During Fashion Revolution Week 2017, Alice Wilby, co-founder of ethical creatives agency Novel Beings, and I gave a talk about curating a sustainable wardrobe at Truman Brewery pop up The Pineapple Room. In it, we discussed how to become an ethical consumer of fashion – by reducing the amount of new clothes we buy and by valuing the clothes we already have; by buying only from ethical labels and from creative upcycling. Here, more or less, is the talk we gave. With grateful thanks to ethical footwear brand Bourgeois Boheme, who hosted the Pineapple Room. 

The fourth anniversary of Rana Plaza has come and gone but not enough has changed. In fact, the industry continues to grow: fast fashion retailers ASOS and Boohoo, for example, are set to see sales grow by up to 50 per cent this year.

Even a random selection of facts about the clothing industry will demonstrate just what bad news this is. The world already buys about 80 billion pieces of new clothing every year – 400% more than it did twenty years ago – and the way they’re made and consumed has enormous implications for people and environment.

The clothing industry is one of the largest polluters on the planet, just below oil,  more than food. Think about the pesticides used in cotton farming and the toxic dyes used in manufacturing as well as the huge amount of resources needed for extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping – all while  natural resources shrink. And it’s not as if that clothing has much of a role in our lives: almost one third of it ends in landfill.

Munir Uz Zaman / AFP / Getty Image

Meanwhile, 90 per cent of the 75 million people – some just children – who work in fashion and textiles across the globe are desperately reliant on their jobs to survive. This means they don’t dare ask for better pay, childcare, days off to see their family – or, in the case of Rana Plaza, the right not to enter a building they knew was dangerous and unstable.

All this is happening for an industry which, in the harshest terms, is based on false desires peddled by profit-making companies who control our assumptions of status and beauty. This isn’t fair. Here’s what we can do to help.

STEP 1. STOP BUYING.

Sounds hard, doesn’t it? It isn’t.

Let’s think about why we buy. On average, we see 5,000 advertisements a day. Each one carries the same message: your life will be better if you buy whatever it is we’re selling. It’s impossible to be immune to advertising but understanding that this message, available everywhere we look, has taken the planet to the brink change the way we think about our new purchases. Are the jeans/shoes/earrings really worth it?

Think about why you buy what you buy and why you’re buying it; understand the mechanics of a society driven by profit-making commercial organisations that have millions to throw at ad campaigns.

Ask yourself how mainstream fashion media fires up readers: ‘five of the best pink tops’, ‘six perfect work dress,’ ‘why you need red in your wardrobe this season?’ Best for who? Perfect for who? And why – really – do you need red in your wardrobe? Answer: you don’t.

Lucinda Chambers at London Fashion Week Credit: Rex

Understand that trends are artificial drivers; if shoppers didn’t slavishly follow trends, businesses would go, well, out of business. Genuinely stylish people are not driven by trends. Instead, what they wear is a creative response to the world around them. Inspiration? Any of the top stylists including Katie Shillingford, Lucinda Chambers and uber blogger Susie Bubble.

Resist the disconnect. What does that mean? Well, there is literally miles of difference between what the products we see in magazines, presented in lush locations on gorgeous models, and how they are made. Behind that beautiful leather shoe, for example, may be an tired girl working long hours in a hot factory, a bewildered cow being led to slaughter, a river running with toxins. They don’t show those in the ads.

STEP 2. MAINTENANCE.

Which means, look after the clothes you have. A survey by children’s charity Barnardo’s found that the majority of fashion purchases are only worn seven times. A report by recycling agency WRAP found that extending the life of an item of clothing is one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon, water and waste footprints.

Learn to wash your clothes correctly (boring but true); learn to darn, stitch, embroider, whatever it takes – and then take pleasure in using your hands in a new skill. If you really can’t, then you’ll be pleased to hear clothing companies such as Patagonia and Nudie Jeans offer free repair services. The Good Wardrobe is an on-line community hub dedicated to helping you care for and prolong the life of your clothes.

STEP 3: USE CREATIVELY/UPCYCLE

A look from Ryan Lo AW17 by Charity Fashion Live.

Fashion is part of human culture. You aren’t denying your love of clothes, you’re rejecting a system that makes sure you are never happy with what you have. Pick out long forgotten pieces and give them new life. Some sample styling hacks? Wear shades of just one colour, pull out a formal dress even if you’re just going to the shops, clash patterns imaginatively.

Change usage: use scarves as belts, turn t-shirts back to front, wear skirts as dresses. Layer. You might never wear a sleeveless dress on its own but you might if you had a blouse underneath it. Pick a look you like – from catwalk or street style  – and get as close as you dare with what’s already around you. Take inspiration from sustainable styling site Charity Fashion Live.

Being an ethical consumer isn’t about giving everything up. It’s about rediscovering the pleasure of pieces that have taken you from festival to fine dining; that have seen you through break ups and make ups; that have caught someone’s eye.

To consume less is to begin to become genuinely creative in what you wear and in which clothes take on a different, deeper role. They become sartorial companions, as you mend and embellish old favourites and turn them into something new.

STEP 4. SUSTAINABLE OPTIONS.

Oxfam’s fashion show in February 2017, Fashion Fighting Poverty, styled by celebrity stylist Bay Garnett, showed the potential of secondhand clothes. Picture: Bel Jacobs.

If you have to buy, buy sustainably. Vegan, organic, ethical, vintage, the options are endless – and growing – and the offerings are way better than they used to be. Look for brands that are locally produced, choose raw materials carefully, work with factories that abide by labour standards, visiting the factories on a regular basis and speaking to factory owners even more frequently, and/or focus on creating sustainable garments and accessories with a lower environmental impact. (Think: minimizing waste by repurposing it to make additional garments, reducing carbon emissions and/or shipping using recycled paper products).

Obvs, no single brand is going to tick all those boxes. Pick issues that are important an expect them to change as you learn new stuff. For a great list on the brands we love, visit Alice’s fab site futurefrock.com. For secondhand, we love Traid and Oxfam Fashion.

STEP 5. KEEP ABREAST OF CURRENT CONCEPTS IN SUSTAINABILITY

Compiled between January and March this year, The Transparency Index rates 100 of the biggest global fashion brands and retailers, including Topshop and Prada, according to how much they disclose about their social, environmental policies, practices and impact.

It’s not overly encouraging reading but it shows steps in the right direction. On average brands, scored just 20 per cent transparency; none scored above 50 per cent. Adidas and Reebok came out on top with 121.5 out of 250 points, closely followed by Marks & Spencer and H&M.

“There is no way to hold companies and governments to account if we can’t see what is truly happening behind the scenes. This is why transparency is so essential.” said Fashion Revolution co-founder Orsola de Castro: “Transparency encourages scrutiny, vigilance and accountability. It’s like opening one’s front door and allowing others to look inside. And of course, the more doors are open, the more the picture becomes clearer, the better we can understand and ameliorate supply chain workers’ lives and the environment.”

STEP 6. POLITICISE YOURSELF

Make no mistake about it; the sustainable fashion movement is not winning – yet. No matter how ethical we try to be, it won’t be enough. The system – capitalist, consumerist – is not set up to enable real systemic change.

This is why it’s important to get political. Be vocal about your beliefs, to those around you and to the brands themselves. Target organisations that can make change on a macro scale: goverment departments, mega chains.

Positive reinforcement works as well as negative; praise a brand if you think it’s taking the right approach.

Slave to Fashion by Safia Minney (New Internationalist, 2017) deconstructs modern slavery in the fashion industry.

Address the disconnect (see Step 1). Seek to understand and to remember where your clothes are coming from: who made them, how they were made, the possible  toll taken on the planet, what animals were sacrificed.

There’s lots of reading out there. Try recently published Slave to Fashion by People Tree founder Safia Minney, which gives a voice to some of the people we’re talking about. Fashion Revolution has a comprehensive list of further reading on their site.

If you want an immediate, visceral hit, however, turn to film. Watching what people, animals and planet are really going through to make your clothes will change the way you think and feel about the fashion industry. My Fancy High Heels is a poignant take on the brutal Chinese leather industry. True Cost has become a cult classic; directed by Andrew Morgan, it pulls back the curtain on the untold story and asks us to consider, who really pays the price for our clothes.

Also, try Slowing Down Fast Fashion, a closer look at the fast fashion industry by former Blur guitarist Alex James. Go to Youtube; simply searching for something like ‘over consumerism’ will bring up a host of helpful shorter vids. Fashion Revolution’s YouTube channel is full of ideas.