It seems unthinkable that cheap, mass-produced high street fashion will disappear. But something has to give. “Sustainability or responsible innovation is by far the biggest trend in the industry right now,” says Eva Kruse, chief executive of Global Fashion Agenda, which organises the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, being held next month to bring together executives to talk about sustainability in the industry. “And it’s not a philanthropic quest – this is a business development.”
Companies are well aware of the costs of materials and how that might rise in a time of scarcer resources, she says. They will be looking “at how we use less water, less natural resources, improve living conditions around the world for those who work in our industry. Because all of that will benefit the bottom line.”
So you find giants such as H&M, Mango and Zara launching sustainable collections, and Asos having an “eco” edit. You could view it as a step in the right direction, or cynical greenwashing – insignificant next to the huge weight of unsustainable garments companies churns out every year.
“What we are doing within the sustainable fashion movement is allowing fast fashion brands to dictate the scope and terms of play,” says Lucy Siegle, the journalist and writer of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World?“And that’s not acceptable because we’re not getting any movement on pivotal issues [such as a living wage for workers]. While we keep having league tables about which brand is the most transparent, and apps to help you rate and aggregrate all of these complex initiatives, we’re avoiding the main issue, which is that fast fashion is undeniably problematic.”
For Siegle, the idea that the global fashion companies are leading some huge change is phony. “Where does that even come from? It’s not true. And this idea that we can’t get dressed without them. Really? We used to.”
The recent introduction of cheap, fast fashion, she says, “shows no signs of releasing its stranglehold on the fashion industry, or of bringing substantively better lives for garment workers.” Rather: “all the signs are pointing to brands trying to speed up production and get it to market quicker, because that’s where the money is. It’s not a rosy outlook. I think we need some very serious strategic action to get results.”
For Siegle, a few of us shopping in a slightly more thoughtful way on the high street will not change much. Her strategies as a campaigner are radical and systematic: she is working with lawyers to find a legal remedy to improve garment workers’ lives.
Still, younger customers’ burgeoning interest in ethical issues – and the breadth of cool niche brands launching to meet that demand – offers a tiny chink of light. “I think modern, and generally younger shoppers, are more conscious and want to know more about where their products are coming from,” says Aflalo. “People are actively looking to make a change. They want to know more about the “how” and the “who” behind the clothes they wear – to understand the story behind their clothes.”