Made in China, 80% cotton, 20% polyester. Spun by a 14-year-old-boy in a sweatshop, scraping minimum wage. Flown 5,103 miles, stocked on the shop floor by a part-time sales assistant. Bought by you for £50, stuffed in the drawer, worn once and forgotten about.
With fashion we live fast, carelessly and in abundance. Designers propel themselves one year into the future, putting finishing touches on autumn/winter 2012 and sketching designs for 2013. We buy their clothes to last the season until a new one comes along for us to do the same again.
In our wasteful ways we contribute to an industry worth £21billion per year, according to a recent report published by the British Fashion Council.
Eco-friendly fashion could be big business. The theory of reduce, re-use, recycle has a certain cache in these cash-strapped times, and in developed societies there is an increasing political will to create sustainable industries.
Yet how eco-fashion might work in practice is tricky terrain. Dame Vivienne Westwood is the most widely recognised pioneer of the movement. “I am traumatised by the problem of climate change,” she told The Independent in 2009.
In 2005, the designer established the Active Resistance Manifesto, urging the public to act against climate change through art. She attended G20 protests and now plans to donate £1m to the rainforest charity Cool Earth.
However, conflict plagues her balancing act as fashion designer and activist. When asked how anti-consumerism can exist in a market built upon frivolity, she told The Observer: “I don’t feel very comfortable defending my fashion except to say that people don’t have to buy it. If you’ve got the money to be able to afford it, then it’s really good to buy something from me, but don’t buy too much.”
Environmentally friendly fashion struggles to make waves in the mainstream as items produced by smaller companies are more expensive than mass-manufactured clothing made in developing countries. The result is to turn environmental fashion into a niche, even a novelty, market.
However, if there was a way to make it work, it might look something like Belfast Fashion Souk. A project seeking to revise consumer attitudes towards eco-friendly fashion by conducting work-shops on how to actively and cheaply reduce lifestyle waste.
Under the title “Rethink, Revamp, Restyle” the programme is taking steps to incorporate this ethos into the heart of our fashion community.
“These types of workshops are certainly having a positive impact”, says workshop conductor and Green Sheen blogger Rebecca Volley. “It helps people better understand the economic value of expanding the lifespan of clothes and household items.”
Rebecca believes there is certain scepticism towards the issue. “The fashion industry is first and foremost a business, so production costs and turnover will ultimately dictate how things are made.
“But even industry aside there is hostility from your average person. We live in a culture of disposability and convenience, an environment of mass consumption.
“Most people born in the western world from the 1960s onwards will never have experienced the kind of abject poverty that limits purchasing power or purchasing desire. Why spend time revamping an item of clothing when a new one can be easily and cheaply purchased?”
Yet fashion perpetuates itself by promoting innovative trends: a well marketed idea, no matter how counter-intuitive it may seem to the accountants, can generate huge profits. As Northern Ireland’s fashion scene continues to grow, we can hope the green worn at Belfast Fashion Souk will become tomorrow’s new shade.