Essay: Code Red - Fashion & Climate Change

by Amy de la Haye on 12 August 2021

Dress historian and curator Amy de la Haye explores how our relationship with clothing has changed over time, and industrialisation's detrimental impact on the climate.

Dress historian and curator Amy de la Haye explores how our relationship with clothing has changed over time, and industrialisation's detrimental impact on the climate.

On 7 August 2021 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published their report Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers. Finally, there is a near-global consensus that human decision-making and actions are responsible for the catastrophic extremes and accelerated rates of world climate change. Over the past 16 months, this essay series has looked at the history of dress in response to different crises from times past; all the whilst we've been living in a crises – multiple and extreme – of our own human making. We cannot reverse the accelerating rise in sea levels, but we can make profound changes by significantly cutting carbon emissions. I am not an expert on the environment, nor on sustainable fashion solutions. But, as a dress historian and curator, I am acutely aware that our relationship with the clothes we wear has significantly shifted. Here, I touch on some of the ways and reasons - pecuniary, perception, patriotism, political and personal – why.

The continual reduction in quality, make and price of clothes, was matched by how we valued them.
'Sweet Lassi', photograph Priya Ahluwalia, 2018. The London designer published a photography book documenting Panipat, India, which is the global capital of second-hand clothing. In the West, less than one percent of clothing is recycled.

The top three worst polluters are the energy, transportation and manufacturing industries. In terms of water usage alone, fashion is the second largest consumer, responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions (that is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined). It takes 2,700 litres of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt - in a world where droughts are ever more frequent and many millions of people are denied access to safe drinking water. The pandemic has generated significant positive environmental changes in the way we experience, purchase and wear fashion; brands are joining global coalitions to promote sustainable practice, such as Kering's The Fashion Pact, and launching circular initiatives; Gucci's Off The Grid being one.

However, the fact remains that we buy over twice as many clothes as we did in 2005 and often keep them for half as long. In recent years, recycling, upcycling, responsible sourcing, localism and sustainability have undoubtedly become more attractive to some consumers who want to invest in ethical firms and buy fewer, higher quality, garments. Sustainable practice is a must for any brand manifesto in 2021; patchwork and upcycling has attained luxury status with designers such as Priya Ahluwalia celebrated as the torchbearers for a new generation. But, they represent a tiny - albeit growing - market sector. In general, the cycle from crop to shop to consumer to landfill has spiralled terrifyingly out of control.

A major reason much apparel ends up in landfill is the erosion of the most rudimentary repair skills, such as sewing on a button or turning up a hem. A few high-end firms now offer free alteration and repair services and there have been concerted efforts to teach people to sew, patch and darn. And, there is a gradual shift in perception – to regard such interventions as creative acts to be worn as a badge of honour. However, some garments never require mending. In 2019 the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion reported that the fashion industry (valued at some $2.4 trillion) lost about $500 billion of value every year due to the lack of recycling and clothes thrown into landfill before ever being sold.

Ahluwalia S/S 20, featuring panel details cut from surplus fabrics
Patch-worked and embroidered National Liberation skirt. This style was championed by the Dutch resistance fighter and feminist Mies-van-Lennep Boissevain. They comprised female political commentary on reconstruction and social renewal.

Pre-industrialisation, the making of textiles was highly labour intensive; plant and animal fibres (cotton, flax, silk and wool) were harvested, spun, dyed and woven by hand. As such, they were highly priced and highly valued, their use often extended over decades. Examining elite 18th century fashionable dress in museum collections – the dress ordered by people with incredible wealth - it is rare to find a garment that has not been altered over the passage of time, quite often more than once to adapt to changing fashion trends and, by the 19th century, re-purposed for fancy dress balls.

With the industrialisation of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, textiles and clothing production was greatly accelerated. John Kay invented the flying shuttle for weaving in 1733, the sewing machine was developed in the 1790s and mass produced from 1846 (Elias Howe) and cheaper chemical dyes were available from 1856 (Henry Perkin). Whilst some craft ateliers continued to serve luxury markets – the fashion clients about whom Thorstein Veblen penned his famous Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) which articulated the rationale for, and appeal of, conspicuous consumption – most production units; for textiles, trimmings and sewing clothing, increasingly exploited a sub-division of cheap, flexible (employment was seasonal) de-skilled labour. The continual reduction in quality, make and price of clothes, was matched by how we valued them.

In 1966 the ultimate in ephemeral fashion hit the market in the form of, no need to wash or store, one-time-wear ‘throwaway’ printed paper (which were in fact bonded fibre) dresses. But these were novelty items. In 1978, aged fourteen years, I worked in Miss Selfridge on Saturdays. It took three weeks wages to buy one desirable garment. I can still recall the multi-patterned, printed cotton, grandad-collared shirt I selected so (so) carefully to wear with my Lee dungarees, punky plastic sandals and neon socks. Today, high street clothes have become so cheap they are bought by the bag full; individual items worn just once or twice, if worn at all. In spite of the recent backlash of the slow fashion movement, materials, make and human labour are all-too-often dismissed as ‘disposable’ and the human costs and environmental impact are devastating.

The reasons for extending the life of clothes can be political and patriotic, as well as pecuniary. During the Second World War (1939-45) many materials were re-directed towards the war effort or could no longer be imported. Human labour was also in great demand and so garments were well-made in order to last. So, fashion became rationed; not only in terms of how many items could be purchased, but also the quantity of materials that could be used for individual garments. Far from quashing creativity, restrictions fired imaginations. Although the rich had large pre-war wardrobes and – as ever – many people could not afford to buy new clothing, with or without coupons – a greater democracy occurred. In diametric contrast to Veblen’s theory, it was considered both stylish and patriotic to extend the life of garments by mending and re-modelling them.

For centuries, ‘snippets’ of cloth have been imaginatively pieced together to make personalised household furnishings; during the war they were also used to fashion garments. These items were redolent with personalised meanings as the longer-term biography of former use could be recalled as could the many hours spent placing and stitching. Some women added politicised statements – in the form of embroidery – onto their garments, adding further layers of meaning to a medium already so eloquent in its power to communicate.

Fashion does not exist in a vacuum. Recent collections - such as at Copenhagen Fashion Week where responsible business practice is a requirement for showing on the official schedule - and initiatives bear evidence that designers, makers and consumers are looking to the past to create current solutions. Since the 1970s, books such as Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (1971), E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973) and perhaps the singularly most influential individual of a generation, Sir David Attenborough, have brought the issues we face today to public attention. In our own industry, the 1990s eco-fashion movement, scores of organisations, reports, conferences and campaigns have repeatedly raised the alert and taken positive action. What difference will an ‘official code red’ make to the way we live and consume? 


Sir Joshua Reynolds, 'The Ladies Waldegrave', oil on canvas, (143.00 x 168.30 cm), 1870, National Galleries Scotland. Although sewing is historically associated with dressmakers and the hard work of the lower classes, it was also a pastime and virtue of elite women in society.


Image Gallery

Day 5: Fashion & Activism

05 December 2020
Day five of 'From Front Row To Front Bench' sees Fashion Roundtable invite a series of activists to discuss activism in the fashion industry.

Meet The Designers Redefining London Fashion Week

30 May 2020
The London designers leading the way towards fashion's future.
Live Panel Discussion

Fashion Revolution - Fashion Week Values

13 September 2019
Guest chair Tamsin Blanchard is joined by Orsola de Castro, Emma Slade Edmondson, Alice Wilby, Stavros Karelis and Rahemur Rahman to discuss fashion week values.
Back to top