THE FASHION INDUSTRY IS BROKEN
The focus of the fashion industry has shifted: from haute couture to prêt-à-porter, from made-to-last to made-really-fast, and from quality to quantity. While this has certainly made fashion more accessible, it has come at a significant cost to the planet and those living on it, with the current model of the fashion industry being described by UK Parliament as both environmentally damaging and exploitative.
ELLISS Powered by sustainability
Since its very inception, sustainability has been an integral part of the ELLISS brand — the team are passionate making beautiful, interesting clothes that don’t harm the planet. After working in the world of mainstream fashion, our founder, Elliss Solomon, knew that she wouldn’t be able to create her own label without putting sustainability at the heart. She worked hard to design a creative process that maximised sustainability:
- We only work with organic and recycled fabrics and materials. This reduces garment and water wastage, and reduces the pollution and suffering associated with conventional cotton farming.
- Our studio and our main manufacturers share the same building: This removes the need for transportation usually required when brands move materials and finished garments between premises, thereby lessening our carbon footprint.
- All of our production processes ensure minimal environmental damage.
In some cases, with mindful and organised local producers, local fashion production can be an environmentally responsible choice. However, it is not the sole option and it is worth weighing up the other factors in production which can be environmentally damaging, if unconsidered. Raw fibres are grown and spun all over the world — from India to Turkey — and a local factory must have sustainable systems in place to properly manage the transportation and waste incurred.
At ELLISS, we source these materials and have them shipped directly to our Slovenian factory where the systems in place outweigh the carbon footprint caused by flying. For example, Slovenian legislation ensures fair working wages and benefits including paid sick and maternity leave, travel costs and 24 day holidays. This particular factory has an impressive history — its production manager rallied the workers after conflict in the country — and it now employs only seven close-knit, permanent workers. These workers are skilled: they cut with precision and the off-cuts they do have are re-used as mattress filled or insulation in building construction.
We feel confident in the benefits of this longer view of the cycle of production, encompassing access, sourcing and creation as well as disposal and waste management.
We take these environmental commitments seriously, but where did the need for such precision and care come from? What state is mainstream fashion in, and why do we feel that it is our urgent responsibility to make fashion sustainably?
The Fashion Industry: An Unsustainable Model
We have a fashion culture of take, make and dispose, and it has influenced our perceptions as consumers — we want more and we want it fast. Fast fashion retailers often price their products very low in order to encourage customers to chase each season’s new trends and buy more clothes than they actually need. To be able to set their prices so low, these retailers compromise on quality, making clothes designed for short-term, not long-term wear. This encourages people to chase fashion trends seasonally instead of buying clothing that will last, and such habits have resulted in a global waste problem, with an estimated £140 million worth of clothing going into landfill each year. This waste is not solely produced by low-cost retailers: in July 2018, one high-end fashion brand was found to have destroyed more than £90m worth of products over the past five years because of overproduction, with reports of other luxury brands having done the same emerging shortly after these statistics was discovered.
Such high consumer demand drives a fashion production system that is extremely resource-heavy and polluting. According to the WWF, it takes 20,000 litres of water just to make one pair of jeans and a t-shirt. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), cotton farming is responsible for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticides despite using only 3 percent of the world’s arable land. In addition, synthetic textiles like polyester and nylon are contributing to a severe plastic pollution problem in the world’s oceans. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the fashion industry is the world’s second largest industrial polluter (second only to oil) and produces a startling 10% of global carbon emissions.
Inhumane labour practices power this wasteful production and consumption model. The average consumer is often not aware of the true cost of fast fashion — human rights violations from setting wages below the living wage and forced overtime work, to denying pregnant women maternity leave, to sexual harassment. In some cases, working conditions in fashion factories have been so unsafe that they have resulted in horrific accidents which killed many and injured more. The International Labour Organisation estimates that over 170 million children all over the world are victims of child labour within the fashion industry. In February 2019, the UK House of Commons issued a statement asserting that the “exploitative and linear business model for fashion must change” after an inquiry into the industry. These instances of exploitation indicate a profound failure to properly respect the dignity of workers who play an integral role in fashion production processes.
So what is sustainable fashion, and how do we recognise it?
It is hard for the consumer to seek out truly sustainable fashion. People want to know what it means, and many are asking to see more of it, however, the lack of a shared definition can make it difficult to spot. “Eco-fashion”, “conscious fashion”, “ethical fashion”, and “slow fashion”, are commonly used to demarcate fashion created with some sort of sustainable goal in mind. Such terms do not, however, ensure clarity for the consumer — they are imprecise and often accompanied by appealing advertising campaigns which can distract us from what’s really going on. In the absence of an agreed-upon definition of what it means for fashion to be sustainable, the whole concept of sustainable fashion has become a matter of personal interpretation that is highly subject to contexts and individuals. Such flexibility has led to the increasingly popular practice of ‘greenwashing’, where firms spend more resources on claiming to be ‘green’ through advertising and marketing than actually implementing the necessary changes required to minimise their environmental impact. At its worst, greenwashing involves the deception or misleading of customers who purchase an illusion, rather than an assurance, of sustainability.
In an effort to tackle this, Green Strategy has put forward a starting-point definition which is that sustainable fashion is “clothing, shoes and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects”. ELLISS subscribe to this wholeheartedly, along with the Our Common Future definition of ‘sustainable development’, that it must “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. While this guidance is a good place to start, ambiguity remains: what exact processes would ensure this ‘sustainable’ impact in the first place?
With this in mind, we suggest the following:
Sustainable fashion is fashion that seeks to eliminate, as far as possible, all of the negative social and environmental effects of mainstream fashion production in such a way that the welfare of future generations will not be compromised by production processes today.
Put into practice, any fashion brand that is seeking to attain sustainable status ought to fulfil all of the following criteria:
- Raw materials sourced sustainably (e.g. recycled/organic fabrics)
- Resource-efficient production processes at every stage of production
- Minimal waste and emissions at every stage of production
- Workers paid a fair, living, wage at every stage of production
- Safe working conditions for workers at every stage of production
- No animal cruelty at any stage of production
How to Consume Fashion More Sustainably
Sustainable fashion often carries a higher price tag for the consumer. There is a perceived tension between having a high purchasing power and being a sustainable consumer of fashion. It is, indeed, difficult to redefine the values within the fashion industry. In reality, sustainable fashion costs more because the real price of production of good quality, ethical, fashion is higher than what has been normalised by fast fashion. Sustainable fashion reflects the real price of what fashion should cost, since the low prices associated with fast fashion are almost always possible because of unethical and unsustainable business practices. If you ask most sustainable fashion businesses, they will likely be happy to be transparent about how they price their products relative to the costs of making them. The Love Your Clothes campaign has a great resource guide with advice on how to identify good quality clothing. And ‘good quality’ means long-lasting, too: in the long run, the price-per-wear of a sustainable fashion garment could be the same, or even lower, than that of a fast fashion item. The sustainable fashion movement is not just about buying better but, at the same time, buying less, and more intentionally.
The team at ELLISS also buy their own garments in a sustainable way — and that’s not only about sustainably produced new items. There are many low cost (or costless) ways to reduce the environmental impact of your clothing, including:
- Buy second-hand instead of brand new clothing
You can buy second-hand clothing from thrift shops, charity shops like Oxfam or the British Heart Foundation, or even through online platforms like Etsy, Depop, and eBay. Not only could this score you a great deal, but you also won’t be creating any new demand for clothing as you add to your wardrobe.
- Donate your old clothing
Still have that dress you wore once and never again? Give it a good home elsewhere. UK charity TRAID provides over 1,500 charity clothes banks, home collection services, and charity shops all over the UK, diverting around 3,000 tonnes of clothes from landfill and incineration every year. Alternatively, you could also donate old clothing to a sibling, friend, or your local charity shop.
- Mend worn-out clothing
Ladder in your stockings or a hole in your blouse? Instead of tossing these pieces into landfill straight away, consider attempting to mend them instead. Here are a few sewing tips from Barley Massey (from Fabrications in London) to get you started.
- Repurpose and recycle old clothing
Even if a piece of clothing is too worn to be fixed by needlework, you can still salvage the material it’s made out of, and repurpose it into something useful with a little bit of creativity. Think turning an old t-shirt or skirt into a headband, scarf, cleaning cloth, or even a pillowcase! Alternatively, you can send your old clothing off to a textile recycling point. Recycle Now has a useful local recycling locator to find the closest recycling point to you.
By following these steps, in tandem with buying from sustainable fashion labels, expressing yourself through fashion does not have to come at the expense of the planet — or your bank account.
An ELLISS piece is a piece that has been inspired, and not constrained by the goal of sustainable design. By recognising the importance of sustainability from day one, ELLISS has been able to create fashion that is at once fashionable and ethical.
So when you purchase an ELLISS garment, you’re not just purchasing a beautiful piece of clothing. You’re also rebelling against industry norms which promote excess and waste for profit at the expense of future generations. You’re making the conscious decision to buy something that has been made to create the least impact possible on the earth. You’re respecting that very earth, and the wonderful creatures that live in it.
We hope that you will support us on our mission to make the world a better, more beautiful place!