Professor Frances Corner OBE, head of London College of Fashion, discusses the ethical future of fashion.
There are a number of dilemmas that lie at the heart of the fashion industry that if we are to have a sustainable future we need to address. Fashion designers and retailers have always had to tread the line between producing clothes with a signature style that their clients recognize with the pressure to develop the new, to increase sales. Over recent years the increase in consumption has emphasized the new, and the result is a greater spread of collections with a faster turnaround.
Pre-collections, cruise collections and capsule collections have been added to the established couture and ready-to-wear autumn/winter and spring/summer collections. Every major city has or is aspiring to a fashion week, whilst internet sales reinforce the plethora of innovative ways of selling to the consumer. Any talk of sustainable fashion is seen as an oxy-moron as we are encouraged to change and discard for the new rather than valuing the clothes we have purchased over the years. The phrase, "Retail therapy" might have begun as a joke but has become so bound up with our contemporary consumer existence that it is a justification for spending yet more money on new clothes, many of which never leave the carrier bags that brought them home. Somehow we need to redress the balance.
However, it is important to recognise that fashion is a cornerstone for many world economies. Worth over $1 trillion worldwide on an annual basis, the clothing industry is ranked the second biggest global economic activity for intensity of trade, employing some 26 million people worldwide, many of whom are totally dependent on it for their livelihoods. But resource depletion, GHG emissions, waste, chemical toxicity, pollution, child labour and sweatshop conditions are leading growing numbers of consumers and the industry itself to question how goods are produced. When we snap up a bargain, we avoid its true cost. It is not just damage to the environment, but to the lives of those who produce them. Factory workers can be paid as little as 7p an hour for an 80 hour week in horrendous working conditions. Our demand for cheap fast fashion traps both factory workers and owners and uses up precious natural resources.
Increased coverage of ethical and environmental issues in both mainstream and fashion media, has improved consumer awareness. Market research shows that shoppers take ethical considerations on board when deciding what to buy; however prima facie evidence from the high street suggests that price remains the key driver. The groundbreaking Stern report on the economics of climate change highlights that prices failing to reflect the true costs of production is the biggest ever market failure. The much-needed success and progress in Copenhagen might take a long time to trickle down, we cannot wait for government regulation, so all within the industry must, instead, take collective responsibility for creating a sustainable and ethical industry.
As the head of one of the largest education centres for fashion in the world, the London College of Fashion, I am particularly aware that our graduates must be well equipped to bring about an economically sustainable, yet fashionable future, which places the environment centre stage. We are debating how we can help shape the industry to minimise its effect on the environment; ensure it is built on great design; point to new ways of designing, manufacturing and disposing of fashion, yet keeping at its essence fashion’s ability to bring real fun and joy to people’s lives. We have established the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. It connects research, education and business to support and create innovative approaches to fashion. We need radical results from Copenhagen that will not just tie governments in to carbon reductions but will begin a cultural transformation, so that clothes are seen as precious items to be treasured and we value the true cost of their production.
This article was orginally written for publication in the Brunswick Group Review.
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