issue: how we as individuals value our clothes. Lindsay shared that she worked out that in the 1950s using a weeks’ worth of an average accountant salary one could buy six jumpers from M and S, in today’s equivalent one could buy twenty-eight jumpers. One must really reflect on who has suffered for the jumpers to be so cheap. Whilst it is great that clothing is more accessible for those who earn little, maybe the emphasis should be on keeping our clothes pristine and mending them when they become a little worn.
It was agreed by all that a large part of the problem is the lack of awareness around where our clothes come from. Lindsay mentioned how very few people nowadays knit and sew. This theme of value and making one’s clothes is probably what resonated and related to me the most as I do knit and sew, but I had never thought about whether this means I appreciate my clothes more than my counterparts that don’t? In the last year, I have made a conscious decision to make or buy all my clothes second-hand apart from a few exceptions, something which I guess had I not sewn I would not have necessarily done.
Perhaps if people could make clothes, they would not only appreciate the work that goes into it and be less likely to partake in this buy and chuck culture, but they might be more likely to create something that truly reflects them and be proud of it. Something which I can really resonate with as I rip up two pairs of jeans in my wardrobe that have never suited me, and transform them into a new pair of jeans and a handbag. Items that make me happier and more accomplished than anything I could have ever bought. As Bassi said, consuming loads ultimately does not make us happy. We should be challenging brands instead of trying to conveniently ignore the issue.
Of course, it is easier for me to say this as I reflect on my own creativeness. I am not denying I have never felt the urge to buy something from these brands, in fact, the new ASOS sunglasses in my bedroom are a manifestation of exactly that. Did I need sunglasses? Yes. Did I need two pairs of cheap “trendy” sunglasses, leaving me to still having to buy proper useful sunglasses? No. Attending this summit has reminded me that a one-off, does not suddenly mean I am not contributing to the oppression and global environment crisis, and I hope and think it will be a long time, if ever, before I buy anything from one of these unsustainable fashion conglomerates ever again. The summit and this article are a reminder of that for me and I hope it can be a reminder for you too, to normalise wearing the same outfit, celebrate unique style, and value our clothes.