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In My View by Eric Musgrave: Time to ask the big question

Eric Musgrave
01 April 2021

Sustainable adj (of economic development or energy sources) capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing ecological damage.

Does anyone know of a fashion business that admits to NOT being sustainable these days?

As well as “greenwashing” – caused by too many companies working hard to put a supposedly ethical spin on even the most minor bit of their activity - I’d like to add “greenmisting”, meaning a relentless release of hot air about sustainability.

All the daily blathering about traceability, responsibility, upcycling, recycling, repairing, renting, equality and ethics merely deflects from the one big question.

Isn’t it time for the modern fashion industry to ask itself, what is our purpose? In a world imploding in a climate change crisis, cannot fashion admit it is producing far too much stuff, at every level of the market?

And if it does admit it is over-producing, what is it going to do about it? And when? Tough questions indeed.

I certainly have no desire to bite the hand that has fed me well for more than 40 years. The fashion industry has given me immense pleasure and my clothes are some of my favourite possessions.

And then there is the small matter of the millions of people who are employed in the global supply chain.

I would like to think I have been adhering to the oft-heard advice of “buy better and buy less” for many years. As long ago as 1985, when I was the launch editor of the pioneering men’s style magazine For Him (later, and rather differently, the lads’ mag FHM), I wrote: “What we are talking about here is style, not high fashion. Our concern is with the framework for a wardrobe which will be classic and long-lasting, but still versatile and enjoyable.”

All very virtuous and “sustainable”, I am sure, but I have still ended up with, for example, more than 40 shirts hanging in my wardrobe, more than 100 ties, around 30 pieces of lovely knitwear, more than 30 pairs of shoes, maybe 15-20 tweed caps and, ridiculously, about 60 high-quality scarves. Who am I to lecture anyone about over-consumption?

While I am not a customer of it myself, I am intrigued by the current criticism about “fast fashion” (whatever the term means these days). For a start, fast fashion is not a recent concept – in the UK I would date it back to the early 1960s at least. The problem now, however, is the volume of the fashion industry.

For those who argue we should be “buying less, buying better”, do they have a figure in mind? How many shirts should a bloke buy in a normal year? How many tops or pairs of jeans is it OK for a woman to purchase? Who is going to decide these figures? The only time clothing purchasing was controlled in recent times was through state-controlled rationing in World War II. Does anyone want that back?

While I believe our consumerist society is now almost out of control, there is more than a faint hint of class divide about this argument of “buying less, buying better”. Some well-heeled (no pun intended) commentators appear to peer down their noses at the poorly renumerated masses who keep the value end of the market booming.

A few years ago I attended a conference on sustainable fashion where activist Livia Firth had the audience of mainly bright-eyed fashion students in her hand until she suggested that they really should be buying nice trousers, like she did, from a “responsible” business like that of her friend Stella McCartney.

Massive groans rolled round the auditorium at this because the well-informed attendees were aware that Stella’s cheapest pants start at about £300 retail. Is it easy to have an ethical conscience when you are wealthy? Even if you buy four pairs of Stella’s trousers rather than four of Primark’s?

Along the same lines, I am more amused than annoyed when I read of someone proposing a great “new” sustainable idea. Recycling fabrics appears to be rediscovered every few years by well-meaning people who have never looked into the derivation of the word “shoddy”.

From the early 1800s old and used textiles were collected, sorted, shredded and ground up. With the addition of a small amount of new wool, they were reprocessed into cheap cloth called shoddy. A finer version of the process produced a quality called mungo. Only when we became prosperous as a society did the keenness to recycle die out.

Renting clothes as an alternative to buying also intrigues me. Despite the crazy figures being bandied about on the size of the market and the supposed value of platforms doing this, surely the concept only has legs (no pun intended this time either) as a “special occasion” option? Is anyone seriously suggesting consumers will rent a different garment or outfit every day just to go about their everyday activity (for example, if they are fortunate enough to have a job)?

Rental is at best a revived idea, not a new one. I used the venerable Moss Bros hire service for an evening suit in the days when black-tie dinners were a rare event for me. Once they became a regular part of my working life, I bought what I needed. Alas, what I considered I “needed” was at least three different evening suit options. Not many sustainable brownie points there.

Please do not think Moss Bros and the like offered only men’s penguin suits. I recently learned that in the 1950s and 1960s Moss had a decent business renting out women’s furs for special occasions. That would not be sustainable now though, would it?

At the risk of sounding even more grumpy than usual, I do wonder why some companies publicise supposedly sustainable activities. Recently I was sent a press release about US outdoor company Patagonia producing a fleece purely from recycled plastic bottles. Patagonia’s long-standing commitment to “sustainability” is well-known and I am not wishing to criticise it particularly, but my immediate reaction was not to think “Oh, well done, Patagonia.”

My immediate reaction was to think “Who needs another fleece?” and, more pressingly, “Why are there so many plastic bottles polluting the world in the first place?”. The action by Patagonia here seems to me to address the wrong question.

How many other fashion companies are addressing the wrong questions in their race for “sustainability” credentials? There are too many businesses producing too much stuff. Now, what can we do about that?

As always, I would be interested in the views of others.

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