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From a £1 bikini to an XR funeral: the year in fashion sustainability

Twenty nineteen was a year of reckoning for the fashion industry, during which it was forced to take stock of its waste, pollution, senseless burning of excess product, and exploitative business practices. But 12 months on, what has changed? Has there been any tangible improvement?

Well, yes and no. After all, this was the year when a £1 bikini went on sale in the name of “women’s empowerment”, a staggering piece of double-speak from its maker, the aptly named Missguided, which was criticised over the potential environmental and social costs of such a product.

Missguided’s £1 bikini. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

While some brands continue to pump out clothes like there is no tomorrow (which if they carry on, there won’t be), many of us are rethinking the quantities of clothes we buy. Greta Thunberg was i-D’s most memorable cover star, “the girl who changed the world”, who turned up for the interview dressed in a purple puffer jacket, bright-pink snow trousers and rubber boots. “Her wardrobe is limited, she doesn’t want new things,” the magazine reported.

In July, the Swedish Fashion Council cancelled Stockholm fashion week to explore more sustainable options, and Extinction Rebellion called for London Fashion Week to do the same. London fashion week went ahead as planned but the final day was marked by a symbolic funeral where XR Fashion members grieved for the industry.

Never has the fashion and textile industry been such a focus of attention, primarily because of its disproportionate contribution to greenhouse gas emissions – 1.2bn tonnes of CO2 per year according to Greenpeace, more than that produced by international shipping. In August, 32 companies representing around 150 brands signed the Fashion Pact at the G7 summit, promising to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 and to ban virgin plastic from packaging – by 2030. Considering that, according to the UN, we only have 10 years left to limit global warming to 1.5C, these are hollow targets.

It’s not only the environment that the industry continues to disregard. The fire in December at the New Delhi bag factory, where around 100 people were sleeping overnight, resulted in more than 40 deaths. “Six years on from the Rana Plaza factory collapse, most brands still have far too little visibility of their supply chains,” said Carry Somers, co-founder of the organisation behind the #whomademyclothes campaign, Fashion Revolution. “Transparency leads to accountability which leads to change.” The Fashion Transparency Index is also pushing the industry towards greater transparency with year on year improvement for many of the brands listed. In a welcome move towards transparency, HM announced back in April that it would share details such as production country, supplier names, and names and address of factories with its customers.

Extinction Rebellion protest during London fashion week, 17 September 2019. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

It has been a year of big statements by famous names, perhaps the boldest being Gucci’s claim in September that it was now carbon neutral. The greenwash radar went into overdrive. “The best way to get to zero emissions is to close the company, but then 18,000 people will lose their jobs. When we talk about the environment, we need to keep that in mind as well,” said CEO Marco Bizzarri. “Offsetting is better than not doing anything…”

While some industry leaders are at least starting to send out positive messages, policy makers are not so enthusiastic. In June, the government rejected recommendations made by the environmental audit select committee to regulate the fast fashion industry, including a charge of 1p for each garment to fund better clothing collection and sorting, and a ban on incinerating unsold clothes or sending them to landfill. “The government is out of step with the public, who are shocked by the fact that we are sending 300,000 tonnes of clothes a year to incineration or landfill,” said the former Labour MP Mary Creagh, who chaired the committee.

Despite the government’s inability to legislate, fashion activism was on the rise. In September, 62,000 people took part in Oxfam’s Secondhand September campaign, pledging to buy nothing new in an attempt to stem the flow of the 11m items of clothing sent to landfill every week in the UK. And an alternative to Black Friday is gaining momentum in the form of Buy Nothing Day. “In a world of overconsumption and fast fashion, one of the most radical things we can do is to keep our clothes in use for as long as possible,” declared the designer Christopher Raeburn, who closed the tills at his two stores and spent the day doing on-the-spot clothing repairs instead.

Resale platform … Vestiaire Collective at Selfridges. Photograph: Tom D Morgan

The willingness to embrace new ways of shopping that disrupt the high-volume, fast-fashion model, such as resale platforms (Vestiaire Collective and Depop both popped up at Selfridges this year and continue to grow their audiences) and rental (witness the takeover of the (British) Fashion Awards in December by rental platform My Wardrobe HQ) – is tangible.

Bethany Williams scooped the prize for best emerging talent for menswear at awards, having already won the Queen Elizabeth II award for design earlier in the year. She was also shortlisted for the LVMH prize and is nominated for the upcoming Arts Foundation award (winner announced in January). Her business model gives back to the social enterprises she works with to weave cloth from waste materials, and to charities who benefit from a percentage of her profits. Now that’s progress.

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