Everything we wear comes from the ground. Much of it is grown: cotton, linen, viscose, wool, leather and cashmere. But fashion is also drilled for: nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester every year.
Each morning when we get dressed, with fabric against our skin, we are reconnecting with Earth's finite resources. But this is seldom acknowledged. While we learn lots about the food we put into our bodies, we think very little about the clothes we put onto our bodies.
Parallels are regularly drawn between food and fashion in conversations about overconsumption and waste. Think about the supersonic speed and convenience of fast food and fast fashion, the highly polluting global supply chains, the myriad animal and labour rights scandals. But despite its creative and contemporary reputation, fashion is far behind in fixing these flaws. In fact, the food industry has a lot to teach fashion about regenerative agriculture, radical transparency, consumer education and regulation.
Labelling is one of the obvious areas in which food products are miles ahead in the race for sustainability. Offering consumers a clear and simple way of discerning which foods are vegan, locally grown or organic, the traffic light system of nutritional information sits alongside strict regulations on ingredients and packaging recycling instructions. These all help demystify the complex food supply chain. And in the UK, most food products must provide a long list of details about what's inside.
While we know so much about the food we put into our bodies, we think so little about the clothes we put onto our bodies.
Needless to say, the food industry is far from perfect. It has its own significant misinformation problem, from fraudulent health claims to greenwashing through vague language and cleverly designed packaging to mislead conscious consumers. However, when it comes to trusting brands to tell us basic information about what their products are made from, clothes labelling leaves a lot to be desired.
For clothing sold in the UK, labels are only required to provide information on: care (laundering instructions), fibre content, country of origin and flammability. We don't get detailed information about the raw materials. Only the basic fibres are disclosed, such as ‘100% cotton’, but rarely trimmings (such as buttons, zips and embellishments) or threads used to stitch the garment together, which are usually made from polyester. In the footwear sector, it can be even more vague, with terms like ‘mixed fibres’ or ‘textile’ regularly used to describe a shoe’s composition. The (sometimes toxic) chemicals used to dye and finish a garment aren’t disclosed by brands either, despite our skin being our largest organ and capable of absorbing up to 64% of the chemicals from the fabrics we wear.
This meme from Fashion Revolution demonstrates the vast quantity of information we are not told about our clothes, and this knowledge gap matters. It informs every stage of the product life cycle: from the items we choose to buy, to how we store and care for our clothes, to how we dispose of unwanted garments. The environmental impact that stems from a lack of labelling regulation is staggering.
Cleaning up their act
The social harms within the fashion industry—sweat shops, minimum wage violations and child labour—can also be seen as fundamentally unsustainable.
Though third-party certifications on clothing labels such as Fairtrade or Fair Wear exist, we can also look to the past for solutions. Throughout the 20th century, many clothes were printed with ‘union labels’ which proved they were produced in factories associated with unions, like the International Ladies Garment Worker Union or the Tailor’s Union of America. Garment workers having access to their human right to organise is a key marker of ethical manufacturing, so a similar labelling system could help consumers make better decisions about their clothing purchases today.
With fashion producing around 10% of all global carbon emissions, we need politicians to take this sector seriously in the fight against climate change.
The caveat here is that these labels should never be determined by the brands themselves, like Selfridges' ‘Buy Better’ labels, or rated by independent apps like Good On You, but instead regulated at the industry level through legislation. We need government intervention. For example, the French Government introduced a due diligence law in 2018 which requires multinational companies to disclose the impact of their supply chains to the public. Unfortunately in Britain, MPs rejected the Environmental Audit Committee's recommendations to set mandatory environmental guidelines for fashion brands. Two years on, the Fixing Fashion report is now being revisited and lobbyists are hopeful for change.
Fixing fashion will require more than just an individual parliamentary bill. We need a fashion equivalent to the government’s Food Standards Agency, or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. With fashion producing around 10% of all global carbon emissions, we need politicians to take this sector seriously in the fight against climate change.
Farm to fork, earth to skirt
Beyond regulation, perhaps the biggest lesson fashion can learn from food is the importance of building a close relationship with raw materials. Increasingly, we are curious about where food comes from and how it’s made, but this doesn't seem to be the case with what we wear—perhaps this discrepancy is because we regularly cook our own food but rarely make our own clothes. The farm-to-table and slow food movements can be almost directly transposed onto the fashion industry. Through educating consumers on provenance and taking the time to appreciate the ‘ingredients’ of our clothes, slow fashion could see a similar revolution.
Looking at solutions in practice, Fibershed, a non-profit which develops regenerative agricultural systems for textiles, has long championed the connection between what we wear and the soil itself. It works with communities to cultivate fibre systems that protect the health of our biosphere, and shares insights on the Soil To Soil podcast.
- Learn what each clothing care label symbol means
- Use this email template to ask brands #WhatsInMyClothes
- Demand fashion transparency: sign the PayUpFashion petition
Article written by Ruth MacGilp (@ruthmacgilp)