Clara Vuletich – Sustainability strategist and designer
Fashion and sustainability. These are two very different things. Fashion is sexy, addictive, exclusive, and very fast-moving. Sustainability, on the other hand, is about slowness, care, flourishing and responsibility. It’s fair to say that the fashion industry, until very recently, hasn’t been very sustainable. We are drowning in clothes and textiles.
Clothing sales have increased dramatically in the last 20 years. Did you know that you have four times the amount of clothes in your wardrobes than your parents did? And in the UK, over 1 million tons of clothing goes into landfill every year. While we have more clothes in our wardrobes, we’re not necessarily any happier.
Fast fashion has turned us into these passive consumers who are constantly chasing the fantasy that buying more clothes will make us happy. And, as we know, the people who make our clothes are often working in quite far away countries from us here in Australia, in quite poor working conditions and paid quite poorly.
Look at what happened at Rana Plaza, the factory accident in Bangladesh, in 2013. Over 1,000 people lost their lives while they were making clothes for brands from the US and the UK. I’ve worked in this space as a designer and a researcher for almost ten years. I’ve spoken to many of the designers, brand managers, suppliers, retailers and consumers, and there’s often a lot of finger-pointing that goes on.
Consumers blame the brands for paying such low wages to often outsourced workers. Brands say that the price of their clothing is so cheap because that’s actually all that people want to pay. Activist organizations blame the brands for following business models that prioritize profit at all costs. And governments often just watch cautiously from the sidelines.
So, how can fashion and sustainability truly coexist? And how can all the players in this industry collectively work to transform this situation? Well, the good news is I believe things are changing for the better. We’re currently in a transition to a new type of fashion industry based on ecological and holistic principles of closing the loop on materials, that prioritizes community, values, and respect of all the people in the supply chain.
I recently went on a journey through the global supply chain to investigate these issues and to find some creative solutions. So, the journey begins in my local neighborhood of the time, of Brixton, in South London. I’m in the local community center there and I’m standing at a table surrounded by a group of women who are all hand-sewing with a needle and thread on their own garments. I was there to teach clothes mending and repair. I’d brought all my favorite sewing equipment, my needles, my threads, my yarns, my favorite textiles, and I really wanted to create this creative, and experiential, and inspiring workshop to get people in really engaging with their garments.
So, as the women sewed, we had quite a somber discussion about the impacts of fast fashion on people, on the planet. And after the workshop finished, everyone packed up and we all left, and I walked home on foot. As I was walking down what in the UK they call the high street, I noticed a group of four of the women from my workshop and, as I spotted them, they walked into a fast fashion shop. They were going shopping! I couldn’t believe it! I’d just spent many hours talking to them and teaching them this slow, careful mending repair technique, and all they wanted to do was go with their girlfriends and have some fashion-related, cheap fun.
So, it was in that moment that I really understood that, in order to contribute to systemic change of the industry, as a designer or as an activist, I would really need to understand behavior change, and rather than tinkering around at the edges as a craft-based textile designer, as I had been doing, I would need to go to the heart of the industry, to the global fashion brands and global production centers.
So, at about this time, I was luckily offered the opportunity to work with one of the largest fashion companies in the world. I’d been part of a fantastic research team in London, and we’d come up with a set of sustainability strategies for fashion and textile designers. So, these strategies cover things like design for recycling, how a designer can design for cyclability, design for chemical impacts, design for water impacts. And also, we give tips on how to be a design activist. And we’d actually trialed these strategies with mainly student designers all over the UK and Europe, but now was our opportunity to train professional designers in the heart of the industry.
And, when we’re training designers to use these strategies, we get them to take a garment design from a past collection, something they’ve done, maybe a pair of denim jeans or an outdoor jacket. And they use the strategies to map the potential environmental and social impacts of this garment, and then we ask them to redesign the garment to potentially lessen the impacts.
So, when we talk about garment impacts, we really need to think about life cycles. So, the garment life cycle demonstrates the impacts across the whole life of this garment. It’s got a very long life. It takes a lot to make a textile and then a garment. So, it starts at the raw material phase, goes through fiber and garment production, shipping and transport, when the consumer is wearing it, washing it, and then the end of life, whether you throw it in the bin or you give it to the secondhand markets. When we’re talking about life cycles, we have to really consider that all fiber types and garment designs have different impacts.
So, a polyester dress will have very different impacts to a cotton T-shirt, for example. So, let’s take cotton. Cotton is one of the largest fiber groups in the world. I bet many of you here today are wearing cotton garments. So, cotton is grown using huge amounts of pesticides. They say that, in one cotton T-shirt, 500 grams of pesticide have been used. So, that’s one full handful per T-shirt, and, globally, we produce over 1 billion T-shirts.
So, an alternative to conventional cotton is organic cotton, and organic cotton’s grown using no pesticides, but organic cotton is often 10% to 20% more expensive than conventional cotton and there’s often a shortage of yields. Particularly in the last five years, there’s been a really great engagement from consumers and brands onto the issues of cotton, but it’s meant that demand has outgrown supply. And someone may buy an organic cotton T-shirt, wear it a few times or wear it many times and throw it in the bin, and it may end up in landfill.