Eco Session - The crisis of stuff @beyondretro

This week at Beyond Retro in Dalston an event called Eco Sessions - The Crisis of Stuff took place. There is no way this can be a short post...

I saw this event on facebook and it caught my eye because I would consider my wardrobe to be pretty ethical in terms of how much of it is second hand and vintage, but how ethical is it really and is keeping it vintage the end of it being my problem?

The panel consisted of: 

Kate Black, Author of Magnifeco: Your Head-to-Toe Guide to Ethical Fashion and Non-Toxic Beauty and ethical fashion expert.

Steven Bethellis the CEO of Beyond Retro whose career is well established in the recycling business.

Rebecca Earley -  Director of TFRC at Central Saint Martins , principal and co researcher in TED at Chelsea College of Arts, and a key part of the research consortium work for MISTRA Future Fashion and the EU Horizon 20202 project, Trash-2-Cash. 

Orsola de Castro  Founder of the label From Somewhere, and the Fashion Revolution Day initiative. 

You can read their full profiles here

What made this such an interesting panel is that despite all recognising and having a passion for the very real need to address this issue, they all had such differing approaches. 

150 Billion garments are created on a yearly basis (!) and Kate asked us to ponder, as consumers, two simple questions, Do we need it? Does it need to be new? 

At this point I was feeling quiet virtuous, whilst I buy things I don't need (floral tea dress anyone?) I buy very little new. So surely I am rescuing these things right? 

Well it turns out it's not that simple. There are things I buy new, compared to some people they are few and far between but some things are a necessity. For example I don't care how beautiful and authentic vintage underwear is, personally I don't want a garment that has graced someone elses undercarriage in my wardrobe. 

So what about the things I do buy new? Those are the things that I buy cheaply because they are "staples" but I must own 10 black t shirt tops at least (mostly from Primark despite my loathing for the shop) So in answer to the 2 questions - Does it need to be new - in some cases yes but Do I need it - on reflection in most cases no. 

Which brings me to the conclusion that if I didn't buy so many so cheaply the more ethical alternatives would easily be within my price range. 

Impulse buying also comes into it for me, I am guilty of buying a black cardigan in a pinch because I had a date and wasn't up to speed on my laundry. 

What I learnt at the Eco sessions event was that only 1/3 of that garments carbon footprint is in it's production. 2/3 of it comes later, in it's journey through life, to the store, living in my wardrobe and then it's afterlife. 

Rebecca made some very good points which made me warm to her, because she was coming at the topic from quite an academic point of view but then explained how much she had previously loved to shop, of course it's fun, of course we enjoy it, what's not to love?!

Shopping didn't used to be a hobby but these days it's almost like cardio to some and it was nice to hear a human perspective how it's ok to want things, it's even ok to buy things, just think about where and from who you get it before you do. 

This wasn't a session where we were going to be told we were all evil for not growing our own palm leaves and weaving t shirts. It was an honest and open discussion which was refreshing. 

Rebecca also touched on a topic which I have pondered a lot, our consumption habits vs our happiness and the relationship between the two. Everyone I know has something they love but don't need - computer games, books, clothes or in my mothers case tea pots! But they make us happy and who doesn't want to be happy?

The problem, as I see it, with fashion in general and the reason I prefer vintage is because it changes so quickly. As a teenager I would buy the cheapest and latest fashions I could get my hands on. I am harping back to the days when Romford Market had a pound stall. God knows where these garments were made. It didn't matter then though because I would be "on trend" Yes even when cow-print was all the rage (Christ the 90's were shit) but now I know the shapes and styles I prefer and I stick to them rather than worrying about the latest trends. 

Steven was talking about clothes and their relationship to the past which I completely understand, the romaniticism of the clothing afterlife, where it has been and who owned it. He also explained that the work they do at Beyond Retro is only one part of the business. It was fascinating to hear more about the types of initiatives that BR get involved in and I'd love to learn more. Beyond Retro have recently launched in topshop selling very cute backpacks that have been made from repurposed fabric, which is the first time in my memory that repurposed materials have been sold on the high street. However as Rebecca pointed out a shop filled with gorgeous quality vintage is not really the issue. 

The main topics that came out of the discussion were:

  • Cheap shit clothes made in large quantities filling the high street

  • People disregarding their clothes to landfill rather than recycling/upcycling

  • Manufactures having to responsibility when it comes to the end of the products life-cycle 

Whilst there is more demand these days for a quality product and, for some, for the quality of life of the person who made the garment, none of that seems to matter in Primark on a Saturday afternoon. Hell some people don't even care about the person on the other side of the till. Which brings us neatly onto education. 

Orsola spoke a lot about education and the need for people to be more informed in their choices in order to have an impact on this issue. Young people have such a huge buying power these days, and the future of this planet belongs to them and their children. To me it makes perfect sense to educate people in this area. After all, along with food, clothes are the other things that we all engage with in some way everyday for our whole lives. I'll bet people know a lot more about their fairtrade bananas than they do about the shirt they are wearing, myself included! 

Rebecca spoke further about the high street giants, who are not trying to stop anyone buying obviously. However she also said that some things are supposed to have a short life, that there is a rhythm to clothes and that shouldn't be disregarded. In order to understand the over consumption issue we have to understand our human impulses. Amen! 

In my opinion this is so important. People used to own so much less than they do now, in the forties a woman would have had a wardrobe that resembled a trendy "capsual" wardrobe of today. Generally not getting anything new until she had enough fabric to make something or a coupon in order to get one. 

Nowadays we are surrounded by advertising telling us we need new things, we create our own little worlds on Instagram and Pintrest in which we observe, we covet, we are doing it to ourselves to an extent, feeding our own addictions and being able to pick and choose which we look at. Talk about targeted marketing! We aren't rationed or controlled other than by our paypackets, and for everything else there is Mastercard! 

So if we all start buying ethically this issue will go away? 

Rebecca pointed out that we have already over consumed. She compared it to a runaway train when you consider the amounts in which things are being produced, by the second. It's once we are done with garments that we need to think about what happens next. 

My mother used to downgrade fabrics in our house, a t shirt would serve it's original purpose, then downgrade to gym/work out gear, then a nightshirt, it would grace the back of whichever of us were painting/gluing etc. Then finally, shot to shit, that thing would be cut up and used as a duster. 

I can honestly say I have never thought to do any of that. I upcycle things of course, make cushions or drawstring bags, with fabrics that look good. What my mother was doing was actually wearing the thing out which is different. Plus there are only so many cushions the world needs! 

Fact alert: Rebecca said that the technology exists to recycle everything (even clothes, down to the molecular level) we have technologies in which the world will survive without the sources we still use like oil. Science has already got us covered, imagine that! 

What about the big bosses?

In terms of the manufacturers Rebecca said it's not just about rallying against them and telling them to pay everyone more. The fashion industry is an economy and you cannot upset that overnight, it's not that simple. 

There need to be alternative business models for these companies to work from in order to drive their business, after all they aren't just the bad guys but also employers of people too. Rebecca said getting those decision makers around the table, talking about alternatives, was necessary to drive change from the top of the chain. 

Steven raised a very good point, he said that retail is the closest thing to democracy because people vote with their dollar. I wonder how many people would shop in any of these high street shops if behind every till was a live stream of a person grafting in some textile factory was playing on a continuous loop, or a picture of a dump full of rotting textiles with the smell pumped in store?

Steven summed up that there was some merit in three key areas of change but that a combination of education, legislative change, and entrepreneurial drive would be necessary in order to address this issue. 

I am certainly not an expert and this blog is what I took away from the session but I will definitely be looking into what I could do to change my own ways and help support some of these issues as it's hangs in all our wardrobes. 

Many thanks to the panel, Eco Sessions and Beyond Retro. I really hope to see more lively debate sessions like this in London! 

Links:  #whomademyclothes

Much love



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