Fashion Revolution? How clothing is the new plastic

Julie Hill, WRAP Chair

Even in a normal week, the gathering of very stylish people at the V&A under the banner of ‘Fashion Revolution’ might have attracted a good amount of attention. As it was, given the Extinction Rebellion protests and with Greta Thunberg visiting the UK, the subject of sustainable fashion had huge visibility and became part of the bigger conversation. The debate around our fashion consumption echoed what we are hearing on climate in general and plastic in particular – calls to stem the tide of fast fashion, change our throwaway habits, price in the climate and social impacts and work harder to get stuff back for re-use and recycling.

Last week’s The Fashion Question Time at the V&A Museum (home to some supremely durable fashion, thinking of their collection of 18th century gowns) was the initiative of the Fashion Revolution movement; a global NGO started in 2013 in response to the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, where 1134 people died and over 2500 were injured. The group brings together diverse people from the fashion industry and beyond to campaign for greater transparency in the way our clothes are produced, as a first step towards greater sustainability and social justice.

The panel was extraordinarily well qualified for such questions. Mary Creagh, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, the recent report from which has upped the ante considerably for the fashion industry was very clear: too few companies have engaged in this agenda, the real costs of fast fashion are not reflected in the rock-bottom prices, and the public is ahead of government in voicing concern. She talked of needing a ‘regulated environment’ and that the recent climate protests have provided ‘operating space’ for MPs such as herself who are championing sustainability.

Mark Sumner, whose work at the University of Leeds has been illuminating the environmental impacts of clothing for many years, agreed with the need for regulation. He is disappointed that more leading businesses are not engaging with initiatives such as WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, the industry-led action plan whose signatories are outperforming the rest of the industry in reducing carbon, waste and water. Laura Belmond from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation felt that actually it is up to businesses to lead the Circular Economy, and their interests are best served by doing so. Innovations such as the digital wardrobe could help make it a reality - if the only purpose of having clothing is to post a picture on Instagram, why have an actual garment when a digitally pasted one will do the same job but using far fewer resources? There is a desperate need to reverse the current trend of ever-increasing sales of clothes, but ever decreasing length of use. Henrick Alpen from H&M highlighted the commitments the company has made, including being ‘climate neutral’ by 2030, aiming for 100% sustainably sourced cotton and doing more to encourage recycled cotton.

Where does this take us? The problem with action on big systemic problems like fashion and climate is that the answer to ‘who leads’ is ‘all of us’ – but that can mean none of us. Public outrage, political impetus and corporate shifts come together in a complex, iterative dance, no one participant being able to move very far unless the others echo and reinforce their efforts. To date, this dance has been a slow one. WRAP has helped to bring some leading players to the dance floor (the retail signatories to SCAP account for over half of the retail market by volume) and can point to significant change as a consequence, but can only work with those willing to enter the arena.

It will be interesting to see if the debate on fast fashion gathers further momentum after this week’s extraordinary acceleration of the climate debate, and results in more concerted efforts from the fashion industry, particularly those so far unengaged. WRAP’s work has shown that carbon emissions from the clothing supply chain need to be understood before they can be acted on, but having taken that step, SCAP signatories have shown that it is possible to bring them down by at least 10% in a relatively short time. It was no surprise that the over-arching themes of the debate were transparency and accountability as the essential pre-conditions to effective change, with a likely need in future to make those mandatory.

Even if we succeed at measuring and managing in the supply chain, it was made abundantly clear through the line of questioning at the V&A event that nothing short of rethinking consumption and lifestyle will really address the impacts of fashion. How many clothes do we really need, and how fast should fashion be in future? That is something we can all think about – right now.