This article by Dorothy Woodend originally appeared in The Tyee on 6 November 2019.
Fashion is a monster. But there’s no easy way to tame this beast.
The University of British Columbia recently wrapped up Sustainable Fashion Week with a bevy of events including a clothing swap, repair café and thrift-off, wherein a master thrifter was paired with a newbie, given $50 and challenged to put together the cheapest and coolest outfit.
There was also a screening of the documentary The True Cost, which is about the environmental, political and social consequences of the global fashion industry. At a panel after the screening, most of the discussion centred on practical things: Is hemp a better fabric than cotton? Is it better to buy recycled clothing? Does the circular economy really work? What about microplastics?
Most of the answers weren’t straightforward.
Yes, hemp is great, but it’s used mainly for animal feed and is still dwarfed in clothing use by the almighty cotton. Repurposing ocean plastics into new shoes is good in theory, but still requires a great deal of processing and manufacturing (re-dying materials, for example).
Retailers keen to ethically source their clothing are hard-pressed to know where each part (button, zippers) comes from. The supply system is so large and complex that figuring out how even a single item of clothing came to be is almost impossible.
It’s the nature of the fashion beast. The industry is a many-headed hydra of problematic production, distribution and consumption that defies easy answers or solutions.
My recent Tyee story was about thrifting at Value Village. A number of readers criticized me for my venue choice, noting Value Village is an American for-profit organization that donates a mere fraction of its sales to registered charities.
Certainly, there are other non-profit thrift stores in Vancouver where one could spend their money. But even thrift is not without its problems. Unsold clothing is often shipped to poorer countries like Haiti where it disrupts and destroys the local textile industry.
Still, you must start somewhere, and as the old adage goes, “Perfection is the enemy of good.”
Trailer for The True Cost.
Sustainable Fashion Week came at an interesting time. The reign of fast fashion is showing cracks as consumers look for other, less destructive options, and a few recent developments telegraph serious change for the industry.
The True Cost was released in 2015, and since that time giant retailers like Forever 21 have shuttered stores across Canada. Even in high-end retail, change is afoot. The recent announcement that Barney’s department store in New York was essentially sold for parts sent a shudder through the fashion crowd.
If you visit The Bay in downtown Vancouver on a weeknight, it feels a little like being trapped in a zombie movie: the lights are on, the canned Muzak plays, but the place feels dead.
The demise of department stores, long predicted, may well be nigh. But megamalls appear to be doing just fine. And that’s one hint that the fashion monster won’t be slayed anytime soon.
Today, redeveloping old malls into “mixed use developments” is a growth industry in Vancouver and surrounding communities.
Oakridge and Metrotown join massive new developments in Tsawwassen, Brentwood, Richmond, Guildford, Lansdowne, Park Royal and YVR’s McArthurGlen.
Even as the City of Vancouver is mounting campaigns urging people to buy less, the number of malls urging them to buy more is proliferating like mad across the Lower Mainland.
It’s tricky. As one Globe and Mail article asserts, all of these developments are built on retail. Retail means stuff. And stuff is a huge problem.
Some of the first stores in the redeveloped Amazing Brentwood (yes, that’s really what it’s called) are opening this week, with a number of fast fashion retailers including an H&M flagship store waiting in the wings.
For every pronouncement on the need to curtail consumption and limit waste, there’s another press release detailing the latest, most enormous mall, crammed to the vertiginous rafters with stuff. No matter the location or stated intent (cultural hub, mixed-use), the one thing all these different developments have in common is size.
The massive scale of the fashion industry is a problem even for retailers, who’ve overproduced to such an extent that they’re often forced to destroy their own merchandise to remain competitive.
Meanwhile, fast fashion is being taken apart at the seams by a number of journalists airing the industry’s dirty laundry in clear numbers and horrifying stories.
As journalist Dana Thomas said in an interview with Forbes about her book Fashionopolis: “I’ve been covering the industry for 30 years. I thought I knew how clothes are made, but I had no idea. I wanted to understand it so readers could understand it, because we should know how your clothes are made. I had seen documentaries and photos and read about sweatshops, but when I walked into one — oh my God. I tried to really get readers to feel it.”
Fashion is second only to the oil and gas industry in terms of waste and pollution. In addition to sometimes working its employees to death, fast fashion is designed to be disposable: worn a couple of times and then chucked. Some of it enters the resale market, but a great deal ends up in landfills. The worst thing is that all this stuff does exactly the opposite of what it promises. The more we buy, the worse we feel.
But even with this information about its many evils, fast fashion may not die as quickly as predicted, partly because changing consumer behaviour is a complicated business. One of the ideas touched upon in The True Cost is that of false abundance. People can’t afford big things like houses, retirement or healthcare, but they can buy lots of cheap t-shirts and jeans, allowing for a momentary satiation of need.
And at the moment, the industry emphasis is on making fashion more sustainable. We can have our cheap fashion cake and eat it too. But as economist Richard Wolff states in The True Cost, capitalism cannot solve the problem because capitalism is the problem.
In the middle of watching The True Cost, I was struck by an overwhelming feeling about how much of contemporary life is built around consumption. And how this massive industry is balanced on the pinhead of human desire.
But what is this desire made of? The need to fit in; the need to stand out. Sex, vanity, identity, social cohesion — all the fragile, mutable stuff that makes humans human. How do we root out this fundamental stuff? Is it even possible to do so?
This is the part that I’m not sure about. Sustainable fashion initiatives like clothing swaps with friends, thrift stores, repair and recycling are all good ideas. Although as many audience members pointed out after the film screening, the best thing to do is to buy as little as possible.
But turning waste-plastic into shoes and fleeces won’t solve the problem of how much we like stuff. That leads to a bigger question: are we willing to destroy the planet because new shoes are really nice?
Another event at UBC Sustainable Fashion Week was dedicated to fostering more sustainable film production. There, one of the speakers talked about the 70-30 split. Her argument was that humans spend about 70 per cent of their time identifying a problem, and about 30 per cent of their time doing something about it. She maintained that we needed to flip the ratio around to make any real change.
The media (myself included) are extremely good at pointing out things that are fucked up. But offering real solutions is much harder. It requires that you look at what you’re doing and changing your own ways.
In all honesty, it’s taken me a while to shift my shopping habits. I’ve been going to department stores since I was a little wiener. It feels like a small death to leave them behind. It’s the same with red meat and fashion magazines. I picked up Vogue the other day and realized it no longer felt new or exciting; it was a relic, something left over from another age.
That’s why I found an event like UBC Sustainable Fashion Week interesting. There were no runways, no designers, no tents, no glamour whatsoever; just ordinary people learning how to sew buttons, fix hems and darn holes.
Everything must change if we are to save the planet. Sometimes that change can feel like grief, but sometimes it can feel like freedom.