by Alis Le May
This is from #2 of LESS – our journal of degrowth, radical sufficiency and decolonisation in Scotland. Details of how to get a print copy here.
The fashion industry is among the most polluting industries on the planet. It is fraught with ethical atrocities, inherently resource-hungry and, some might claim, entirely unnecessary – in utilitarian terms we have produced enough clothing and textiles to meet the needs of our global population for generations.
Nevertheless, we remain unsated and, even in the face of a global economic recession (combined with a growing awareness of the imminent, terrifying consequences of overconsumption), it is predicted that this year we will still produce over 100 billion garments.i
It seems like a kind of madness, a collective hysteria so deeply entrenched and on such a scale that it almost forbids confrontation. But the future of our species demands that we change; the unacceptable exploitation of garment workers demands that we change; the current levels of pollution in our rivers, our oceans and our soil demand that we change.
This article aims to illustrate how a revitalised, locally made clothing economy is a degrowth approach that would create meaningful employment, enrich communities and challenge toxic mindsets about how we view ourselves, each other and the clothing we inhabit.
Imagine a city, and in this city are 30 bespoke tailors, making suits and coats for their clients. The tailors have known and provided service to their clients for decades. They know about each other’s families, hobbies, hopes and disappointments. Their lives are interconnected – tailor and client, friend and neighbour, citizens of a shared place. Now imagine 23 dressmakers, creating outfits for their clients in every colour of the rainbow, realising dreams of wedding dresses, or the perfect summer blouse. They too form relationships; the exchange of money is necessary, but it does not corrode the connection. There exists a respect for learned craft and design talent, for listening and for creativity. There is something special, and ultimately something deeply human here. Now imagine 22 shirtmakers, 21 milliners (hat makers) and 5 shoemakers, all building those relationships, honing their crafts, and existing in this diverse marketplace of locally made clothing. And the craftspeople of this great, diverse, creative city are not hidden out of sight in obscure back-lanes or industrial zones- they are in the heart of bustling city life, with visible shop fronts on high streets for all the population to see, know, and feel that good things are made here.
This is not a utopia or a dream that I am describing, neither is it London’s Mayfair (one of the last great remaining districts of craftspeople in the United Kingdom). What I am describing is the city of Glasgow in 1968ii, a city with a population similar in size to today’s, where poverty was rife – yet it supported a local industry of skilled craftspeople. If population and wealth are any indicators, the city should be able to support a visible local clothing industry now, so why not make clothes in Glasgow? Why not make clothes locally in Scotland? Why not grow new (and support existing) locally made clothing economies around the globe? I believe that looking to our past is more than an exercise in bittersweet nostalgia, but instead could help inform a blueprint for a sustainable future.
A locally made clothing economy is by nature a degrowth economy; recent research estimates that the global fashion industry will produce over 100 billion garments this yeariii. This is an incredibly hard figure to visualise. It would be unlikely to see those numbers replicated in a global industry formed of localised clothing economies, and powered by individuals and small teams of makers. The fantastic thing about degrowth (inherent in switching to a localised economy) is that you can gather support for rebuilding a diverse, local marketplace from a much broader section of the population than those who might typically engage with critiques of capitalism – and without ever mentioning the term “degrowth”.
In the UK alone it is estimated that the fashion industry spends £241 million on advertisingiv. With increasingly powerful tactics, facilitated by social media platforms and the cultures that have emerged from them, a growth-focused fashion industry is in a better position than ever to convince us to buy, dispose, repeat. A small brand in Dundee making t-shirts, or a tailor in Edinburgh making bespoke suits, might employ the occasional use of online adverts, or use social media platforms to promote their business. Their powers of persuasion however, and ability to purchase space in the ‘attention economy’, pale in comparison to big brands, (particularly those with high-status associations) and they lack an incentive to seize the attention of whole nations with large campaigns. It is my belief that a fashion industry constituted from thousands of small and micro businesses, would create a very different culture of consumption.
In our current context, where there exists an urgent need for reducing material consumption, the inherent production limitations of local brands and makers becomes their strength. This is absolutely the case with small, localised fashion brands (producing limited runs of ‘ready-to-wear’ collections). Taking this further, in terms of limiting unnecessary consumption and changing buying habits, some of the most interesting (and often overlooked) potential lies in bespoke. A bespoke garment sits outside the mainstream fashion industry, is not subject to trends and does not require an advertising campaign. It is a carefully considered purchase, partly due to the expense involved in purchasing it, but for deeper reasons too – it requires consideration, thought, discussion and collaboration between customer and maker. Commissioning a bespoke garment is a ‘high friction’ transaction; fabric must be chosen, shape decided upon, number of pockets agreed etc. and that is before the making can even begin, with some, more complex bespoke garments requiring 6 or more months to create. It requires real consideration and it also requires patience, two practices the ‘low friction’ experience of shopping ready-to-wear online would have us avoid and ultimately forget how to exercise.
The term ‘bespoke’ has become synonymous with tailoring, in particular luxury tailoring, but, when I write ‘bespoke’, I am not just referring to three-piece formal suits. It is defined as ‘made for a particular customer or user’ and so, today, a bespoke clothing economy (as part of a wider, local clothing marketplace) would more likely manifest in bespoke jeans, bespoke sweatshirts, bespoke t-shirts and bespoke casual dresses. In fact, any item of clothing you are wearing right now could be bespoke. In the last 100 years, societies across the globe have challenged every kind of clothing rule and taboo, whilst becoming gradually entrenched in thinking that clothing must come from brands, not fellow citizens. If people were able to re-engage with the concept of buying bespoke, the possibilities for true individual expression and creativity reach new heights. In this way, a degrowth clothing economy is not about austerity and reducing individual freedoms; it is about increasing creativity and empowering self-expression in a way that the current mainstream fashion industry does not allow.
Wasteful and resource hungry is the true state of the fashion industry today. Entirely preventable waste occurs at every stage of its production, sale and use. Some waste is difficult to prevent; for example, in order to avoid producing waste fabric offcuts during production, garments would need to be designed using a zero-waste approach and this can be challenging (but not impossible) for mainstream brands to implement. The mass burning or burying of unsold garments to protect brand identity is a practice that is hard to defend. Burberry was famously outed for this practicev but they are only one of the many companies adopting this strategy for a problem which is simply ‘just having too much stuff’. This story provoked public outrage but, if we picture it at a personal level, it can be easier to comprehend. How many of us have ever felt overwhelmed at the number of possessions we have (be that clothing or something else) and, in a fit of ‘decluttering’, condemned bags of unwanted items to the local charity shop or, in more desperate moments, the bin. If we are to tangibly tackle the problem of textile waste, we must acknowledge that responsibility exists with, and beyond, global brands. We too have an impact – currently it is estimated that the global population sends the equivalent of a rubbish truck of clothing to landfill every secondvi.
When we hear statistics about tonnage of textile waste, we can start to feel its burden build upon our backs, to the point where we feel paralysed, incapable of meaningful action. One of the many exciting things about a revitalised, locally made clothing economy is that it gives us tools to not only reduce the amount of waste we produce, but also to begin to see “waste” in an entirely different way.
Firstly, a fashion industry composed of small brands and makers would not have the manufacturing capability to create anywhere near the same levels of waste that we are witnessing right now. It is also unlikely that smaller businesses would ever need or want to burn or bury unsold garments. When you are directly connected to the making process, you are much more invested in your garments because you have been a part of the hours it took to create them. It would be a very unusual set of circumstances that would cause an independent designer to burn a collection they had spent several months creating. I still have pieces I made from when I was first learning how to sew (over a decade ago), and I expect that I will still have those pieces in 10 years’ time.
A strong local clothing economy is likely to be a connected and social network, able to share resources and facilities to reduce waste and production costs for all. Taking an example from my own practice; prior to the pandemic, most of my commissions were wedding dresses or men’s suits – traditional styles for formal occasions – and these clients were not interested in experimenting with interesting seam placement that could minimise waste. Why should they be? Even with the most economical lay plan (the way pattern pieces are nestled together for cutting, kind of like Tetris), I always produce small waste pieces that will very rarely be of use to me. In a connected, diverse local clothing economy, I would know exactly who those scraps would be useful to; in this way one designers’ trash becomes another designers’ treasure, waste and costs are reduced for both parties, and a culture of reciprocity would emerge.
Independent designers and makers are much more agile than global brands; they can quickly make use of pre- and post-consumer waste whenever opportunities present themselves or even make it a central part of their business model. In fact, they are already leading the way in this. Taking an example from Glasgow, upcycling brand ReJean Denim repurposes deadstock denim and preloved jeans into new, timeless pieces and offers a mending service to make sure the garment has as long a life as possible. This requires skill, but it also requires imagination – seeing waste as an opportunity, rather than a problem.
Exploring the problem of waste imaginatively – how long might a city such as Glasgow be able to sustain a diverse, creative clothing economy if all materials had to be sourced with city limits? Given the huge number of garments languishing in charity shops, clothing bins, textile recycling centres and even our own wardrobes, I doubt that designers would find themselves too limited if they only sourced their textiles locally – and, if they did, might it be worth exploring the value of this limitation? And might we start to question the notion that creative endeavour should never be limited, no matter the costs to our environment? Like most cities, we have fantastic local textile resources; we may not be able to grow cotton in Scotland, but we certainly have a lot of cotton right here already to work with. Truly imaginative designers can work with what they have in front of them, and we have so much.
The fast fashion culture we currently live in inevitably compromises quality to deliver at such a pace. Of course, there have always been varying levels of quality throughout the history of clothing production, but it is only in the last 50 or 60 years that we have seen the prevalence of planned obsolescence grow in the fashion industry. The big brands do not expect you to wear their garments more than 8-10 times, so why take the extra time in production to make them last 300 washes? A local clothing economy cannot exist in this manner. Local businesses depend on customer loyalty, online reviews, and word-of-mouth to maintain their clients. Furthermore, a disgruntled customer in a local clothing economy can have a greater impact than simply leaving a bad review; they can walk into your shop or visit your studio and demand a repair or refund in person. There is accountability, a necessary aspect of any healthy community.
Designers who have a role in the production of their collections will see the value in making something well for its own sake (the philosophy of a craftsmanvii) and, with many designers running ‘own name’ labels, who would want their name on a poorly made garment? Moreover, when you are working with or selling directly toa customer, there forms a human connection, a sense of obligation – that person has chosen you to make something, something that will touch their skin, keep them warm, change the way they feel about themselves. Amancio Ortega, billionaire and owner of Inditex (a fashion conglomerate that includes Zara, Bershka and Massimo Dutti) is unlikely to lose sleep when your Zara t-shirt starts to fall apart or when your jeans zip has broken after 2 wears and, regardless of how he might feel about either of these things, you cannot access him. As the writer Matthew Crawford says, “it’s this sense that there’s no one you can grab hold of by the lapels and hold to account…. that is the definition of tyranny: power that is not accountable…and is not operating with your best interests at heart”.viii
You can complain at your local Zara shop, write a post on Instagram, even post the faulty garment back in protest- but are any of these tactics likely to raise production and material standards at Zara? A local clothing economy has to, and wants to, produce high quality clothing – it is essential to its survival, justifying the necessary higher price points. Furthermore, making things well is fundamental to the philosophy shared by most people who make their own products. By making things that last and being locally accessible to offer repairs, a locally made clothing economy reduces waste, builds relationships and restores customer respect and appreciation for ‘a job well done’; no global brand can offer this.
But what about those who cannot afford to participate in a locally made clothing economy? The reality is that locally made clothing cannot and should not compete with the likes of Primark and BooHoo – in rebuilding a locally made industry, we do not want to copy the environmental or human exploitation of the global fashion industry. This requires a shift in thinking about the numbers of new clothes we can purchase per year. For a lot of people, buying locally is possible but it will mean buying less. In the context of Scotland, this may not be possible for those on the lowest incomes, even to meet their basic practical clothing needs. The city of Glasgow has some of the highest levels of deprivation in Western Europe and, whilst secondhand clothing can play a part here, we know that there exists real, understandable stigmas and shame around wearing secondhand. We must acknowledge that and be hopeful that revitalising a local clothing economy will just be one part of revitalising cities more broadly, and that by investing in the local makers, more jobs and better outcomes will be generated for the wider population. This is not ‘trickle-down’ economics as we have witnessed it, which in the words of Jason Hickel has been ‘barely even a vapour’ix, this is local investment with local beneficiaries. The fact that people cannot afford to buy a locally made £17 t-shirt (versus a £2 equivalent at Primark) is an indicator of poverty caused by an economy that needs to be urgently addressed politically, not through independent makers being paid less.
In the transition to a thriving local clothing economy, it is important that a broad range of tastes are catered for by local makers – for real change, this cannot be something solely for the sustainability-conscious middle classes. We need to bring along as many people as possible and everybody needs to feel welcome on the journey. One way to do this would be to reinstate local business in the heart of city centres. Why shouldn’t a visit to Glasgow’s famous ‘style mile’ on Buchanan Street bring you into contact with local fashion brands, tailors and dressmakers? Why has it become the norm that this territory belongs to global brands and conglomerates only? Brands who are happy to remove themselves when the going-gets-tough, leaving unemployment and desolate department stores behind them. These cities, these spaces, do not belong to global brands – they belong to us, the citizens.
At the beginning of this article I asked you to imagine a city, now I want you to imagine your city (or closest city, wherever that might be). Imagine all the shops, vacated through lockdown and recession, now populated with a diverse range of local makers. Imagine walking past a window, previously boarded up, lit bright and displaying a garment that was carefully made and made there – you may even be able to see the designer at work towards the back of the shop. Imagine a long-ignored, faded department store, re-painted and re-populated with local businesses. Imagine visiting other cities and discovering that city’s local talent and unique fashion scene – not a carbon copy of global brand after global brand. If local authorities and government wanted to make this happen, they absolutely could, they could certainly make a start – it just takes the will, and a bit of imagination.
i Common Objective. 2021. Volume and Consumption: How Much Does The World Buy?.
ii 1968. Kelly’s Directory of Glasgow, 1968. London: London, Kelly’s Directories Ltd
iii Common Objective. 2021. Volume and Consumption: How Much Does The World Buy?.
iv Notjustalabel.com. 2021. The Fashion Advertising Campaign: Big Business & Brand Identity.
v Pinnock, O., 2021. No One In Fashion Is Surprised Burberry Burnt £28 Million Of Stock.
vi Beall, A., 2021. Why clothes are so hard to recycle. [online] Bbc.com. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200710-why-clothes-are-so-hard-to-recycle
vii Sennett, R., 2009. The craftsman. London: Penguin Books.
viii EconTalk, 2021. Matthew Crawford on Why We Drive. [podcast] EconTalk. https://www.econtalk.org/matthew-crawford-on-why-we-drive/
ix Hickel, J., 2021. Less is More. London: Random House UK.