After the devastating Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh last April the issue of sustainable fashion has risen again. Human lives were literally crushed under the weight of fast fashion, but a new frontier of global awareness about the provenance of our clothing has emerged in the 17 months since. Quite simply, we can no longer justify ignorance about disposable fashion - an ignorance which made us obliquely complicit in Rana Plaza's 1129 deaths. But can caring become cool?
Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that Inditex's sales have been dented by the disaster (it is less known that the Bangladeshi factory produced clothes for the slick and respected Zara as much as it did the bargain basement Primark), people were looking for better choices. And the choice, the consumer is discovering, is bountiful. As Saatchi & Saatchi's Henry Simonds, who works with companies to help make sustainability a core part of their strategy, summarises: "it is no longer about the hairy hemp-wearing tree hugger! The gap is closing."
One brand closing that gap is The Reformation, a five-year-old brand that counts Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Karlie Kloss and Alexa Chung amongst its roster of 'Ref babes'. All their clothes are made from deadstock material and vintage dresses. "The mindset is that rather than buying twelve dresses for one season you would buy five that are made in a way you feel comfortable in," Ref's Head Designer, Brianna Lance, says. You only need to do a quick search to see how well the brand's ethos is working for them. The prices are genuinely competitive, with the most expensive dress ringing in at £250, making it noticeably cheaper than the higher end of the British high street. Unsurprisingly it is young contemporary brands, started by millennials for millennials, which are establishing a sustainable agenda from the get-go. "Millennials don't have the same amount of expendable income as older generations, but we are the consumers of tomorrow, with 70 years of buying ahead of us" says Violet's anti-fast fashion Junior Editor, Rosalind Jana. That said, one of the tenets of sustainable fashion is that products should cost more, that we should be encouraged to spend more money but on less items - making it correlative in terms of expenditure.
Knowledge and circulation of sustainable labels can be niche, but when you know where to look there is much to be found in the UK. The hugely successful platform Not Just Another Label showcases and sells young designers work (16,000 at last count) with an emphasis on locally produced, sustainable fashion. London-based ethical online retailer rêve en vert launched earlier this year and stocks around twenty emerging labels like Blake LDN and Thu Thu (crucially known as much for their innovative design than their sustainability element.) "The market will always respond to demand", explain founders Cora Hilts and Natasha Tucker. "The more people that ask for sustainably produced fashion, the faster it will happen. We hope that we are the start of a growing trend of conscious consumers."
Vintage-loving Creative Director and founder of Voyage d'Etudes Paula Goldstein di Principe name checks Colenmino, a timeless and traditional label that produces all of its stock in the UK, Maiyet who show at Paris Fashion Week and Honest By, a young brand founded by former Hugo Boss Art Director, Bruno Pieters, which has a motto of 100% transparency throughout their entire supply chain. Importantly Pieters' acidic brights and contemporary patterns totally defy any clichés about eco clothing. The power of celebrity can also be no greater stressed that in the field of sustainable fashion. Emma Watson's collaborations with People Tree have proved to be invaluable, while ex-supermodel Lily Cole has an ethically sourced knitwear venture called North Circular.
A surprising bolster to sustainability has been normcore. "The trend is about highly crafted, durable (boring) pieces so brands like Patagonia are increasing in popularity" explains business intelligence service Stylus's Lisa Payne. Patagonia's 'Don't Buy This Jacket' campaign in November of last year ironically led to massive sales. Regardless, the brand implores people to buy less - and to buy better. They even have a service where you can send your clothes back for repairs, rather than buy new ones. It's also worth looking to traditional shoemakers on this front, where premium prices are justified in terms of product longevity. Russell & Bromley have a little known service where they will repair a pair of shoes for free - no matter how long you have had them.
For all the damage it's done, there are pockets of brilliance on the high street. H&M's Conscious range is an example of a hugely successful endeavor - not least because Scandinavia is a leading light in sustainability; Copenhagen's Fashion Summit hosted every other year is the largest gathering of sustainable fashion in the world - but the fact that there is a designated conscious section rather than a sustainable agenda woven into the fabric of the entire brand suggest that this is still a niche, rather than mainstream, approach. But there's no doubt that where one high street retailer makes well-received steps, others will follow. One of the most notable is ASOS Africa, which is produced in collaboration with SOKO Kenya, to establish local craftsmanship in underprivileged communities in Africa.
Simonds argues that the call to action is still weak, though. "There's a huge disconnect between what people say and what they do. There's this perception that everyone is being super sustainable, but the big three things that people look for when making a purchasing decision are price, design and quality. What we're seeing the most is an inadvertent post-rationalisation. Post purchase, they'll weave the sustainable element into the story. But it's not actually why they bought it." That said, he is hugely positive about the future - from both a brand and consumer perspective. "Awareness is most significant in millennials. They are very much looking for companies which align with their beliefs." The thorniest issue, of course, is how much sustainability threatens the very cycle of the fashion. For RIKA's Fashion Director Alex Carl, the solution is simple. "I've almost completely stopped following trends", she admits. It's largely because of this relentless cycle "that we throw away 35,000 tons of clothing globally a year."
Where brands produce, consumers will follow. It's all about eliminating, or at least reducing, the bad choices for the consumer. If the fashion industry can offer a wide range of ethically produced clothing at competitive prices, then there's no doubt that the consumer will invest in it. Time will tell whether fast fashion truly has the potential to slow down - and the optimistic words of us millennials can be harnessed into genuine purchasing power.