We are in the long emergency, the ground of which is the climate and ecological crises. This requires change across all sectors of our communities if we are going to have any chance at averting the worst case scenarios (6C rise in global temperature means extinction for most of life on the planet). We urgently need to drop greenhouse gas emissions as well as adopt sustainable and regenerative practices in all the ways we live our lives and manage society. We cannot afford to wait for governments to take action fast enough, but we need governments to act as well. The good news is people are already leading the way, and government will follow when there are enough of us.
Fashion is one area that affects anyone who wears clothes. The clothing industry is highly polluting and unsustainable, from sourcing materials, to manufacture, to generating waste. Slow fashion is the movement that antidotes the worst excesses of consumerism. Slow, so that we stop buying and wasting so much and in turn lessen the extractive and polluting demand on the natural world.
The problem, outlined in a Spinoff piece last year by business woman Bernadette Casey in A global avalanche of used clothing is coming. NZ needs to do more to save it from landfill,
As an industry, clothing and textiles are up there with agriculture and oil and gas as the top three sources of carbon emissions worldwide. Clothing production has doubled in the last 15 years to more than 100 billion units per year, and as “fast fashion” has become the norm, clothing durability and utilisation (the number of times an item is worn) have declined over the same period. Only a tiny fraction of this global fabric avalanche is ever recycled, with the bulk flowing to landfill where it releases up to three times its weight in greenhouse gases. Meanwhile the draw on virgin natural resources to replace those landfilled textiles keeps on increasing.
In addition, there is pollution from processing and dyeing textiles, significant microfibre leakage into waterways from laundry, gross inequity for workers across the supply chain (wages and conditions), and clothing ‘miles’. Here’s merino clothing pioneers Icebreaker’s supply chain – the tshirt made with wool from the South Island high country and being worn on the streets of Christchurch, has been on a quite a journey,
In New Zealand, we outsource much of our pollution and social injustice because we manufacture so little clothing here now. Other people and other ecosystems are paying the costs of our cheap, fast clothing. Neoliberalism initiated this in the 1980s when we closed many clothing manufacturing here, and we still haven’t seen the glorious trickle down to the people working in factories in poorer countries than ours. Icebreaker for instance are doing a lot of ‘heading in the right direction’ stuff, but I couldn’t find anything in their documents about a decent wage for workers.
The good news is that it’s not technologically difficult to change – the challenges are behavioural and economic. We already have people making those changes from individual commitments to community initiatives to creative business leaders pushing ahead.
Slow fashion is a concept describing the opposite to fast fashion and part of the “slow movement“, which advocates for manufacturing in respect to people, environment and animals. As such, contrary to industrial fashion practices, slow fashion involves local artisans and the use of eco-friendly materials, with the goal of preserving crafts and the environment and, ultimately, provide value to both consumers and producers.
At the higher tech end, Bernadette Casey above is part of the team at Usedfully,
… a low carbon clothing system where textiles are utilised to their full potential through technology and cutting edge research – Working together with industry partners, we are driving the reuse of unwanted clothing and textiles, preventing them from going to landfill, and instead creating a circular system that fully utilises this untapped resource.
This model shows how the industry could work differently. Of note is the circular nature and relatively ‘closed loop’ (a key sustainability principle) whereby materials are cycled many times before they can no longer be used in this industry. Industrial recycling is a smaller component than reuse, repair and repurpose. If we were using predominantly natural fibres, end use would be sustainable too (eg composting)
Also of note is how much of that is contained in the user end. This is where the community shines, with the emerging repair cafe and visible mending movements. Repair is the new black, along with challenges to own less clothes and wear them longer.
Mending movements often take inspiration from traditional Japanese mending art forms Boro and Sashiko, where visibility of the mend is valued and even highlighted. Also valued is the ability to keep a cherished piece of clothing going, sometimes for generations. Such mending can make a garment stronger and more functional over time (hand stitching is often more resilient than machine stitching), in contrast to fast fashion’s kaupapa of deterioration and replacement.
Such techniques grew naturally out of a time when fabrics needed to last much longer, and where poorer people had less ability to replace clothing. There is a merging here of past and future, and where we can take the best of the past and current tech and create a future based in land and people care values rather than extract and pollute.
Repair cafes are popup or regular events where menders and the public come together and stuff gets made functional again. They’re usually free and happening all over New Zealand. People adore them, because they either bring a well-loved object back to life, or the repair and reuse makes us feel good.
A subgenre is mending events, where people bring clothing, cushions, soft toys to either Repair Cafes, or mending classes. Professional mender, Australian Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald,
When multiple friends sent her links to a New York Times story about the Repair Cafe movement, where volunteers with repair skills offer their time and tools to people who need stuff fixed, Lewis-Fitzgerald realised it was a perfect fit. She signed up and kick-started a series of projects.
“At one of the pop-up events I did, the barista had a hole in his pants. I fixed it and posted a picture on Facebook, then the next week 13 people came in with the same problem. The most excited group were 20-somethings and they really, really wanted to learn. So I started teaching workshops and taking mending commissions on Instagram.”
Two keys for both industry and artisans are transparency in supply chains and product stewardship (ownership of pollution). Transparency means customers get to see where their clothing is made, and, depending on the degree of transparency, the quality of environmental and worker justice.
One Wellington company committed to this is Little Yellow Bird,
I started Little Yellow Bird because I wanted to know who made my clothes. The more I learnt, the more I understood how everything needed to change – from the cotton seed and the dye systems, to water usage and disposal. Therefore every aspect of our production from farm to factory is traceable and every decision we make is made with ethics at the core. We are constantly pushing ourselves to find more innovative solutions to improve the industry, and ourselves.
LYB take back end of life cotton clothing for upcycling and local recycling. This kind of closing the loop in turn encourages manufacturers to make clothing that can be mended, reused, upcycled and ultimately recycled.
What the government can do.
Usedfully says we need regulation: Recommendations to the New Zealand Government from the Clothing & Textile Industry
- Include funding for responsible disposal of the textiles it procures in its contracts
- Add textiles to the existing list of waste reduction priorities by adding synthetic fibre products to the plastics category and natural fibres to organics
- Co-invest with the private sector to establish commercial scale regional infrastructure for textile waste sorting and processing
- Mandate product stewardship schemes on all textile products
- Use subsidies and tax levers to enable recycled textiles to be competitive with virgin materials to incentivise re-use (in line with the Tax Working Group recommendations on “green taxes”)
- Set a time frame for banning textiles from landfill (following Europe’s example)
Greenpeace International are pointing to the need for regulation. Ten years on from their Detox My Fashion campaign aimed at removing harmful chemicals from textile work places and preventing environmental pollution, this report last year showed that the industry cannot be relied upon to self regulate.
The other urgent area is rebuilding New Zealand’s manufacturing industry, including small and medium businesses. This 2020 Stuff report, There are just no young people: New Zealand clothing manufacturers sound alarm, talks about the decline since the 80s, and the challenges to the industry currently including from the aging population who hold the skills but won’t be around forever. One solution is to increase the apprenticeship scheme so that it is attractive to young people. We need designers, but also the people to do the actual making, as well as those who maintain the machinery.
At this point New Zealand then comes up hard against our reliance on cheap imports. How do we afford the real cost of clothing? Certainly needing to buy less makes a big difference. But we also need to solve fast fashion alongside core social problems like wages and benefit rates and housing costs.
The other political issue is how to make these changes last culturally, a kind of fad-proofing where we don’t move onto the next cool thing. The extent to which we make slow fashion Just Transition values-based rather than a ‘fashion’ or primarily a profit motive, and how much we can integrate the practices into everyday life, local jobs and industry will determine how successful we are.
Thanks to Shanreagh and Belladona for the New Zealand examples.
I can’t wait anymore, for whatever we are waiting for (covid to be over, the government to lead on climate action, the magic pixies who will save the Antarctic and Arctic from heating at an ‘impossible’ rate). It’s time to act as if our lives depend on it, to make climate change and ecological systems the context of everything we do.
If you want to argue about abstract ideas about climate, please do that somewhere else (try Open Mike).
If you want to do something about climate change and the ecological crises, please join the conversation below.
Needless to say, I don’t allow climate denialism of any kind under my posts. That includes arguing the Bart defense (‘humans didn’t do it’), or the Gosman defense (BAU capitalism must reign supreme/change is too hard) or the McPherson defense (‘it’s too late’).