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.