The Disconnect Between Fashion and Sustainability
Liz Ricketts is a force.
A graduate of Harvard and the University of Cincinnati, she returned to UoC where she became one of its fashion programme’s most treasured professors. In teaching her curriculum to students she made it a point to put sustainability at it’s core; meaning that for Liz’s fashion grads, sustainability isn’t merely an option or an elective or a signal of how woke they are, but rather the only way to problem solve and participate in an increasingly problematic industry. Today, she serves as the director of The OR Foundation, an organisation working to end modern day slavery through education and help students better understand the ethical issues of the fashion industry.
I only found all of this out after listening to Ricketts’ interview with designer and industry critic Recho Omondi on Omondi’s podcast The Cutting Room Floor. But what impacted me most about their conversation wasn’t Ricketts’ credentials, it was her profound and (to me, at least) original lens through which she is engaging in conversations around sustainability and fashion. Or more specifically, the disconnect and dissonance between the two.
In recent years, as we’ve become more socially-engaged consumers, we’ve become really good at demanding answers about where our clothes are made, by whom, in what conditions, and with what material, but we have in large part failed to apply that same urgency to demanding transparency around what happens to our clothes once we’ve finished with them. What their “afterlife” looks like. This was a lightbulb moment for me because, as someone who spends a lot of time reading into the business of fashion, I am well aware that waste is part of the system. You only need to look at brands like Zara or H&M who produce new merchandise every two weeks, knowing they won’t be able to sell it all, knowing they’ll mark it down in another six weeks, and knowing still that a lot of those garments won’t leave the store. And it’s not just fast-fashion; luxury house Burberry came under scrutiny when their 2018 annual report acknowledged that the firm had burned £28.6 million worth of unsold clothes, accessories and perfume. But what’s most terrifying about that story is that despite such a significant loss in merchandise, the company didn’t actually feel it as a loss: they still made shareholders happy that year, they still made a profit, and they still saw momentum in their online presence. Which means waste is, without question, built into their success model.
So then it’s worth asking: Is it that we don’t know what happens to our clothes in their afterlife, or that we’d rather not think about it? Ricketts’ believes it’s the latter: “Fashion is inherently personal and emotional, and therein lies the disconnect, cognitively, because a person isn’t going to buy something they deem beautiful, something that makes them feel beautiful, something they believe they’re going to love forever, and then in the same instance think about throwing it in the trash when they get sick of it. We don’t compute that. Even though that is exactly what ends up happening.”
But what I found most shocking about Ricketts’ insights wasn’t the waste, which we know to be at epidemic levels, but rather how toxic the second-hand clothing economy has become. There are two options for a garment when an owner no longer wants it: we can either throw it in the bin (where it will ultimately end up in landfill) or we can donate it. But while donating sounds admirable, Ricketts cited research which found that donation centres and charities in the US can only process and sell 10 to 20% of all donated clothes. 30 to 50% of donated clothes will be down-cycled into things like insulation for homes and cotton rags for cleaning, and the rest will be exported to second-hand clothing markets around the world. In places like Ghana, 99.9% of people use second-hand clothing as their primary source of consumption, which at face value sounds like a good solution to the problem, but researchers are now examining whether the Global South wanted to become reliant on second-hand clothing in the first place, and in addition, is it right to assume that those clothes won’t also end up in landfill once their new owners tire of them? Ricketts’ sees the Deficit Myth as being key here, “The Deficit Myth is the false belief that somewhere in the world there is somebody poorer than you, in worst circumstances than you, that needs the stuff you no longer want. It’s the way we justify donating our clothes and it allows us to remove accountability and position ourselves as the “saviour”.” In places like Kantamanto, Ghana, approximately 100 containers are being offloaded on a weekly basis, with each container holding 400 bales, thus totalling roughly 15 million new garments per week – a figure hugely at odds with the volume of clothing actually needed by the people of Ghana (a country with a population of 30 million). Not to mention the environmental and human cost of logistics, shipping and sorting. This is where the narrative of “voting with your dollar” fails because it allows us to justify accumulating more stuff with the belief that we can give it away when we’re done and still make the world a better place.
I know that fashion’s waste crisis is a big conversation, and this article only scratches the surface, but leaders like Liz Ricketts enable us to reflect on our individual roles as consumers, no matter how uncomfortable or shameful we discover them to be. Which leads me to my final point: despite the dire diagnosis put forward by Ricketts, we can’t let the urgency of “perfection” detract us from seeing how much value there is in simply being “good” at sustainability. Good is starting. Good is participating. Good is being a little better today than you were yesterday, and hopefully a little better again tomorrow.
So when you think about it, good is, in fact, perfect.