The contrast is sharp between what is and what could be in the apparel industry. My visit to the Kenneth Mackenzie mill, maker of Harris Tweed, allowed me to see a way of producing fabric that is everything that fast fashion is not: high quality, durable, impeccable construction, versus breakneck speed and quantity at an enormous environmental cost. Whereas fast fashion garments may not even last one season, before being discarded due to poor quality, I have seen Harris Tweed jackets that have lasted the lifetime of the wearer, and are inherited by the next generation.
While I look forward to this future, where slow fashion once again returns to the mainstream, two big articles have come out in the past few weeks which bring me back to this moment in time, where the state of affairs for women’s apparel is pretty bleak: Newsweek’s article, Fast Fashion is Creating an Environmental Crisis and The Washington Post’s, Why are sales suffering at so many women’s stores? They made bad clothes. Fast fashion is bad for the environment. The Newsweek article is packed with frightening statistics about how much toxic fabric from cheap, poorly made clothing sits in landfills and pollutes our earth. Approximately 14 million tons of clothing are thrown out each year, which is the environmental equivalent of 7.3 million cars on the road (EPA, 2013). This is double the amount per person that was thrown out 20 years ago. (Warning–this article unseats the peace of mind that donating clothing keeps it from landfill). Synthetic clothing takes hundreds of years to biodegrade. Both synthetic and natural fibers leach dangerous chemicals into the ground because of the treatment process prior to reaching the consumer (Sustainable Apparel Coalition, 2016).
Article #2 from the Washington Post talks about how dissatisfied women are with the apparel choices, i.e., the precious resources devoted to making this enormous quantity of clothing and the resulting harm to the environment is producing garments that women are extremely dissatisfied with. (There are more than 2,000 comments from women on this article that are even more telling than the article itself.)
What I am building with Reid Miller Apparel is a response to fast fashion and gross environmental and human degradation with a radically different idea: every fiber counts, every stitch counts, every jacket or pair of pants count. They all have a cost. Let’s set as the goal making clothing that lasts, that fits right, that is timeless and lovely, is truly appreciated, where each step is valued from the fiber production and sewing, to the life the customer gives the garment.
The reality of where we are and where we need to go can be heavy so I want to end with a story I heard while in Scotland. On the Isle of Lewis I met an awesome woman named Susan who decided to embrace her passion for wool and creativity after many years working for a corporation. We bonded over our love for Harris Tweed and she told me a very interesting story about the Harris Tweed industry in the 1990’s. Apparently the national treasure that is the Scottish Harris Tweed industry was at risk of being moved to China. Hundreds of years of expertise, beautiful old machines, extremely sustainable fabric production and a way of life for people–shipped away. Nike, of all heroes, was responsible for the rescue effort put in motion by the world tweed expert: Donald John Mackay. Nike got in touch with Mr. Mackay to buy Harris Tweed for their shoes and he rallied the Harris Tweed mills to produce enough to meet the demand. That demand was sufficient to rescue the industry and preserve its treasures.
Our money is a crucial power play at our disposal. We can use it to shape the world we want to live in. For me, it is vital that I spend my time and money developing a business around cherishing sustainable, enduring products and means of production, which provide high quality livelihoods for real people. I can look all around me and see businesses building bad products that are made to be thrown away and replaced at the shortest interval the consumer will tolerate—businesses that have forgotten how important the people they employ are. We can get discouraged about how this disparages our environment, our towns, and our culture, or we can turn ourselves toward the solution by withholding our dollars whenever possible from the former, and spend our precious resources on the latter. You help grow it. You are powerful.
Wicker, Alden. “Fast Fashion is Creating an Environmental Crisis.” Newsweek. Tech & Science. September 1, 2016.
Halzack, Sarah. “Why are sales suffering at so many women’s stores? They made bad clothes.” The Washington Post. August 26, 2016.
Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2013 Fact Sheet. Environmental Projection Agency. Available at https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/2013_advncng_smm_fs.pdf
Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Available at http://apparelcoalition.org/.