Most human endeavours are in some way aimed at improving the human existence. Be it through culture, engineering, medicine or other ways that make life easier, safer or more pleasurable, we progress as a species. I quite often feel a real sense of pride in observing the innovations in science and technology. The complexity and sheer dedication going into the work.
Yet, at this time of year when the fashion circus is hopping from place to place, media full of colour photos, the hype machine playing on all pipes and the fresh output from an industry full of creatives is displayed. To a chorus of sycophantic cheers.
And a wall of … yawns.
Let’s face it, to most of us the business of fashion is utterly useless and boring. A circus. A display of the inane, the desperate, the rehashed and the tedious. The amount of energy expunged on bringing out the new altogethers for the next season is astonishing. The cuts and colours, the embellishments and details, the originals and the shameless copies.
And what is the real purpose of fashion? To obsolete the product and sell more. Clothes in them self have no expiry date, if well made and cared for they can last almost infinitely. It’s harder to build in obsolescence in a garment than a flat-screen TV, so it becomes a case of convincing the buyers that last years finery is this years tat, and so it goes on.
And it’s either a case of seeing it all before, or so creative that it’s not actually a garment. And yet, where does almost all this effort get us? Is there much actual evolution, or is it like endlessly rerecording the same tired song?
And there is a reason for this endless circle: Humans do, in most cases, have a torso, two arms and two legs. Human evolution stuck to this format a fair old while back, and those producing garments grasped the concept of how to clothe this shape not long after it was settled upon. With variations, of course, we do appreciate the possibility of differentiating our style, and most of us don’t live in a totalitarian state that dictates we are all in uniform.
Taking a historical look we see that most of the important types garments are more than a hundred years old, often even more. Looking at historical garments we find similar cuts to today, but better materials and superior construction. Anyone interested in menswear should visit the Imperial War Museum in London and pay special attention to the uniforms. It’s the same stuff being rehashed and sold today. Which isn’t all that strange, as until humans grow more arms and dramatically alter their mode of moving, the design specification for clothes remains the same.
Today the trend has moved towards simpler cuts and labour saving construction, and more man-made fabrics, all in the name of saving time, and increasing profits. And the end result is the production of clothes that are little more than fodder for the landfill.
With the focus we have on sustainability we have today, shouldn’t we also be focusing on a little more long term thinking when it comes to clothes? How to make clothes that are actually better, longer-lasting, more pleasing to use and possibly even more environmentally friendly?
The solution: Cheap fashion must die.
A categorical and clear statement indeed. You may ask “Why?”, so let me lay it out for you.
What is “cheap fashion”? I am talking about the type of low-priced, short-lived and low quality garments you find in the typical high-street emporiums. The sort of garments that are churned out by thousands, carpet-bombing the market, so cheaply made that if they don’t sell out, it’s no huge loss to just dump them.
And from a consumers point of view they are so cheap to buy that they can be used a few times and discarded, or not used at all. They’re by no means a new innovation, they’ve been evolving since the 80’s or so, but have today reached a level where they need to be seen for what they are and the problems they bring.
What’s not to like about cheap garments? Surely this is just wonderful for the budget-conscious fashionista? On one level, yes, of course, being able to buy incredible cheap clothes is great. On every other level it’s terrible. We have to ask how a garment can be sold at full retail pricing in a shop, and yet be considered to be cheap. What costs go into making a piece of clothing?
For starters we have the fabric. Typically cotton. Today the more savvy companies are seeing the advantage of offering organic cotton. A marketing advantage, surely, but also an important environmental concern. Traditionally grown cotton is considered the “dirtiest” crop you can grow, due to the high levels of insecticides, pesticides and fertilisers used in growing it, chemicals very hazardous to both the environment and the farmers. Cotton farmed like this is certainly cheap, but at what cost?
Organically grown cotton uses natural fertilisers and reduced levels of chemicals. The end result costs more, but given the benefits to the environment and the farmers, it would appear to be a bargain. Comparing similar garments in non-organic and organic cotton shows the price is not dramatically higher for the organic variant.
The next part of the end cost is the cost of production. This consists of the factory and the workers, where we see a similar split as for the fabric. Low cost production consists of a simple, ill-equipped factory, with underpaid and overworked workers. I’ll not go into the issues of child labour, although this is likely a factor in many places. What we have are factories operating close to slave labour, cutting the margins to the bone, mass-producing cheap items for Western consumers. Yet production costs must factor in, fabric must be cut and sewn, factories run, shipments delivered.
Logistics is part three of the costs. The finished product has to be shipped, inventoried, delivered to shops. None of this is without cost. Maybe not much per item, but still a factor. And every hand that is involved wants their cut of the profit.
And when it is finally in the shop, the shop has to add in their margin. They have bills to cover and staff to pay. I believe they typically set their retail price at no less than twice the suppliers price. And on top of it all, there is VAT or similar on top of all of it.
So how can that t-shirt possibly only cost 5 pounds? Given that the VAT is 1 pound, the shopkeeper keeps 4 pounds. They paid 2 pounds for it from their supplier, who has shipped it from a factory in the Far East and paid maybe 1 pound for it. The factory had to buy the fabric, pay the worker, and cover their bills, and make a profit.
How is this even possible?
And would’t it be better all round if the garment was produced from sustainable organic cotton, by a factory that took proper care of it’s workers safety and healthy, made by workers that were paid a proper wage, and sold for a price that actually reflected it’s true value? And appreciated by a customer as a quality piece of clothing that will provide good service for a decent period of time?