First the bad news, then the good: that’s the structure of this book. You can see it in the subtitle—“The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes.”
The bad news section of the book, about a fifth of total, enumerates the many problems plaguing the contemporary fashion industry. The production of raw materials, both natural and man-made fibers, produces waste and toxic chemicals. The construction of garments relies on underpaid workers, many of whom labor in unsafe environments. Moreover, we are in the midst of a crisis of over consumption of clothing. Shoppers now buy five time more clothing than they did in 1980—and a lot of those clothes end up in landfills. It is a bleak picture, but not unfamiliar to anyone who reads about the garment industry.
By contrast, the “good news” part of the book contained a lot of surprises. She examines growers of organic cotton and natural indigo who are combining to produce jeans that are much less destructive to the environment. Small startups have discovered how to separate cotton and polyester in used clothes in order to create new fibers, giving discarded clothes new life. In the world of garment production, she visits sparkling factories and even sees robots making clothes. Many small companies like Alabama Chanin, only make clothing on demand, which radically cuts down on waste. Thomas even sees changes in garment consumption. Some buyers are turning to thrift stores and vintage clothes, while others are learning to rent rather than buy what they need for special occasions.
The section on designer Stella McCartney was a revelation. From the outset, McCartney rejected leather and fur for her clothing. That meant using synthetics, but she has played a big role in financing small enterprises to come up with more sustainable solutions. When she discovered the exceptionally high pollution created by PVC plastic, she invested in research to help find an alternative. All of the nylon she uses is recycled, produced by a company she helped to fund. It shows that clothing creators with a vision–and cash–can have a big impact.
I approached the “good news” with some skepticism. The companies she examines are small islands in a sea of harmful practices. Global statistics show that clothing and accessory production continues to rise, creating more piles of waste.
But in the spirit of the New Year, let’s hope that the small steps Thomas points to will be the beginning of real change in how we make and buy our clothes.