Viime viikolla olin mukana Demos Helsingin organisoimassa tekstiili-aihesessa Peloton-klubissa (Putte’sissa, herkullista pitsaa oli tarjolla sekä puhujille että kuulijoille!). Minun aiheenani oli vaatteiden laadun tärkeys ja mitä tämänhetkisen tilanteen kohentamiseksi voisi tehdä.
Last week I participated in an event called Peloton club, which is organized by Demos Helsinki. My topic was clothing quality, why it is important and hw to fix current problematic situation.
Clothes and textile consumption has been rising for centuries, but it has shot up in the past twenty years. In Sweden the consumption of clothes has gone up 40 percent since 2000, and the situation is similar in other Nordic and European countries.
None of us would bee too happy, if we went back to three kilograms of garment fibers per person. It’s not sufficient to cover basic needs. But the current situation is also not good. We produce too much, buy too much, own too much and throw away too much.
We need to cut back a bit, slowing down clothes consumption, maybe to the levels of seventies or eighties. So we are not talking about asceticism here, having just one dress and one sock which has a hole, no, we are talking about being well clothed but just not in excess. Using the same clothes longer, buying used instead of new, repairing, and of course new post-ownership models like leasing, renting and sharing clothes.
And all of these directly depend on long-lasting, well-made clothes. In short GOOD QUALITY.
Only good quality clothes are sustainable. It takes approximately the same amount of input, like water, energy and chemicals, to make a shirt that lasts five hundred uses as a shirt that lasts five uses. It does not matter if production process is a little bit more ecological, if it produces a shirt which is discarded soon.
At the moment – it’s more financially rewarding to manufacture plenty of clothes for as cheap as possible and sell them with fast turnaround, that is, the fast fashion system, than to make more carefully constructed, better material clothes which are purchased quite seldom.
Speed and low price would not be possible if not for huge compromises on quality.
But at the moment it just is financially smarter move for a clothing company to use cheaper fabric made from cheaper yarn, faster and cheaper construction and basically cut corners where ever possible. It just does not pay to use better but more expensive materials. Fast fashion, low quality cheap clothes and fast turnaround is definitely the most successful business model in garment industry. Other industries are watching the profit margins of fast fashion with envy.
So, in this situation, how to improve the clothing quality generally?
1) Educating consumers to make smarter choices. There’s a whole generation of shoppers, who have grown up in a world where clothes cost the same as a pizza or a movie ticket, and who have never even seen or touched truly well-made clothes. So have to tell them what quality is and how to spot it. My dream is to improve fashion press to take notice of the physical reality of clothes, how they are made and of what materials, in addition to how they look and what image they project.
PRO: In a way, this should be easy. Just give a speech or write an article and get it published. No opposition, except maybe from fast fashion makers who fund fashion magazines with their ads.
CON: never reach everyone, especially the ones who most are in need of educating. Moreover, why consumers have to take it upon themselves to spend months or years learning about garment construction and fabric properties? It’s not as if in other business fields it was OK to sell whatever quality and expect consumers sort out the good from the bad. We don’t go around in grocery stores sniffing at milk cartons and trying to figure out which one is good milk and which one is rotten. No, we go into the store and pick whichever milk carton, secure in the knowledge that it is good. The society has set certain boundaries and expectations to milk business for the protection of consumers, to which all milk sellers have to adhere.
2) Better education for fashion designers and other garment business professionals, so that they can make design decisions that affect positively the quality. We need RESEARCH to actually find out which clothes last longest in practice (for example, acrylic is as a fiber technically stronger than wool. But this does not mean an acrylic sweater is used longer than a wool sweater, because consumers feel natural fibers are more precious and take care of them better and so natural fiber clothes last longer in use in practice. Wool ages more beautifully than acrylic, which contributes to actual longer use much more than technical properties.)
PRO: chance to strike where impact is greatest, even before clothes are made CON: who pays? Designers can’t make design decisions that harm company profits.
3) Extended producer responsibility, similar to what’s going on with home electronics: consumers can return their used or broken electronics to shops for no charge.
PRO: if done right, encourages brands’ take-back and re-sale systems and steers towards better quality, as brands suffer economically from bad quality and are rewarded financially for good quality. CON: simply collecting used clothes and getting rid of them somehow is not remarkably eco-friendly. Encouraging even faster cycle of use-throw-away by giving discounts may even increase consumption.
4) Flat tax for garments, discouraging super cheap clothes, or raising clothing prices by some other means
PRO: if it works, less but better. Since cheap prices have brought the quality down, higher prices would drive it back up. Affects all businesses CON: …except those beyond Nordic or EU legislation, for example consumers mail-ordering their clothes straight from China. Local garment business would fight extra taxes it tooth and nail, so unrealistic solution at the moment.
5) Sign for quality clothes, similar to EU Eco Flower or Nordic Swan, but with a specific quality assurance message.
PRO: Since current system favors cheap and crappy, would help change the balance, if consumers can actually trust that more expensive lasts longer CON: extremely difficult to measure “quality”, which is a multi-faceted thing and means different things for different products (for example quality for silk party dress is almost opposite of what quality for workers pants is). Can see a nightmare of bureaucracy which is proportionally most difficult for small companies.
6) Increase of information, better information flow, transparency. Brands giving out voluntarily better information to consumers, about fabrics they use, how long they are supposed to last, why certain decisions have been made.
PRO: Should be a good selling point, and eventually it would hopefully became the norm. Transparency also good for ethical concerns. CON: Consumers easily fooled with pretty talk, not many are able to tell blabla from meaningful information.
7) Technical solutions / App or other technical solution which gives impartial judgement about seams, fabric etc. Would work with microscope lens which is easily attached to cell phone camera.
PRO: facts are facts and could be shared easily via smartphone. CON: Does not exist yet.