Remember when everyone thought sustainable fashion meant donning an itchy hemp shirt and baggy soy trousers? Things have come on a lot since then as more people begin to realise being sustainable doesn’t mean you can’t be stylish.
The ‘sustainaissance’ has been spurred on by the increasing awareness of how much it costs to produce everyday items of clothing; and we’re not just talking about the cheap labour. The average cotton shirt requires 2,700 litres of water, which is nothing compared to the 11,000 litres it takes to make just one pair of jeans. That’s just the beginning. While many people around the world struggle to put clothes on their backs, each year the fashion industry wastes millions of tons of unused fabric.
With transient trends facilitated by the ubiquity of low-cost clothing stores, we’ve become all too used to buying cheap and buying often. As demand continues, the longer the fashion industry is able to exploit underpaid workers overseas and the more damaging it is to the environment. While some high street brands, including H&M and Levis, have made concerted efforts to become more sustainable, there is still a long way to go for many others to catch up.
So, what exactly can we do about it? Can you, as an individual, really make a difference? Absolutely. Even the smallest change can help to break the cycle and have a positive impact. Eleanor Snare, teaching fellow in Fashion Marketing at the University of Leeds and marketing consultant for creative businesses, says: “Sustainable fashion tries to slow the cycle down and make capitalism more palatable and less damaging, and your clothing more meaningful. It can help you look individual, beautiful and not damage people or the planet”
Eleanor suggests seeking out and consciously purchasing well-made new and second-hand pieces, as this nurtures individuality and protects the planet. You may spend slightly more on a single item, but it will have meaning and not be detrimental to the environment. Not only will our clothing be thoughtfully created and more durable, we’ll also develop a unique personal style rather than flippantly following the same trends as everyone else.
Eleanor believes that drawing on our City’s textile history and pooling our design talent can help us to make Leeds a vanguard in sustainable fashion: “We know textiles, and we know textile production, so there’s tons of material knowledge embedded in the City and surrounding areas which we could use. Once we do, we can influence retailers, companies, and the fashion industry to work in a more sustainable way.
“There’s something like 60,000 students in Leeds and plenty of fashion design, marketing and textile specialists. The future of the fashion industry will be one where sustainable practices are not a selling point or afterthought, they will be essential because we won’t have the energy or people to fuel its voracious appetite. So for Leeds to start thinking about sustainable fashion now means we can provide education and work for our students which will prepare them much better for a radically-changed industry.”
With the opening of Victoria Gate more money if now generated through mainstream fashion retail, and more shoppers will be lured towards high street stores. As a major emerging fashion destination, it’s increasingly important for Leeds as a city to start thinking more sustainably.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be excited about the impending shopping centre, or do a spot of shopping in the long-awaited John Lewis. It just means if we all try to make more of an effort to change a few shopping habits, and the way we think about fashion, as a city we can play an important part in the war against waste.
Shopping in independent stores, or heading along to a clothes exchange like the Saturday Swap Shop or Leeds Community Clothes Exchange, is a good way to start. Even nipping into the charity store instead of the high street to find something to wear for a night on the town can make a difference. Lowering demand for new clothing will help the environment, and encourage unique style, creating a more colourful and interesting fashion landscape.
With Eleanor’s help we’ve pulled together five tips to help you be more sustainable with your fashion choices. Even if you only give one or two of the following Five Rs a go, you’ll be playing your part in making Leeds a leader in sustainable fashion.
Everyone has a few items of clothing they no longer wear but leave sitting in the wardrobe. Instead of throwing them out, why not start recycling unwanted clothes? Donate to a charity shop, or take them along to a clothes swap. If an item is beyond wearing, you could even cut it up and use it as a dishcloth or for arts and crafts, such as stuffing for a cushion.
You may or may not be a dab hand with a sewing kit and a tin of shoe polish, but if you want to be more sustainable now’s the time to learn! Repairing your clothes, as well as polishing and having your shoes occasionally re-heeled or re-soled, extends their life and stops them from ending up in the bin. If you’ve not repaired clothing before, stream a YouTube tutorial or ask a friend or family member to teach you how.
Kate Middleton might be praised for wearing a dress twice, but for us mere mortals repeat wearing is the norm. Reusing items in your wardrobe doesn’t just mean wearing them more than once. Instead of buying clothes you don’t plan to wear regularly, try to only buy items you could wear up to 30 different ways. It’s an idea pioneered by Livia Firth (it even has its own Insta-hashtag, #30wears), and can help you to get the most out of your wardrobe.
It’s tempting to purchase a new item every time you pass your favourite high street shop, but one of the biggest way to contribute to a sustainable fashion industry is reducing how much you buy. Consider the #30wears challenge each time you buy something; if an item doesn’t make the cut, think about whether you really need it. You could also try buying from some of Leeds’s excellent independent designers, who make beautiful items on a small scale so they’re unique and sustainable. Cabba, Bo Carter and Lambert’s Yard are all great places to start.
Probably the hardest of The Five Rs is refusing to take part in the current fashion model. If you’re serious about making a big change, think about the relationship you have with clothing. Do your clothes represent you, or are they just one part? Could you stop shopping in the high street shops, only purchasing from independents and, if possible, making your own clothing? It would certainly be a challenge, one which Eleanor has taken up this year, and if you choose to join her your wardrobe could become a meaningful reflection of yourself, and your values.
To find out more about Eleanor and the work she does, take a look at her website: eleanorsnare.com