Elegance Is Refusal: Truth Labels of Fashion Revolution

By Anneke Vo

The fine arts are commonly viewed as the lifeblood of passionate, creative activism; from powerful documentaries to emotive protest songs, subversive slam poetry and provocative street stencilling — artivist culture exemplifies a visionary playground of aching possibilities. Yet fashion recoils in the shadow of bourgeois luxury, consumer indoctrination and mass-produced, marginalising ideals of beauty — undermining the true cost of garment production and its precarious dependence on the natural world.

Unlike many deep green environmentalists however, I’m not so quick to dismiss fashion as completely superficial and irrelevant. Fashion needs to evolve, ideally, to inspire new meanings for aesthetic expression, politicized bodies, and the diversity and enrichment of culture. In a system where commodified self-image is sold as identity, we owe it to ourselves and the planet to truthfully elucidate the stories of those who weave, stitch, embroider, design and shelter the sartorial fabric of history.

The life-cycle of clothes

Each year around eighty billion garments are produced worldwide, yet two million tonnes of clothing and textile waste ends up in landfill. The majority of clothing items we buy today are made from non-biodegradable, petrochemical-laden fabrics such as nylon, acrylic and polyester, as well as cotton — much of it genetically modified, subject to a quarter of global pesticide use, and produced using child labour. By 2007, meeting global consumer energy demands required 1074 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, for which we needed 132 million tonnes of coal, and between 6-9 trillion litres of water. Toxic dyes and waste from textile mills are responsible for 20 percent of worldwide water pollution, while exposure to harmful dioxins, synthetic azo dyes, fluorinated chemicals, heavy metals and formaldehyde poses a significant cancer risk for sweatshop labourers and consumers.

As our disposable, low quality donations crowd up thrift shops and end up being shipped to Africa ‘for aid’, charities are forced to operate like businesses, stifling the local garment trade of developing nations. Meanwhile credit card debt continues to soar, as haute couture’s traditional two season turnover (summer/spring, autumn/winter) whirlwinds into fifty two seasons (pre-fall, yacht season, pre-yacht, etc.).  A new outfit for every week means that millions of exploited garment workers worldwide – the majority of whom are women – are forced to work harder for less than a living wage while forbidden to unionize for safe working conditions. It means buying into an ever-growing disregard for animal welfare — live-plucking of geese for quilts, shearing merino “battery” sheep in unlivable conditions for wool production, live-skinning snakes, and threatening the extinction of crocodiles for luxury goods, while streamlining the leather trade through use of carcinogenic preservatives.

According to the Ethical Fashion Guide, 89 out of 128 major brands operating in Australia – including retail giants, Myer, David Jones, Kmart, Target and Zara – don’t guarantee workers a living wage; 51 have not boycotted Uzbekistani cotton; and 49 scored less than a C rating for labour rights management. Following the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory disaster, which killed 1133 and injured 2500 workers, #FashionRevolution was born, urging consumers to pledge to boycott sweatshop slavery. The campaign so far has been a viral success, with events held annually in over 100 countries, led by the inaugural message, “Who made your clothes?” April 24th saw social media activists, Instagrammers and bloggers wearing their clothes inside out, snapping selfies and tagging major fast-fashion brands who needed to be held publicly accountable. “If a brand doesn’t have an ethical responsibility section on their site, that’s the simplest way to tell they aren’t very active in that space,” advises Melinda Tually, co-ordinator of the Australian chapter of Fashion Revolution. “Ensure they’re fair trade, Forest Stewardship Council certified, and signed up to the Bangladesh Fire Safety Accord.”

Socially conscious fashion

The Sydney event, hosted by Meetup sustainability initiative, Think Act Change, featured a panel of speakers pioneering innovative solutions within the ethical fashion movement. Sydney-based designer, Fiona Roubin founded her own vintage upcycling label, Fairtale after witnessing mountains of clothes being wastefully discarded to dead stock while working at major fast fashion brand Valleygirl, “Every week we had to go through all the clothes we couldn’t sell and cut them up for trash dumping. It was heartbreaking thinking of the good those clothes could’ve gone to, and how easily they could’ve been donated or discounted.” Fiona now scours op shops for inspiration and creates beautiful, unique one-of-a-kind pieces, re-engineered from pre-loved fabrics. Protective outdoors apparel label, Patagonia documents every step of garment production online through the Footprint Chronicles, which aims to educate consumers on the complexity of the supply chain and pave the way for complete transparency in fashion. Philanthropic enterprises such as The Social Outfit (Sydney) and The Social Studio (Melbourne) have contributed to Fashion Revolution by providing vocational education and training in eco-fashion design and production for newly arrived migrants and refugees.

Although essential, pioneering changes are evolving within fashion to adopt a more socially conscious vision, there remains an underlying tension as to whether “ethical consumption” is conducive to downshifting towards a truly sustainable economy. Businesses face a conflict of interest regarding profitable turnover and the need to invest in a waste-reducing model of cradle to cradle design. Fashion lovers in a post-growth paradigm could eventually try on samples by local designers and place orders on unmade garments; following the entirety of its construction, as opposed to the mass-produced, instant gratification model we have now. The most diligent approach is embracing slow fashion, says Lucie Siegle, author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World, “The Perfect Wardrobe cannot be solely about acquiring new clothes, even those with a tiny ecological footprint and hewn from a dynamic biodegradable fibre. What you don’t buy is as important as what you do.”

In essence, Fashion Revolution is about having a relationship with our clothes—consciously honouring the skill, craftsmanship and sacrifice of those who have laboured tirelessly and lost their lives, so that we may afford warmth and luxury on our backs. It encompasses the need to mindfully reduce our ecological footprint — ditching glitzy malls for community artisan markets, hosting swap parties, upcycling old fabrics, taking greater care of garments by hand-washing them naturally and only curating pieces we really love. More fundamentally, we need to resist and reimagine existing constructs of beauty, which require us to buy into a throwaway culture of exploitation and excess. Although it will always be easier to seek security in controlling our possessions and self-image, as opposed to fragile relationships and ephemeral achievements, fashion can only become a positive force of change once its values are underpinned by human rights, environmental justice and principled commitment to our planetary boundaries.

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