If you’re wearing a buttoned up top, chances are that secreted somewhere on its inside is a spare button, sewn onto a label, tucked under a hem. If your shirt were to pop a button, would you be able to make use of this spare? Or would you just throw away the shirt and order a new one? Sewing a few stitches used to be a skill as basic as reading and writing. But the fact that we collectively send £140m of clothing to landfill each year suggests that things have changed.
Today marks the end of London Fashion Week, the annual devotion to the worst excesses of this environmentally destructive industry. Across the EU, almost six million tonnes of new clothes are bought per year, which averages out at about 13kg each. Here in the UK, we buy the most, and throw away a million tonnes a year. The environmental impact of producing, manufacturing and disposing of this amount of produce is self-evidently ruinous.
Despite all this, we exalt the brands on display at London Fashion Week as the highest of high culture, even as their business model trashes the biosphere. This has to stop. Last year, the Environmental Audit Committee put together a set of recommendations for making fashion more sustainable, such as mandatory environmental targets. This comes not a moment too soon. It’s time to think big about how we make these companies lessen their impact in an age of climate emergency.
Here’s one idea. Across the EU, there is a right to repair on white goods, meaning that manufacturers of goods like washing machines and refrigerators are obliged to fix or provide spare parts for any units which break down for up to ten years. Imagine if we applied the principle of this legislation to clothing manufacturers, meaning that brands were obliged to help you repair and restyle clothes, rather than encouraging you to throw them into the bin and pick the shopping basket back up.
You might go into your local Topshop, and along with the slew of new “experiences” with which late capitalism uses to woo its customers into bricks-and-mortar shops, you might have a repair station, both to provide minor fixes, but also to lead workshops on upcycling and restyling. At a time when high street brands are struggling to bring people in, they could help bring people together to learn new crafts, while keeping textiles out of landfill.
Remember that spare button. The fact that it’s still sewn into new clothes speaks to a deeply rooted tradition of repair which fast fashion has only recently swept away on a tidal wave of cheap clothes. It reminds us what we know to be true: there’s really no reason we should be throwing away so much perfectly good clothing for want of a small bit of stitching, or worse still, because it is declared to be out of season by an industry which demands exponentially increasing sales.
There are undercurrents of backlash against fast fashion, evidenced by skills like knitting regaining popularity among young people in the form of things like “stitch and bitch” societies in students’ unions. While such skills skipped over baby boomers, redundant and passe in the golden decades of consumer capitalism, a revival of craft is now threading post-crash millennials back to their thrifty make-do-and-mend grandparents. This is hugely encouraging.
As with any aspects of the climate and ecological emergencies, individual action alone isn’t going to solve the crisis. Like fossil fuel extraction, factory farming, and all other major drivers of the climate crisis – fast fashion is another symptom of an economy which demands perpetual growth. This guarantees a reckoning with planetary limits. Instead, we must move to a more circular model of production, and develop a deeper appreciation of the things which we own, fostering a culture of reusing, repairing, and restyling.
While systemic change is undoubtedly needed across an industry which produces a full 10 per cent of global carbon emissions, a small start can start with a needle and thread. After all, as the old saying (almost) goes, a stitch in time saves around 20,000 kilos of water. It may not feel like a revolutionary act, but learning to sew on that spare button is a small act of resistance against the environmental degradation of late capitalism. Then button up that shirt, and demand action from the manufacturers too.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies