Cause For Concern – The Researchers Calling For Fashion Change

Eco-Age contributing editor Lucy Siegle speaks to Kate Fletcher about the goals of the Union for Concerned Researchers in Fashion.

Fashion is failing and failing. That’s what the analysis is telling us, from a newly published NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights study that catalogues the disastrous foray of fast fashion into Ethiopia, the lowest wage economy on earth, to the recent update to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 report. Despite being regarded as something of an insider’s take on the industry, the Pulse update showed that the slew of sustainable initiatives launched as a response to ethical environmental issues don’t seem to be having the desired effect. The fashion industry is failing to get close to counterbalancing the harmful impact of an ever swelling clothing inventory, continues to be a net contributor to climate change, and currently even Pollyanna herself would have trouble believing it will be able to decarbonise in line with the Paris Agreement. When a sector marking its own homework is giving itself a D minus, then I’m afraid ladies and gentlemen we are in deep in the doo doo. 

So what’s to be done? As we come to the end of what I regard as the industry’s annual horse and pony show, the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, we will have discovered precious few answers. Although we will almost certainly have 200 more initiatives and a cynic may say enough sustainable rhetoric emitted to power a mid-sized Nordic town. Chat is in abundance. It’s frank evidence and clear-eyed solutions that are in short supply. 

Enter the Union for Concerned Researchers in Fashion. The UCRF, founded by academics Kate Fletcher, Lynda Grose, Timo Rissanen and Mathilda Tham emerged in January with a manifesto that puts some sanity back into the quest for a just and sustainable fashion industry. It also aims to stop us disappearing down convenient yet ineffective rabbit holes. So far, as well as the manifesto, ahead of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit the UCRF issued a damning statement unpicking the super charged rhetoric of the event’s press releases. The gloves are off.

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Whatever the disgruntled would have you believe, this is not devilment, or spite or jealousy or misunderstanding. The actions of the UCRF are motivated by genuine, well, concern. In tone, their cut through and lesson in first principles is reminiscent of Great Thunberg and her recent no-BS climate tour. Let’s hope they are as successful.  

Of course, it is not just in fashion where scientific researchers are banding together and attempting to cut through the noise with evidence and careful informed argument. It is understandable when we have such a critical timeframe to act on emissions concentrations and keeping the world to 1.5 degrees as framed by the Paris Accord. And it’s not just climate change, but the interconnected global goals and biosphere issues including the mass extinction of flora and fauna that need to be tackled. Against this backdrop, it is not just distracting to come up with a load of smoke and mirrors protocols that essentially allow business as usual, it is immoral. 

The Union for Concerned Researchers in Fashion is a welcome voice to which we need to listen, urgently. Indeed if you love this industry and are wholeheartedly committed to social and ecological justice within it (which I guess is why you stopped off at Eco Age in the first place!) then you’ll find their intervention not only timely, but liberating. I caught up with one of the founders, Kate Fletcher….

LS: For many years Kate your name has been synonymous with the most authentic and interesting work not just in the process of making fashion, but in how we consume. With colleagues you’ve now formed the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion as a bulwark to counteract some of the myths and dead-ends that are swamping the sustainable fashion response. Give me an example of some of the assumptions that you are addressing? 


Well to take an assumption as a starting point, it’s often said if you’re working in fibre in the fashion field that you should look to what’s going on in food for new ideas, innovation and where can we go next.  Now, in many ways food and fashion are alike. That gives rise to the great phrase ‘fibre follows food’. 

So I thought about this and conducted a thought experiment where I was compared and contrasted the differences and similarities. Now I don’t deny that there are many wonderful and constructive similarities. But there are also loads of crazy differences. The crucial difference here is that food is used up when you have a meal. With a garment it’s entirely durable and it’s going to be there for the next 30 or 40 years. So if you acknowledge this critical difference many of the approaches that we employ in food, don’t work in fashion at all. 

LS: And according to you that difference has a bearing on how well circular economy principles can work in fashion? Am I right in saying you have rather less faith in circularity as a fashion fix? 

KF: Yes, I think the circular economy model in particular is allied to food rather than to fibre. If you take food packaging, it is governed by reasons to do with hygiene. Now I don’t necessarily understand or support all of those reasons, but food packaging has to be remade every time (in this system). Therefore it fits much better with the cicular economy. The fashion system doesn’t need that. A garment can be worn many times before the materials that it’s made from need to be recaptured and remade. 

LS: And yet the model for fashion approaches clothing as if it were packaging? 

KF: Yes. If you think about it, when it comes to food each new meal is an opportunity to consume. That’s what a meal is. So the food system, is a fully fledged consumer good, and non durable, so it maps on very nicely with capitalism because each new meal is an  opportunity to consume afresh. But each time you put on an outfit it’s not a time to buy a new outfit, and buy afresh. It’s actually time to use the stuff you’ve already got. And so there’s no market opportunity. 

LS: or at least there shouldn’t be any market opportunity. But the fast fashion system has created an incredible market opportunity? 

KF: yes by taking a durable good and making it less durable, even disposable in order to benefit financially from it. So that’s the great drift that we are part of; from fashion being a durable good that had intrinsic material value to a piece that has brand value and style value but no inherent material value. 

Once those conditions are in place, then the circular economy can work because the system is skewed towards transience, over the nature of dressing and re-dressing. 

LS: Polyester is the single most dominant textile fibre [accounting for over 65% of global fibre use]. Add on cotton, the second most dominant fibre, and between them cotton and polyester account for over 85% of the fibre used globallyWhat do you see as the issues with this dual dominance? 

KF: Relying on plastic (as in polyester) means that we concentrate the environmental effects in very narrow, particular places. And so with polyester these issues lie around our dependency on oil through to the high consumption of energy and associated costs of that energy burden in terms of climate emissions. Now in the last five years new knowledge around microfibre pollution and the absolutely catastrophic impact of the release of textile fibres from the surface of garments, (just in the process of wearing them normally, not even doing crazy things with them) should have sharpened our understanding of the drawbacks of this dominance. I am sure there are some end uses where it’s the right material, but at the moment it is being used inappropriately most of the time. 

LS: Would it be wrong to suggest that plastic’s appeal to fashion brands lies in its cheapness? 

KF: No! That’s absolutely it. The problem is that the alternatives are expensive and because of the dominance of price within all of these conversations that are being had within brands, alternatives rarely get a look in.  Ultimately what we need to move towards is a much smaller system. So I would say that plastics are part of the reason as to why we’ve got a problem of over-production and over-consumption. It’s not the only reason but cheap plastic is a chief reason.

LS: Back to the circular economy, because that is billed as a fix for this. Do you have further reservations? 

KF: The Circular economy for textiles is largely predicated on the continuous recycling of polyester fibre and while technically that is possible without any loss of quality, I think that only happens in a couple of places at the moment. There is another drift that’s going on and that’s to lower quality. But let’s park that for a minute, because the other issues are around a lowering of expectations around the consumer’s ideas around garments. If the message is that clothing can be endlessly recycled, that’s a sign that it is disposable. All in all, there’s a constant undermining of the idea that clothes are precious and that you should take care of them and that they have an intrinsic value. There’s a worrying concern that nobody now knows what is a good thing. Then there’s the concern about the circular economy as a whole. The truth is, it’s predicated on consumption. Both consuming a new piece and then recycling it again and then consuming a new piece and that idea is fundamentally at odds with the finite limit nature of the resource base. 

LS: So there’s still an environmental cost? 

KF: Yes, just one we don’t acknowledge. Even if it’s the same materials that are going around and around, it’s not free to do that because logistics of getting a polyester garment from Manchester to the recycling plant in Germany, or wherever it may be are really expensive. And then there’s the cost of recycling itself. While I don’t think it takes much in terms of water resources, certainly energy is quite high. Not as high as producing the virgin garment, yes, but still high. And these things are never discussed let alone the issue of microplastics – also not discussed.

LS: We’ve seen studies over the years on polyester where it comes out well from an environmental point of view. To determine which material is best we’ve always used a process of Life Cycle Assessments or Analysis (LCAs). Should they be re-evaluated? 

KF: Absolutely. One of the failings of LCAs is that what we haven’t done is fully understood the ‘use’ phase. They still tend to be pretty generic at the moment, taking an article of clothing and supposing that it will be subjected to 20 standard washes and wears. At least until recently. Recently we had an important paper that lifted the lid on this for the first time. [Kate refers to Laitala, Kirsi & Klepp, Ingun & Henry, B.K.. (2018). Use phase of apparel: A literature review for Life Cycle Assessment with focus on wool. 10.13140/RG.2.2.25769.90729] For the first time now, they are really beginning to understand the use phase in this much more nuanced way, a much closer approximation with how things are used. When you get to this point the figures around LCA completely change.

LS: so does this mean that all those industry-standard figures will have to be re-evaluated? 

KF: It does. In fact, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is already going through this process with the Higg index. The point in the particular LCAs. Historically I know a lot of the LCA work that is generated around polyester using comparative studies are always done against cotton. Because cotton is always seen as the devil incarnate, the worst environmental offender then everything else looks brilliant! It’s a very low base. 

LS: So what can we do?

KF: Well I have an idea. Most of the ideas we’ve been developing around sustainability in fashion from a materials perspective we’ve arrived at via a logic that’s based on cotton garments. These need regular laundry, are sort of cheap, and don’t last. So if we used garments with wool as the logic, which are much more durable then the priorities completely shift. It would be like putting on a different pair of glasses. 

LS: so it’s like change the lens, change the fibre?

KF: Yes, we’re stuck. The legacy of looking at this issue from a cotton-based world, through this lens, is why we’re trapped [in poor decision making]. We could choose to put on different glasses, different fibre and things would look different. 

LS: Well thank you for making me change my spectacles. It’s been very refreshing and long may the Union of Concerned Researchers continue injecting sanity into the sustainable fashion movement. 

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