‘Fashionopolis’ Author Dana Thomas: “Fashion Needs to Rethink Success, Beauty and Growth”

Following the release of her latest book, ‘Fahionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes,’ author Dana Thomas speaks to Beatrice Murray-Nag about how globalisation has changed the fashion industry, as well as the redefining of values needed for a more sustainable future.  

“What am I going to wear?” 

It’s a question that permeates our lives, from the moment we wake up in the morning to when we go to bed at night and begin thinking about tomorrow. Clothing influences the quotidian routines of every person on the planet, and that is exactly why journalist and author Dana Thomas uses it as an entry point to speak about the larger problems within our system. 

As we meet to discuss about her new book, Thomas tells me how she has had to swap cycling around the streets of Paris for the London Underground this week. The simple statement is something of a metaphor for her innate understanding of individual actions and their bigger impact, which begins to unfurl as we converse. Having started out with dreams of becoming a political reporter, she tells me how she fell into a role as a fashion assistant for The Washington Post. It was from here that she caught on to the unique link between the two seemingly distant worlds. “It suddenly became clear that being a fashion editor of a newspaper didn’t just mean writing about hemlines and shoes,” she recalls. “It was a much bigger thing. It was also about politics, business and social anthropology, and I liked that.”

“Now I use fashion to tell a bigger story,” Thomas explains to me, as our conversation naturally takes course towards the title of her new book, Fahionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, an echo of Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian film Metropolis. “I’m talking about the unbridled globalisation and the backlash of it; and the backlash of capitalism. It’s just an easier way to explore these ideas because everyone gets dressed in the morning and they can understand clothes. You can talk about supply chains and you can talk about the impact on the environment in a way that’s easy to comprehend.” 

Her latest work is a relatable, tangible exposé on the inner workings of an ever-growing, profit-driven industry. This commercial phenomenon has set a new benchmark for the sheer speed at which new collections are released, and the volume of garments being produced. “That’s the fast fashion cycle,” explains Thomas, citing how even luxury labels are being pulled into a model of continuous production and newness. “They reset the clock for everybody.”

Then there’s the scale on which things are produced. In a globalised society, the world is smaller and materials cross the oceans from one corner to another before they even end up in store. “Offshoring has created this fractured supply chain where we don’t know how our clothes are made,” she explains. “And it’s not just as consumers that we don’t know how our clothes are made, it’s the companies too. Whenever they get into trouble, their answer is simply: ‘We had no idea that our contractor had subcontracted to that factory.’ Which is ridiculous. In the modern age with all the technology we have, you can’t hide behind ‘I had no idea.’” 

Beyond the sheer speed, volume and scale of the fast fashion industry, it becomes a mentality question. We are consumers living in the epoch of social media and influencer culture, where relentless advertising and promotions constantly urge us to buy more. We wear something seven times before throwing it away, and for Thomas, our attitude to clothing has been ingrained in us through the current business model. “We are conditioned to treat clothes like this because of fast fashion’s marketing of fashion to us,” she theorises. “It’s cheap, it’s disposable, and we burn through it. It’s changed our perception of our wardrobes.” 

So, what does this constant cycle of buying and discarding mean for our planet? “It’s a flawed idea that we can keep pumping out clothes at this humungous rate and think that we are just going to keep absorbing them somehow,” Thomas explains. “We’re going to have to come up with a plan B, because there is going to be a point where we’re drowning in clothes. We already are. But we’re going to really be drowning in clothes.” 

If fashion, people and planet are to ever peacefully coexist, it’s going to require a huge shift in mindset and a redefinition of values. “We need to rethink what is considered success, beauty, and growth,” she summarises. “Saying you’re the biggest company, you own the most or you have the highest turnover is not necessarily a sign of success. And there’s nothing beautiful about having a disregard for the entire supply chain, the people on the supply chain and the Earth that has given us all this bounty. We have to rethink what success and beauty mean for fashion, in the parameters of ethics, responsibility and consciousness.” 

“And when it comes to growth, as David Attenborough said, ‘you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. From the minute we’re born, you and I grow in size. We get taller and taller and taller. And then there’s a moment where we stop growing. We even shrink a bit, later on. But we stop growing, we hit our height about 17 or 18 years old. Now if we were a fashion company, would we keep growing and growing and growing until we were all giants? And then more. Right? Through to the moon. That’s completely ridiculous.”

“What we do instead is that we reach out maturity point in growing vertically, and then we grow in other ways. We mature, we grow intellectually, we grow grey; we grow in all these different ways but it’s still growth. It’s horizontal, it’s intellectual… it’s evolution and companies need to do that. There is a point when they have reached their vertical height and they must evolve in smarter ways, taking what they are doing and doing it more efficiently, more ethically, more beautifully.”

Yet it isn’t all negative, and one thing that shines through in Fashionopolis is the huge potential for a better industry in the future. Thomas sustains that through re-prioritising localisation in a globalised world, we can work our way towards a more sustainable system. One way to do this is through rightshoring. “Rightshoring is great,” she explains. “It’s the idea that you take these abandoned factories and the towns that were gutted after all the offshoring, you refit them with state-of-the-art machinery and technology and you get them back into business.” And then there’s technology. “Since the book came out, I also get an email pretty much every day through my website from entrepreneurs: they are doing conscious fashion, ethical fashion, responsible fashion, organic, hand crafted, direct to consumer – I’m hearing from all sorts of people and start-ups. Or really interesting tech that’s going to make a cleaner, less wasteful system.”

“I think what we’re going to come up with is a new way of doing business. The old ways of doing things are great: the factories where you had dressmakers and you had tailors, you had people weaving beautiful fabrics and you had craftsmen and artisans making things locally for people. You can hybrid this with the idea of the high-tech revolution where you have computers that allow for smart manufacturing. There’s a new path that is absolutely possible by taking the best of the old model and the best of the new and leaving all those bad things behind.”

“Every day, it seems, we get another one of these horrible reports that tell us we’re doomed. But there is a lot of movement out there to stop that. If we can whack at the big machines and they lose some of their oomph and therefore have less impact, or we manage to convince them that they have to include zero waste and ethical practices, then we’ll be okay. And I think we can do it if we put our minds to it. It’s out there, it’s possible. We just have to decide: do we have the moral compass to do the right thing?”

“I feel like I should just keep going to CEOs and giving them a compass, and say ‘Here. Do you have what it takes to go true north?”