And that includes me too. Today’s blog post is going to be full of contradictions, of which I am still working out in my mind and have yet to fully understand or find the answer to.
Recently, I picked up the book ‘Why Fashion Matters‘ by Frances Corner (as seen above). Ever since I moved to Hong Kong to fully submerge myself in the world of fashion, I’ve begun to try to find a purpose in this seemingly superficial industry. I love fashion for its craftsmenship, the way it pushes mankind into creating beautiful works out of nothing and how people constantly innovate. The great thing is that fashion allows anyone of any background or mental capability to enter the industry. Unlike a scientist, you don’t need to be intellectually ‘smart’ to qualify for the job. I guess fashion designers are much like an artistic scientists?
Anyway, over the course of last quarter’s work, I was pushed into using more luxurious fabrics for my clothes. At the same time, we were studying about how textiles are made. And truthfully, a lot of fabrics out there use a lot of water and resources. The tanning of leather into your specific colours, for one, requires a lot of effort. Ostrich leather goes through about 30 cycles of tanning, and not every piece that enters the cycle makes it through all 30. Then there’s the story of denim which goes through several rounds of washing, scrubbing and eventually ‘spraying’ and ‘scratching’ to give you that worn out look.
In the book, Corner mentions the issue of water and fashion. I quote, ‘It takes 2700 litres of water to produce one cotton t-shirt from ‘crop to shop’… In the meantime, five thousand children die each day due to the lack of clean water.’ When we begin to look at the way we consume fashion in perspective of the world out there, I think it’s obvious how much we could have ‘not bought’ and done without. I would raise my hand first and admit how big a criminal I am in this aspect. Looking at my wardrobe and the amount of clothes and cheap accessories I have out there, if I channeled all my money into buying something that was durable and could last long, I would have saved so much of the world out there.
And when it comes to buying something durable, I often think about leather. But that’s where another problem lies. Leather has been promoted as an environmentally friendly by-product of the meat industry. Cows killed for their beef have their hide turned into leather. But in reality, only about 20 to 30% of the hides are used for leather. The imperfect parts are then thrown away. (This is much like how farmers actually throw away fruits and veggies that look too ugly to sell away! Read more here.) Then, during the manufacturing process, the leather hides undergo severe chemical treatments, leaving the water that washes them contaminated and possibly discharged irresponsibly.
So there are so many question marks. The thing is we consumers don’t know how our products are made. But in honesty, would you expect clothes that you pay a low price for to produce clothes in an extremely environmentally friendly way? Chances are much slimmer when compared to something you pay more for. And don’t forget the poor labourers in third world countries slaving away in terrible conditions to produce those clothes on the rack. Fast fashion is killing the world slowly by telling you that you are out of fashion and you need to buy something new. In order to keep up, it’s better to buy something cheap because the trend doesn’t last long and soon you’d be giving those clothes away. It’s a virtuous cycle which I’ve fallen into and I’m trying to get out of it. If you keep buying, it signals to them that there is demand and they will keep producing. But if we slow down on our consumption, the huge supplies they are left over with would let them know that they have to make less.
So what do we do next? I’d suggest a few ways:
1. Spend on less things and buy more high quality items. Invest in clothes that last longer and could potentially even be heirlooms, passed down to the next generation. If you could pass down a coat to your son or daughter, how many cheap coats could you have saved on?
2. With that said, also research into the brands you are purchasing. We are in the internet age. Use your digital devices well! If they say they are environmentally friendly, are they serious about it?
3. Buy second hand clothing. This usually works for designer labels because they carry a resell value and are lasting. By using second hand clothing, you prolong the lifespan of the clothes and save on materials for new clothes.
Maybe this is a whole new thinking for most of us. We have grown up in a generation where shopping is the national sport and seeing racks and racks of clothes daily isn’t new. But think about the time before the industrial revolution. Ladies had one or two dresses at most. Were they dying at the lack of options? If they could do it, I don’t see why at least I can’t. I look at my wardrobe and see I have 8 winter jackets. I only have one body and I need 8 winter jackets?!
By now, you’re probably also wondering why an aspiring fashion designer like me is talking about buying less clothes. The truth is, I’ve never really been totally comfortable with the whole idea of fast fashion. What I appreciate instead are clothes made by hand and made with love. This issue is a big contradiction to me but I believe that if I continue to work at it, I’d get to a good answer. I, as a fashion designer, have to be one of the most responsible people out there in the fashion industry, from the fabrics to pick to the labour and production methods I use. My choices would impact the world and have a lasting effect.