Searching For Sustainability Beneath The Gloss

In the March edition of The Gloss (the monthly fashion magazine of the Irish Times), 100+ stylish women shared their brand preferences. Eva Power, owner of The Ethical Silk Company, listed labels with sustainable credentials, but if you weren't already familiar with Reformation, Everlane and People Tree, there was no clue that these brands were ethical. Does it matter? It wasn't a piece on Sustainability, so there was no reason to expect ethical preferences to be highlighted, but I was kind of hoping for more ethical brands to be featured. Trawling through the entire magazine, there was no mention of the impact of fashion consumption or the growing movement of ethical options. I guess, being so immersed in the issues myself there's an expectation that it's more mainstream than it is and The Gloss was a reminder that there's a long way to go in raising awareness. We know not to use plastic bags and to challenge


unnecessary food packaging. Currently under the spotlight are single use items like drinking straws and take-out coffee cups and we know what to do about them – say no to straws and have a Keep Cup with us when we're out and about. So why is the conversation regarding fashion so quiet?

Perhaps, The Gloss is not representative of the attitude of the country at large, after all, it's existence is predicated on the advertising of stores like Brown Thomas and Arnotts and there's not a strong ethical message coming from such companies – yet. If an absence of ethical fashion issues in The Gloss is a true reflection of the level of unconcern or unawareness nationwide, then it's clear, there's a good way to go in getting the information out there for people to start making informed choices, or at least raise awareness that the choices we make as consumers are a reflection of our values, ethical or not.

During my perusal of The Gloss I found a tiny mention of Wicklow designer Colette Ashe whose cashmere pieces are made 'with particular emphasis on sustainability'. Also, the design duo behind Tissue, are 'passionate about sustainability'. That was something.

I was also looking out for mentions of Irish designers and artisan makers in general and gratifyingly, there were a few – not many, but a few. Domino Whisker, makes exquisite hand embroidery, two knitwear designers; Agne Nazebetauskaite in Magherafelt and Paula Marron's label Castanea and a traditional Irish embroiderer, Jill De Burca. Obviously, this is my area of special interest, because I love to find out the stories behind these makers.

It's important on many levels, not least to promote and nurture what is actually going on creatively and economically in Ireland, but because it continues the tradition of making, often by hand, and it is this that adds to the texture of our culture. I was exasperated to read Breege O'Donoghue, declare that she's 'proud to wear Penneys clothing' because she 'champions' Irish design. That's simply misleading. She can wear Penneys clothing if she wants, but opting for runway knock offs made in developing countries is hardly championing Irish design.

We can't carry on consuming the way we have, because it isn't sustainable and it's puzzling that there is still so little conversation about this in the world of fashion. It's as if we don't think it's a bad as it is. Christopher Raeburn, (he guests in this months recommended podcast), whose fashion business is based on the three R's of Remade, Reduced and Recycled, talks about how otherwise 'clever people' ask him 'how long the sustainability trend will last?'. The thing is, it's not and can't be a trend and the sooner it becomes mainstream, the better.

Tamsin  ✂️

Fast Fashion and the Myth of Greater Choice

'Fast Fashion is sold to us as expansion of choice.' - Oma


Every week on the high street, there will be a new display of garments to browse, new styles and colours. Not only that, but if we don't buy that top we can't live without, we can be pretty sure it'll be gone by tomorrow. Best to get it now whilst it's still there, it can always be returned if we change our mind – it can, but will we be bothered? And as it is so cheap, why not get that other little top that's reduced, too? And now we have two cheap tops which we may or may not wear, but it's not as if they cost much, I mean they were practically 'for nothing'. Then repeat and repeat, never spending much, but somehow not seeing how these routine spending sprees actually add up to a bit more that we thought we were spending. But we fell in love with them and they bring a dopamine rush which feels lovely. How long does that feeling last? How long do the tops last? How long do we love those tops and is it ok to fall out of love as quickly as we fell in? Buying frequently makes it hard to love everything deeply.


What if we were to buy occasionally, to spend time considering the place a garment would have in our wardrobe, the value it might have in terms of number of wears and the sheer pleasure we get from wearing it again and again. We have been educated out of thinking that way about our clothes, out of thinking of things as made to last – after all that isn't congruent with practicing mass consumption. Just consider how many items we get through daily that are actually designed as single use items – from food packaging , to face wipes and take out coffee cups. We've been encourage to think about clothing in this way, too, that it's ok to get just the one wear from something, or even no wears. What happens to all these hardly worn garments is for another blog post, but what if we purchase fewer items less often, make thoughtful and considered choices and look after through careful laundering and repair? This is how older generations regarded clothing, as something that should last, that should be worn until it wore out.

In a world of instant gratification, is boredom to blame for our need for a fast fashion fix? In fact, which came first, the constantly changing availability of variety or the need for instant gratification? Either way, if you truly love something, do you get bored of it? Or do you take care of it, cherish it, wear it to bring you luck and grieve for it once the day finally comes and you have to admit it's time to part. The chances are that will only happen if the garment was of good quality design, construction and materials at the start. Without these characteristics, it is unlikely a garment will last very long whether you love it or not.

It was Vivienne Westwood who coined the much quoted phrase 'Choose Well, Buy Less, Make It Last' and I read a blog post recently where the writer had decided to radically change the way he purchased clothes. Based on a monthly spend of approximately $150 per month, rather than select multiple cheaper fast fashion items, he would choose one really good piece, that he would take time to consider before committing himself.  One thing about higher priced items is they tend not to sell out so fast. At first, he said it actually hurt to spend so much on a single item, not to mention resisting the temptation offered by cheap fast fashion, but in time he realised how much more he appreciated the superior quality and design of the new clothes and ultimately he liked them better.

In food, we have become interested in where our food is from and who made it. The rise in attendance at Farmers Markets by producers and customers alike is testament to this and means that through buying locally, we may even know who made it as well as where it was grown or made. What is it about this that makes us want to invest and return regularly for more? We enjoy buying locally from small producers and we like buying from people we know. We choose quality and knowledge over the supposed greater variety and cheaper prices at the supermarket. However, there's no point having more options and being able to pay less if it's not the food we want to eat.

It's no secret that Fast Fashion is not made to last and if it did it might be harder to justify throwing it out. We actually expect the seams to unravel and fastenings to fall off or it not to survive going through the washing machine.

Detail from a handmade, slow fashion dress

Detail from a handmade, slow fashion dress

 We have no idea who made our clothes apart from what the label tells us is the country of origin. This will only state the final place of assembly and be far from the whole picture. All consumption is going too fast and the environmental impact of single use items in landfill is increasingly under the spotlight, but it seems particularly wrong to treat clothing as a single use items.

Fast Fashion is presented to us as providing greater variety, but I'm far from convinced it's a choice we need and it rarely rewards our soul with lasting beauty and pleasure. It's a mind shift, just as what happened in the Slow Food movement; we can learn about what makes a better garment from the fabrics, to the design and construction. And we may understand that spending more on fewer clothes may go against what we've been taught in recent years, but will be more satisfying in the long term. By finding out more about the story behind our clothes, where they were made and who made them, we might just start falling in love with (fewer of) them and value their provenance and integrity as well as how we express ourselves through them.


The Legacy Of Rana Plaza

The Rana Plaza tragedy in Dhaka, Bangladesh, delivered a harsh wake up call to the world and realised the fears of others who were aware that the unsafe working conditions in many garment factories in developing countries was an accident waiting to happen. On Wednesday 24th April 2013, the eight storey Rana Plaza building collapsed with approximately 4000 workers inside; 1,138 were killed and a further 2,500 were injured, many have been left with permanent physical disabilities.

As the factory workers arrived for work that morning, they were reluctant to enter the building having seen internal cracks appearing in the building on previous days. Their supervisors came out to talk to them as ordered by the management and coerced them to return to work with threats of losing a months pay or being sacked. Shortly after beginning work, the power failed and the diesel generators kicked in. The building collapsed at 8.57am.

The day before, inspectors had been called in to assess the cracks and the entire building was evacuated. A bank and shopping mall on the ground and first floors remained closed, however the owner of Rana Plaza, Sohel Rana, told the media that the building was safe and that workers should return to work the next day. The upper six stories housed 5 different garment factories supplying 29 brands including Monsoon, Benetton, Primark, Bonmarche, Mango and Walmart. Sohel Rana would make financial losses if the factories were shut.    

The Rana Plaza building had originally been intended as a commercial building for shops and offices, not industry and was not designed for the weight and vibration of machinery. In addition, two more floors had been illegally added to what was designed as a six storey building – without planning consent and not meeting building regulations and a further floor was under construction at the time of the collapse. The next day, 18 garment factories, including 16 in Dhaka, were closed down in Bangladesh. The government Textile Minister, Abdul Latif Siddique, told reporters that more plants would be shut as part of strict new measures to ensure safety.

Following the disaster, global pressure instigated the setting up of a compensation fund for the victims and victims' families called the Rana Plaza Arrangement. The brands which were having garments produced at Rana Plaza, or had done so recently, were requested to contribute to the trust fund, although it took two years of active campaigning for all the companies to agree to pay an appropriate amount. Financial hardship was endured by the injured who struggled to pay medical costs, often discharging themselves from hospital early, because they couldn't afford to stay and complete their treatment. Obviously, no amount of compensation can ever make up for the loss of a family member, or for the physical, emotional and psychological impact on the survivors.

A Dhaka court is currently considering murder charges against the Rana Plaza owner Sohel Rana and 41 others, including his parents, for violating building code in constructing the eight-storey building that resulted in the death of over 1,140 people, mostly garment workers. Five other accused are on the run.

'Full Story of the Rana Plaza Factory Disaster' viewable on YouTube with reporter Yalda Hakim for BBC 'Our World'.

The Rana Plaza collapse has led to widespread discussions about corporate social responsibility across global supply chains, meaning that companies need to audit products and suppliers and that supplier auditing needs to go beyond direct relationships with first-tier suppliers. Walmart had removed production from one factory where standards were violated, only to have the new factory subcontract the order back to the factory being penalised.  It seems it isn't sufficient for brands to arrange inspections or set requirements remotely if they cannot be certain that they will be implemented. Whilst corruption and exploitation may be the causes of some breaches in standards in factories in developing countries, being squeezed on costs and deadlines is a major factor for workers not being paid a living wage and working in unsafe conditions.

Which leaves the issue of consumer responsibility.  Kate Fletcher, author of 'Sustainable Fashion and Textiles; Design Journeys', believes that if customers understood the supply chain of production, they would care more about their garments and that knowledge is important for enabling people to take responsibility. She states that 'The extreme cheapness of most garments pushes standards down' and that those who are most resistant to change are perhaps those who stand to lose the most from sustainability values. In the end, she suggest that 'Most change comes from personal values'.

“Eight Storeys” is Emily Yeung's response to the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh and emphasises the need for transparency in supply chains.

In Search of Something Meaningful

Having a preoccupation with textiles and clothing has been a lifelong obsession. When consumed in studying fabric or planning a garment, awareness of everything other is suspended. It is my passion and as they say, I do what I love. Recently, I've been considering the wider impact of my choices when selecting fabrics and wondering where it's from exactly, who worked on producing it, were they paid properly and what was the effect on the environment? I've always opted for natural fibre fabrics and intuitively felt they should be environmentally preferable, but I wanted to research the facts.   

fabric pile neutrals

Whilst still being a niche interest group, the Sustainable Fashion Movement is now well established and during recent years has been mentioned in the mainstream media increasingly regularly. The internet makes it easy to research for exponents and early adopters; there is no shortage of information. There is however, much debate over what is intended by Sustainable Fashion, it means different things to different people in different situations.   

fabric pile pinks and neutrals

My epiphany was the idea that the principle of sustainability refers to the whole lifestyle of the garment, not just who made it, the materials used and the environmental impact, but also how many times it's worn, how it's looked after including washing and mending and then what happens to it at the end of it's life. Personally, I love the idea that a garment might be cut down to fit a small person, cut up for patchwork or made into a duster – very much better than going to landfill. For a garment to reach the end of it's life because it has been literally worn out, is the greatest compliment to it's maker. Designers have a huge responsibility to produce a garment that will endure for it's wearer by using quality materials, manufacturing to a high standard and creating timeless style.   


Researching what it means to be sustainable and ethical in clothing I've found that, so far, there isn't a single interpretation, more that it is an evolving conversation. It is about rethinking our behaviour and relationships with fashion consumption in the same way we have become concerned for the provenance of food and interested in seeking out artisan food producers. Here are some definitions that resonate for me and are leading me to reexamine my own attitudes:

Sustainable Fashion - Produced in a non-wasteful process, re-using and recycling as much of the 'left over' material as possible.

Sustainability - a socio-ecological process characterized by the pursuit of a common ideal.

Sustainable - conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources; causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time.

Ethical - being in accordance with the rules or standards for right conduct or practice; morally good or correct; a system of accepted beliefs that control behaviour, especially such a system based on morals

Artisan - a person that makes a high-quality or distinctive product in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods.