CATCHING THE FISH OF SUSTAINABILITY

by Liam Hawkes

Most people never entertain thoughts about where their clothing has come from. The demand for fast, cheap fashion has overwhelmed the garment industry for many years now, having a devastating impact on millions who work in the confines of the industry; and similarly a devastating impact on the environment.

Materialism, in theory it was meant to be a harmonious agreement. Cheap clothes, readily-available for affluent westerners, coupled with jobs and wages for those living in impoverished countries around the world. Unfortunately, the reality is far from that. Whether it’s the deaths of underpaid workers due to the collapse of a factory in Dhaka, or the toxic chemicals used to mass-produce leather in Kanpur, fast and ultimately disposable fashion is contributing to the destruction of our world.

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Yet most of us happily remain blissfully ignorant, as long as we can pop into our closest high-street store to pick up the latest turtle-neck jumper.

Fundamentally, there is a disconnect between the idea that you are selling a tremendous amount of clothing in fast fashion and that you are trying to be a sustainable company,

Linda Greer, Natural Resources Defense Council′s (NRDC) senior scientist and director of Clean By Design

Despite increasing environmental damage caused by the fashion industry, demand still continues to spiral out of control. And, unfortunately due to the millions in profit companies are making, increasing supply isn’t going to stop any time soon. But it is important to step back and ask what drives us to mass-buy these bland garments? Why is there such an intense demand for the latest fashion? And why don’t most people care about the problems which are facing us?

You could say that it is because no real alternatives are presented to us in the mainstream fashion world. There is a lack of ethical brands of fashion or streetwear on the high-street. This, combined with the intense media and advertising campaigns of many mega-brands forms a volatile cocktail of destruction which overflows onto the lives of the poorest people, and our already delicate global climate.

But what if an ethical alternative was being offered?

Well it is. This is where we find the need for ethics and environmental sustainability. There are numerous companies offering sustainable alternatives, such as The People Tree; Patagonia; and more locally Catching A Fish in Norway . These companies make it their proviso to uphold fair trade and sustainable standards.

Grounding ourselves in strong ethics, we can begin to reduce our individual impact on the climate, and we can support organisations which cement their operations in this principle. However, there is an inherent issue involved in this, as we all are a part of the consumerist culture within which we live. It makes it hard to opt out of this and potentially go into something different. But what I think we are offered by The People Tree; CAFIN; Patagonia; and businesses with similar ethics; is a chance to act on our own ethics from within the industry itself.

Grounding ourselves in strong ethics, we can begin to reduce our individual impact on the climate, and we can support organisations which cement their operations in this principle.

CAFIN itself is a small business run by UEA student Paul Donati. It prides itself on “treating workers like human beings, championing our designers and doing what we can to help the planet: sacrificing short-term profits to act with a conscience” which is something relatively unseen in the industry it resides in. To see such a local business, achieve success restores some hope that people do look for an ethical alternative. It strives towards raising awareness of the current failure of the fashion industry and therefore to acknowledge and rectify its damaging role in the world today. As well as providing a platform for independent artists and designers to make a mark on the fashion industry. It represents a platform for change.

Buying into something which is certified fair-trade; organic; and sustainable we can partake in a political act of rejecting mega fashion companies which do not take into account the effect their acts have on climate or on the people involved in production. This political act can stand for so much more than just wearing a brand. The brand becomes a protest symbol, a symbol for a movement, a movement away from the cheap, mass-produced, fast fashion which we are all so used to.

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Now, I recognise a potential point of dispute here. The fact that businesses like CAFIN have to work within the consumerist, capitalist system in which they are placed is tricky. Some may argue that it is a business and thus is just as interested as the next company in making profits and maximising production. But when faced with brands like this, I believe that it is actually incredibly positive to see small, independent brands starting up, who want to do business while making an impact. Patagonia have a huge emphasis on the transparency of their business and educating their customers on consumerist culture. This shows that no matter what industry they are in, businesses and social enterprises alike can all help draw our attention to the fundamental flaws in the manufacturing process of most major clothing brands.

In our current world, we are in need of a drastic change in opinions and priorities of the masses. With delegates from all around the world meeting in Paris last week; as well as scientists warning us that a 2-degree increase is still too much, it can seem like there is no hope left. There is a growing movement of designers and fashion business reacting against fast-fashion. What is offered by these companies is a chance to reach those people who would not normally be reached by a protest, or any direct action. It is a chance to reach those people who may not have been exposed to the gravity of the situation we are in. Ultimately, it is a chance to highlight the morally bankrupt practice of an industry out of control and its reckless disregard for environmental and social responsibility in its pursuit of never-ending profit and subsequently hold the companies who conduct business in such a way to account. Ethical consumption is not a silver bullet, but it is a baby step on the way to a solution.

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