Clothes to dye for!

I could never be a naturist! Not that I have any particular beef about naturism per se — if you want to attend Nudefests and retreats, compete in the Naked Olympics, go skinny dipping of a summer’s night, or simply get your kit off and hang out in the buff with your family and mates around the BBQ, good for you. Each to his or her own I say. I salute every human being’s right to self-expression … even if I salute it more if they don’t express this particular form anywhere near me.

No, my aversion is because if I ever had a rush of blood to the head and decided this was the lifestyle choice for me, it would deprive me of one of my greatest pleasures in life — clothes. Clothes (and this is a broad church that includes shoes and accessories) have always felt like an extension of my personality. My clothing selection is as much a barometer of my mood as whether I’m bouncing around like some Latter Day Tigger or in a Garbo-esqeue “I vant to be alone” frame of mind.

When I was a wide-eyed graduate, just let loose on the world, I pondered becoming a fashion buyer and worked in Harrods of London for a few months to try the idea on for size … as it were. It didn’t fit! I hated the place. Before that I also pondered becoming a historical costume adviser for stage or TV. This wasn’t as random as it sounds with an honours degree in Medieval History that included a finals paper on fashion in the English and French Courts during the very specific period of 1330 — 1380. I was mesmerised by the whole concept of the form and function of clothing in defining society and this period is recognised as marking the emergence of recognisable fashion. The fourteenth century saw the introduction of a raft of innovations including buttons and laces enabling much more figure hugging attire than the previous tabard shapes. Imagine the liberation of no longer having to sew yourself into your garments!

I’ve never liked being regimented or told what to wear … or not to wear even. I’m strong on the importance of individuality and uniforms are anathema. I think there is a lot of truth in the saying that there would be no wars if there were no uniforms. At one point the Harrods department I worked in decided to put us in some prissy polka-dot dress with a white collar as our uniform. I hated it with a vengeance — likely the tipping point in my abortive fashion career. But in terms of self-expression, it’s the clothes that are the vehicle not the brand, which can become just another uniform. Reading the coverage of the Tear Drop Ethical Fashion Report this week, which evaluates the performance of leading fashion brands each year, made me glad I hadn’t persevered. The multi-trillion-dollar apparel industry is apparently the second dirtiest industry in the world after oil and gas. These days clothes really are to dye for!

I don’t say this lightly. I went to a thought provoking event a couple of nights ago — Fashun Statement — organised by and featuring some of the inspirational kiwi fashionistas who are at the forefront of the eco-fashion movement. It was both uplifting and horrifying. Horrifying because the first half was given over to looking at the state of the global fashion industry. If you have hopes for the continuation of this planet in any form that includes life as we know it, the statistics are mind-bogglingly depressing. As I’m sure you know, the biggest culprit is “Fast Fashion”. This is the design and distribution of cheaply made clothing  “take, make, waste” behaviours.

Fast fashion uses innovative production and distribution models to dramatically shorten fashion cycles by getting garments from the designer to the customer in a matter of weeks instead of months. This has seen the number of fashion seasons increasing from the traditional two main ones each year (spring/summer and autumn/winter) to as many as fifty to a hundred micro-seasons. I can’t find stats later than 2014 but at that time, the average person bought 60% more clothes than they did in 2000 and kept them half as long. The numbers are increasing exponentially as ever more people in countries like China and India move up the economic ladder. Clothing consumption is projected to triple by 2050 requiring three times as many natural resources compared to what was used in 2000. And what happens to all these disposable ‘rags’? On average, garments are worn only nine times before being binned, creating Everests of additional landfill. Oh and don’t be fooled by conscience salving clothing bins. Apparently, many of these castoffs get exported to emerging nations (if anything is done with them at all), often destroying local businesses and jobs that can’t compete with the influx of our detritus.

One of the presenters showed images of inhuman and abysmal working conditions in factory sweat-shops where people barely achieve subsistence wages and rivers are turned all the colours of the rainbow from industrial waste flowing freely from dyeing shops making rivers and drinking water toxic. For all too many of the big labels, supply chain ethics are sill … er … totally unethical and transparency seems to be something that happens in a parallel universe.

Then there’s the industry’s ecological footprint. Issues like the amount of water and energy required to grow crops like cotton which are the bedrock of the industry. Producing just one cotton shirt apparently requires 2,700 litres of water — enough to keep one person alive for 2.5 years. Cotton farming is also responsible for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticides despite using about 3 percent of the world’s arable land. Polyester production uses less water but is highly carbon intensive. About 20 percent of industrial water pollution is due to garment manufacturing, while the world uses 5 trillion litres (1.3 trillion gallons) of water each year for fabric dyeing alone, enough to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. Let’s not forget the oceans of fuel required to ship the flood of new clothes around the world. Clearly, I already knew some of this, but hearing it was a real wake-up call nonetheless.

To everyone’s relief, after the shock tactics came the uplifting part — hearing the inspirational stories of the presenters. Despite being the co-founder of a start-up myself who has evangelised a new technological product in tricksy places like the Middle East, I can’t imagine the true grit it takes with only a few hundred dollars to go somewhere like Indonesia and find a way to set up a manufacturing outlet that is clean, good for the workers and good for the planet. Other than shared admiration for the David v. Goliath success stories we’d heard, in the networking sessions, there was a lot of talk about the growing demand not only for emerging ethical clothing products but also for clothes-swops, re- and up-cycling, getting back to the good old-fashioned (pun intended) concept of actually mending things, using found objects to make accessories from and similar. Online options like TradeMe in NZ and eBay elsewhere offer unlimited potential for the discerning second hand bargain hunter.

The destructive cycle of unchecked consumerism can’t go on — assuming infinite resources when we all know they’re actually finite is not a winning ethos for us humans. Some fashion companies have already acknowledged this and are testing new models like renting jeans, taking back old garments for re-cycling and incorporating “slow fashion” into their business models for competitive advantage.  The only real answer though is to convince people to buy less. Actually, to buy much, much less.

I want things to change — I don’t want my clothes habit to go the way of so many other things that have become taboo because they’re bad for me or the planet and I am encouraged by all the amazing people blazing the trail towards change. I just hope it’s enough. On a personal basis, I’ve stopped being such an avid consumer — I think much more about what I buy and try to find things that will last and which are from environmentally responsible organisations. I know that it’s not always easy or possible to make ethical choices, but at least understanding what’s at stake is a big motivator.

Coming back to my theme of clothes as a statement of individuality, I don’t see finding your own personal style as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything — that remains 42. But tapping into your inner and unique fashionista can be a wonderfully rewarding journey of discovery about who you are and what you believe in. It’s not about the clothes themselves, it’s more the qualities that set you apart from your peers. It’s about standing for something.  After all, if you don’t know who you are, how can you know you’d like to hang with, love and be loved by, what you want your life mission to be or what your position on religion, politics or any of that stuff is?

Perhaps this all sounds very superficial? Obsessing about clothes when many older people can’t afford to stay warm in the winter and a large chunk of the world is starving does seem frivolous to the point of indecency. Believe me, I’m checking my privilege as I write, but you don’t need money to find make your own statements as the incredible 98-year-old New Yorker, artist and performer Ilona Royce Smithkin (featured image) has shown over the years. To me, she epitomises self-expression with elan and flair. This short video about her take on this is well worth watching. I think that if more people were like Ilona and sure of who they are and were prepared to stand up and be counted, not huddle together like so many sheep in the rain, we might be able to actually do something about all the troubles in our world. As Vivienne Westwood famously said, “you have a more interesting life if you wear impressive clothes.” I’d substitute “individualistic” for “impressive” but thinking about the redoubtable Ms. Westwood’s fashion journey, I get what she meant!

Featured Image — check out this wonderful portrait of Ilona Royce Smithkin and many others equally good at HayDave, to whom thanks.

 

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