Socially responsible clothing has become the height of fashion. Luke Leitch tries it on for size
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Consider your wardrobe. How many dresses, shoes, shirts, bags, tracksuits and suits do you have in there? Do you wear them all? And how often do you replace them? Now multiply what you see in front of you by 2bn – a rough estimate of those who earn above $10 a day and are therefore free to express themselves through clothes – and you’ve got a lot of stuff.
The clothing industry is said to be the world’s second most polluting business, runner-up in grubbiness to oil. I don’t entirely believe this “fact” – surely farming, with its vast input of fossil-fuel-derived fertilisers and vaster output of planet-boiling methane-laden cow farts, is dirtier – but what’s fascinating is how often this claim is repeated nowadays. Concern about the environmental impact of clothing has been promoted from the lentil-flecked fringes of fashion right into its shiny, glossy and formerly frivolous heart. Designers are marketing their ethics as well as their aesthetics. Green is the new black.
In 1989 Katharine Hamnett stepped out of the spotlight of British catwalk fashion to try to produce only low-environmental-impact clothing. Nobody cared. “People buy clothes because they want to be excited about themselves,” she told me in 2011. “They don’t give a shit about any of these issues. They just want the clothes.”
In 2017, Hamnett is no longer a lonely Cassandra. Since the Rana Plaza disaster in a Bangladeshi clothing factory in which 1,129 people died, and “The True Cost”, the 2015 documentary about it, social responsibility has become a big deal. Consumers who care about wellness and clean-eating don’t want to drive their Teslas to Whole Foods wearing clothes soiled by unethical manufacturing practices. Labels such as Stella McCartney (vegetarian before its time) and Patagonia (long-committed to sustainable manufacture) are flourishing. Vivienne Westwood’s exhortation to “buy better, and buy less” – preferably from her – is suddenly in tune with the times.
The world’s two largest luxury fashion groups, LVMH and Kering, have both embarked on admirable root-and-branch internal initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of their activities. Kering’s chief executive, François-Henri Pinault, has become almost Hamnett-esque in his commitment to the cause. In January he told the New York Times: “In a decade’s time, we could be wearing leather made from animal stem cells or mushrooms – all the technology is there, we just need to scale it up. Our generation’s responsibility is to ensure that the next generation will do it differently.”
The trouble with going green is that people don’t agree on what it means. H&M’s effort to produce an environmentally responsible collection was widely pooh-poohed as greenwashing on the grounds that low-cost high-volume fashion seems inherently wasteful. Last month in Milan I saw the first collection of an Italian designer named Federico Curradi. It was very good, and backstage he informed me that all the fabrics in it were from unimpeachably sustainable suppliers. But what, I wondered, about those shearling coats? “I’m not vegan!” Curradi replied. Stella McCartney would have choked on her quinoa at that.
As Kermit the Frog observed, being green ain’t easy. One man’s sustainable fabric is another woman’s unethical outrage. Anyway, I’d contend that green fashion is a contradiction in terms. Fashion is, after all, about consuming unnecessary things. It’s fashionable (ha!) to put the ethical onus on manufacturers, but we are letting ourselves off too easily if we expect producers to shoulder responsibility for the environmental consequences of our consumption. To be really green you have to adopt Westwood’s “buy better, and buy less” mantra, and then extend it as far as you can bear to. I doubt it will catch on: I can’t see Parisians parading their virtue in patched clothes with shiny elbows.
There is another way. If you like buying clothes, go ahead – and accessorise with some carbon offsets. They go perfectly with the zeitgeist.