Is it too late for sustainable fashion?

Picture it. London. Fashion week. September 2019. A young girl walking through Trafalgar Square heading to her first show with her mother. Pointing at a crowd all dressed in black with a coffin lifted up above their heads, she asks, “Mum, who died?” A man wearing a top hat with the words ‘Fashion Weak’ written in big block letters answers, “Our future”.

R.I.P. London Fashion Week

This lovely bunch of Londonites were marching in a funeral procession for fashion, protesting the newness of production that fashion week brings while calling us to be content with what we already have, using the slogan ‘Repair, Rewear, Rebel’. The funeral was organized by Extinction Rebellion (XR), “an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimize the risk of social collapse.” Just Monday, October 7th, an international rebellion began and will continue for the next 2 weeks with allies gathering together in major cities around the world to stand up against governments for their mindlessness on the Climate and Ecological Crisis. Their goal is to disrupt business as usual worldwide.

Clare Press, from the podcast The Wardrobe Crisis, interviewed XR members Clare Farrell, Sara Arnold, and Will Skeaping and aired it on her latest episode, ‘Podcast 97, EXTINCTION REBELLION – NO FASHION ON A DEAD PLANET’. This episode was one for the books as it discussed sustainability’s role within the fashion industry from an interesting perspective, asking the question, “Is it too late for sustainability?”

The Climate Problem

Before answering the sustainability question, the climate problem must be identified. According to NASA, carbon dioxide levels are at their highest in 650,000 years; 18 out of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001; in 2012, Arctic summer sea ice shrank to it’s lowest level in history; and our global average sea level has risen around 7 inches in the past 100 years.

Yeah. Okay. But, what does this all really mean? Well, with temperatures rising and barometers getting low, unfortunately men will not be raining from the skies. Instead, our weather forecast will consist of increased droughts, heat waves, and floods. Houston continues to have a problem with hurricane after hurricane. If we continue on this trajectory, the United Nations feels that simply adapting to the increased issues that climate change has caused will be more difficult and costly in the future.

Just in case you didn’t get my reference, look up this song.

The Greenhouse Gas Story

Greenhouse gases are in fact essential to our survival on earth. By naturally blocking some of the sun’s warmth from reflecting back into space, they make our world more livable. Unfortunately, too much of anything is a bad thing. The Industrial Revolution sparked instant change in the late 18th century bringing along more people, more money, and more problems. This increase in large scale production and deforestation also caused an increase of released greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, rising at levels well above what has been seen in human existence. These gases are directly correlated with the earth’s temperatures, the main cause being the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil. This is what’s causing increased flooding, crazy Texas weather, and droughts. These things will continue to get worse if we don’t halt the amount of greenhouse gases entering into the air.

The Fashion Industry’s Contribution to the Climate Problem

If fashion were a country, it’s emissions would be that of Russia’s. “The best number we have now is about five percent of greenhouse gas emissions [come from] this [fashion] sector. To give you some sense of perspective, that’s about equivalent to the impact from the aviation sector, so all the planes flying in the world. Or in country terms, that’s about equal to Russia. So it’s pretty significant”, said Nate Aden, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, during a panel discussion on climate change in NYC in 2017.

The reason for the increase in emissions?

Graphic Credit: Levi Strauss & Co

The majority of fashion’s contribution to increasing the greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to producing raw materials. The amount of land used to grow cotton plus the amount of water multiplied by the amount of oil used to make synthetic fibers plus a fashion industry propelled by a culture of ‘wanters’ equals the need for drastic transformation. But how? Is it too late for sustainability in this industry?

Better Late than Never (?)

Clare, Sara, and Will from XR seem to believe that it’s too late for fashion to try and change now. “It’s not a great time to be in the process of production”, says Clare via interview by Clare Press. Adopting minimal sustainable solutions into a business model is “just not enough”. Former designer, Sara agrees saying that “we should be growing food instead [of cotton]”. “We can’t afford to continue growing crops for clothes.”

This interview was conducted by Clare Press for her podcast, The Wardrobe Crisis. Please check it out. The link is above.

Clare furthers her point by sharing how difficult it is for sustainable fashion brands to even make it in the industry let alone make a significant impact. “It’s very nice to make good work but we need to do more. Its too late for sustainability to be helpful to us now.” To the fashion businesses out there trying to practice sustainability, Clare states, apologizing, “I’m very sorry that you are in this stage in your career at this moment in time because it’s heartbreaking and it would be great if we could all carry on and people could [continue to] make sustainable collections and be listened to and the industry would change and that would result into something meaningful, but it’s just not a great time to be in the process of production right now.”

Sara concludes by urging us to let go of fashion. “[Our] culture is being used to distract us from the emergency.” The culture we’ve created since the industrial revolution has been that of convenience and efficiency. These new found values have diminished our other ones. The fashion industry has both created and maintained our wants. We no longer understand the difference between a want and a need. Everything is available with just the click of a button. We can now have clothes delivered to us, returning things we don’t like. From a scientific perspective, we have CO2 from production, CO2 from exportation, CO2 from packaging, CO2 from store or warehouse space, CO2 from shipping, CO2 from bigger closet space, CO2 from returns, CO2 from waste, CO2 in other countries housing our unwanted trash. Will jumps in towards the end of the episode saying that because of our way of life in the west, other countries are reaping the effects of climate change. In other words, our mistakes have allowed others to suffer the consequences. We have not “balanced the inequalities around the world”.

So… What now?

They offer some hope by encouraging us to change the relationship we have with our clothes. We can change our buying behavior which will change the way businesses produce clothes which will ultimately begin to change the fashion industry. We, the consumers, hold the power within our pocketbooks.

Do we really need to purchase a new costume for that Halloween party? Do we really need those new cheetah print booties? Do we really need to wash our clothes twice a week? – Yes, these are my personal problems.

How do we spark this revolutionary change?

  1. Repair or transform what you already have. Tired of your jeans, make them into a mini skirt.
  2. Stop buying new items that can’t be ethically traced! Buy secondhand. Go pop some tags. This is a great way to save money as well.
  3. When you can’t or don’t want to buy previously loved products, buy from ethical brands. There’s an ethical brand for pretty much everything now. Bedding, shoes, chocolate, even underwear!
  4. We need to change our cultural norms. It IS okay to rewear an outfit shown in multiple IG posts or during multiple days of work. It IS okay to pay more for a quality item (from an ethical brand) of clothing that will last longer. It IS okay to reconnect yourself with an idea of fashion used as a tool for employment, environmental change, and expression.

Back to the protest…

One thing that came to mind when I saw the above photo along with others from the protest is the fact that there is merchandise with the XR logo printed everywhere. After listening to the podcast and doing some digging of my own, they actually have wooden block prints of the logo and encourage their fellow members to paint this print on clothing and items they already have in their possession. Talk about practicing what you preach. Their website even has this gem located at the bottom of every page: “Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a do-it-together movement. All our design and artwork can be used non-commercially for the purpose of planet saving. This does not mean creating merchandise for fundraising or sending XR a percentage of your sales. We do not endorse or create any merchandise and we will pursue and prosecute anyone who does. The Extinction Symbol was designed in 2011 by street artist ESP, who loans XR usage on the same basis:”

Controversy – Are protests just for rich, white people? Is sustainability?

Another hidden gem from this interview are Clare Press’ mentions of controversy. As a true journalist, she likes to understand the various angles of a topic. My favorite mentioned was that of class and race.

Critics suggest that protesting is only for “privileged white people who can afford to court arrest”. “Extinction Rebellion is overwhelmingly shaped by the concerns, priorities, and ideas of middle-class white people. If it doesn’t tackle white supremacy, it doesn’t serve us.” – Vice

Is it possible that we need to tackle our racial divide before tackling sustainability? In an online course I completed, the question was asked, which section of sustainability is a higher priority? Human, environment, another section? These questions are difficult to answer and the idealist in me would say that everything is equally important. However, I’m privileged and I’m biracial and my career is steeped in sustainable fashion.

What are your thoughts? I’m eager to hear from you!

Next week, I’ll be looking into the feasibility of living a completely sustainable life.

Forever Failing – The Fall of Forever 21

I still have the scar. Just on top of my left foot from that time a men’s fragrance bottle fell and bounced off of the table I was merchandising, leaving an open wound, infected by the strong musky scent of cheap cologne. What did I get myself into? Honestly, what was I thinking? Every fashion merchandising graduate’s dream job was either in buying or visual merchandising and there I was, visual merchandiser at Forever 21, lead of Children’s, Men’s, Plus, and Contemporary departments. The honeymoon phase quickly wore off after the first day. I had sold my soul to a company that exploited millions of lives though proudly representing Christian values with the verse John 3:16 written on the bottom of their bright yellow plastic bags. Why was this my favorite store in high school?

We would arrive at 6 am every Monday through Friday and would leave around 2 pm unless it was floor set week. Then, we would work from 10 pm and leave around 8 or 9 am the next day. Every visual would smoke during our 10 minute break. Apparently, it was the only thing that kept the sanity. Why was this job so stressful? But the more questions I asked, the more aware I was of just how meaningless my life had become. I no longer had a purpose. I no longer had a passion. I would leave at 2 pm, feeling unaccomplished because I didn’t get through merchandising my entire section only to come back the next day to find that my beautiful displays were destroyed. Destroyed by the consumers. Consumers trying to find the best deal because $5 for a t-shirt wasn’t enough of a deal already. Did these consumers not think about the time and effort it took someone to arrange the display, literally getting so deep into it that the merchandise left a permanent scar on their foot. Did they not think about the people behind the scenes? Did they not think about me?

Then it hit me. A reminder from the documentary we watched in my Fashion Econ class. No one cared about the people behind the $5 shirt. The visuals, the cashiers, the associates, the actual makers of the shirt. No one. They only cared about the deal. They’ll wear the item a few times then it will develop rips and tears and they’ll throw it out. Or donate it to Goodwill only to be rejected by Goodwill and shipped on the nearest cargo ship to Africa or India. Only to be rejected by the locals and thrown away going wherever things go after that point (back to the U.S. if it ended up in Malaysia). All the effort taken into making and merchandising that one shirt just to be thrown away within a week of purchase. My job sucked and I wanted out. I got out 3 months later and began my journey working in ethical fashion. Fast forward 5 years later and now the place that forced me to think about clothes beyond simply wearing them, has filed for bankruptcy! The fast fashion enablers have filed for the removal of their people exploiting and planet killing platform, or, so we hope.

The Debtor in Possession

Forever 21 filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection which is the option for reorganization. “This was an important and necessary step to secure the future of our Company, which will enable us to reorganize our business and reposition Forever 21,” Linda Chang, the company’s executive vice president said in the statement.

They are continuing to operate business as usual, even securing approval for employee benefits and reimbursements and hiring staff for the upcoming holiday season. Although, many employees will lose their jobs worldwide due to the closing of most international stores. This is an unfortunate consequence of the various mistakes made by large corporations. The ones that endure the consequences are not the ones that make the mistakes.

Learning from their Mistakes

Mistake #1: Failure to Evolve their E-Commerce Presence

Forever 21’s biggest revenue increase was reported in the 2000’s when malls and bargain shopping were more in fashion. They spent marketing dollars and inventory savings on this mall-based business model fad, allocating millions for opening and stocking stores worldwide. What they, and other retailers such as Charlotte Russe and American Apparel, failed to realize is that the digital economy was fast approaching. As the internet continued to develop, so did knowledge, access, and unfortunately, convenience. Brands were too busy focusing on the dollar signs of current trends rather than investing in future ones.

Currently, their online store represents 16% of their overall sales in an economy with 79% of people shopping online.

Mistake #2: Failure to Adopt Sustainable Practices

Image courtesy of Greenblut

The growth in internet brought forth a growth in knowledge. We are in an age where all we have to do is ask Google or Siri a question and we receive a wealth of information on the subject. This easy way to access information has sparked more questions among millennial users. They are now starting to care more about their environment and the people in it than ever before. Sustainability is trending and hopefully it’s not just a fad. H&M recognized this shift and have tried to jump on board. Forever 21 did not. If sustainability is not a part of their new reorganization strategy, it should be or they will be filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in a few short years.

Mistake #3: Value Creation Plateau

During it’s heyday, Forever 21 offered cheap alternatives to runway looks. At that time, consumers craved the mainstream. They wanted to feel accepted in their clothing rather than to stand-out; sporting logo shirts and cookie-cutter designs. Now, consumers crave timeless, unique pieces. They love thrifting and purchasing secondhand clothing on apps like Poshmark and thredUp. Consumers want to express their individuality and lack of conformity, two characteristics Forever 21 was not founded on. In short, Forever 21 lacks value. They’ve filled a gap that no longer exists. If they wish to continue in existence, they must establish how they can add value in this new world that would rather see them fail.