‘Can Fast Fashion Ever Be Ethical?’ That was the question we posed to our panel and audience at last week’s debate, co-hosted with the Ethical Trading Initiative. The question of the ethics of fast fashion is, admittedly, too big to be answered in the course of a ninety minute event, but the speakers, including Dilys, Lars-Ake Begqvist, Sustainability expert for H&M, Liz Parker, whose deep understanding of workers rights issues includes having led Fashioning and Ethical Industry and Tamsin Lejuene, founder of the Ethical Fashion Forum and The Source, drew on their own experiences within the fashion industry to try to provide a concise overview of the ethical issues surrounding fast fashion
Of course, initially, this question is one of definitions. What do we mean by fast fashion? What do we mean by ethical? It was these questions, along with many others, that the panel and audience, which was made up of a mix of UAL students and industry experts, discussed, debated and responded to.
There’s no such thing as fast fashion, just increasingly accelerated consumption. At least, that was the argument Dilys put forward, emphasizing the millions of years required for crude oil- that eventually becomes polyester- to form, and the six months that cotton takes to grow from seed to crop. In some ways, fashion is still very slow. It is just part of the process, the making, buying and discarding of garments that is being increasingly accelerated at a worryingly fast pace. Most of them don’t then disappear, but continue to be present in various, mostly unvalued states, long into the future.
In its broadest terms, ethical was defined by the panel as ensuring a balance between personal expression through fashion and honouring the people, skills, time and natural elements involved in the process. It’s about creating the opportunity to express individuality through adornment- in essence, what makes us human- but without compromising on the rights of other humans and the balance of nature. As Tamsin succinctly summarized, it’s about maximizing the benefits to people while minimizing the impact on the environment.
Said so simply, it seems like it should be an easy balance to strike. But how can we reconcile the fashion model that encourages people to buy more and more and abandon garments when they’re no longer in fashion- at the end of the month-long season? The pressure this model puts on both natural resources and the people who make the clothing is clearly enormous and unfeasible, consumers There is evidence that it also puts stress on customers, there is an inverse correlation between more stuff (beyond a certain point that many have already reached) and increased happiness. The expectation to keep up with the ever-changing trends, refreshing your wardrobe every three weeks, is also unhealthy. At CSF, our work seeks to explore better lives for all involved, directly and indirectly in fashion. The current fast fashion model, Liz argued, is not inevitable. The system is relatively new, and could- and should- change. She talked about ethical fashion in terms of philosopher Joana Macy’s idea of ‘The Great Turning,’ the third big revolution in human history, and one that has environmental and sustainable issues at its core. It is the transition from an industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society, and one that recognizes humans’ relationship to the planet. Therefore, the movement towards ethical fashion is not isolated, but rather part of a larger cultural movement towards environmental and human sustainability.
After the panelists presented their ideas, it was up to the floor to draw their own conclusions. Students from across UAL mixed with employees of such brands as Debenhams, Next and Beyond Retro to discuss the different steps that each brand is taking to address ethical concerns, as well as new ideas from the next generation of fashion designers.
The consensus from students, overwhelmingly, was that the model itself is problematic and needs to change. Making new clothes when the system involves the routine exploitation of workers and irreversible damage to the environment, is not something that they want to be involved in. they seek livelihoods in fashion, but not at human cost. Lars reminded the room that H&M employs over 100,000 people worldwide, and to stop making clothes would mean job loss on a huge scale. To simply say ‘no more fast fashion’ would mean the redundancy of millions of people, including those in the supply chain.
The evening generated a wealth of ideas on the subject for changes that could be made, both by business and by education. Fashion is important to all who make and wear clothes, and that involves most of us, one way or another. Creating and maintaining livelihoods and living by our values is what we need to base our education and our businesses on. The Ethical Trading Initiative is a vital part of this mix, their work can guide students and businesses alike. Our partnership with ETI can help us all. Through our collective interests, this debate will be further explored and realized in Better Lives for all.