As many parts of our world emerge from the global pandemic and the restrictions imposed by it, we are reacquainting ourselves with those freedoms and activities which defined our 2019 pre-pandemic existence. One of these activities which played and continues to play an integral part in many lives is our apparently insatiable habit for buying clothes. Like so many habits, for some it has become more akin to an addiction. It's no coincidence that this 21st century compulsion has acquired the title "retail therapy" as for many it provides an escape and panacea, however brief, from life's problems.
Perhaps it was the pandemic pause which brought the full extent of our relationship with fashion retail into increased focus? Many espoused a view that the COVID crisis world of empty streets and even emptier skies offered a vision of a life that could be lived at a slower pace and one where conservation did not need to suffer at the expense of capitalism. Others felt that for those of us living in the most privileged and richest countries, such is human nature that the post-pandemic reality would be a return to business as usual.
Certainly, the queues which snaked around shopping mall carparks awaiting fast fashion outlets to reopen their doors on the morning that the United Kingdom exited "lockdown" suggested too many that this latter viewpoint had proved to be correct. And it's true that the post-pandemic retail landscape remains dominated by those fast fashion behemoths who superficially salve their collective consciences by deflecting and disassembling their true working practices through the most cynical and calculated "greenwashing".
However, its equally true that tangible and transformational change is also taking place in the fashion industry and it doesn't always emanate from the areas that one would expect. While fast fashion has become the focus of concern, a number of premium luxury brands have displayed many of the same failings albeit with much higher profit margins. Consequently, it has been refreshing to see luxury British heritage label Burberry collaborating with the British Fashion Council (BFC) to implement a surplus fabric upcycling scheme.
Entitled the "ReBurberry Fabric" programme the brand has partnered with the BFC to provide fashion students with leftover fabrics from previous collections. Donating over 12,000 metres to over thirty UK fashion schools and universities, they are not only providing the next generation of designers with high quality materials with which to hone their creative skills but are also saving these fabrics from a landfill destination.
As Cayley Cochrane, a 3rd year Fashion Student at Edinburgh College of Art said "Fabric is one of the most vital elements within design. It is the base. This initiative allowed me to experiment – draping stretch wool and combining it with my handwoven and braided rope into a one -of-a-kind creation. In the future, thanks to this initiative, I will be working with a more sustainable approach, repurposing and continuing to use deadstock materials."
While Cayley represents the views of today's body of fashion students, a group of new designers have already entered the industry and are leading the way with a staunchly sustainable agenda, creating one-off bespoke pieces from upcycled and recycled materials. This band of fashion -forward creators are giving us the opportunity, in the here and now, to invest in garments with a transparently ethical footprint.
One such designer is eponymous vegan brand Eirrin Hayhow who creates unique pieces from salvaged, unwanted materials. Her fabrics are coloured from natural vegetable dyes that she obtains by foraging for plants and berries. It's a DIY, self- taught, wholly authentic slow-fashion ethos and one which is inspired by the natural resources that are all around us.
We asked Eirrin what "sustainability" means to her. She explained that it's about living every moment consciously aware of each daily decision and how it impacts our planet.
As to how that manifests itself in her day-to-day life Eirrin said that for her it's about "Reading and learning, expanding the mind, shopping locally and sustainably, eating things that grow in our native areas, limiting pollution with car or transport as much as you can, walking, supporting small independent businesses, thinking about others and of course thinking about the earth, growing things, foraging, caring for each other, these are just some of the magical things that can aid a sustainable lifestyle".
In addition to the foraging and recycling ethos which has been at the core of Eirrin Hayhow since the brands inception, she has also started to grow her own materials such as coffee leather.
Explaining the motivation behind this diversification and the latest step in her continual development of an authentically sustainable fashion brand Eirrin said " There are some companies that are making amazing vegan and plant leather alternatives but unfortunately at this point they are priced extremely high and only offering collaborations and partnerships with super established designers. I have such a huge passion for innovation and creation, as well as spending moments in the natural world it was the next step for me to try and invent my own alternatives to animal leathers, and make them more affordable" She added that there is something quite magical about mixing and brewing different concoctions to create a new material.
While fashion designers are primarily driven by their creative vision, the fashion industry is called an industry for a reason. In an often-ruthless environment where so many are vying to make an impression and the Warholian concept of 15 minutes of fame is a recurring reality, financial considerations are always to the fore. Given this, we wondered what advice Eirrin would give to emerging designers who might worry that ethical intentionality and commercial viability are incompatible and even unachievable bedfellows.
She believes that there are sustainable ways of doing things such as using unwanted materials which don't cost huge amounts and that the idea of huge profits being the main driver for the fashion business is in itself an unsustainable premise. As Eirrin said " We really need to be focusing on success and growth consisting of the well-being of others and the future of our planet. Just think about all the chemicals in man-made fibres and synthetic dyes, along with polluting the planet they are also having huge impacts on our health and well-being. It’s the same with all food and beauty products".
While she recognizes that we are seeing a tangible change in peoples buying habits, Eirrin feels that there is still a long way to go. She believes that education is key, both in schools and universities to inspire our young people to reconnect with the natural world and to think about fashion differently. Her view is that this education can't start early enough, citing her friend's little girl who has already started to attend forest school where she learns about insects, wildlife and the trees.
While educating the citizens of tomorrow is vital to the future of our planet there are many organizations who are playing a key role in educating the citizens of today. One such, and one of Eirrins favourites, is Colèchi , a fashion research and co-learning agency. They give voice to those who often go unheard, inviting independent creatives and brands to build new fashion ideas. One recent initiative saw them partnering with UK knit specialists Restoration London, an organization with a passion for reusing, recycling and upcycling existing clothing. Their knitting club collaboration is just one way that new life has been given to treasured garments, saving them from being prematurely sent to landfill.
Whether its designers like Eirrin who are signposting the way ahead with her experimental and ethical philosophy or students like Cayley who recognize the core centrality of a sustainable ethos, the pendulum is swinging towards a recalibrated fashion industry where profit doesn't come before planet. Swinging unequivocally towards those for whom ethical intentionality is core to their DNA and that of their brands. Away from those High Street and high-end fashion conglomerates who have appropriated words like "conscious" and "sustainable " to cynically use as a marketing strategy to try and gain favour with Gen Z. A ploy which has overwhelmingly failed with this generation who are most attuned to the consequences of the climate emergency and most aware of their personal responsibility in combating it.
There have never been more opportunities to shop ethically and sustainably and make a tangible difference to the future of our planet. And we can all play our part. Whether it's swapping our unloved clothing with others who share our style, buying from thrift and vintage stores, shopping our own wardrobes and rediscovering gems that we may have ignored in the dopamine driven desire to buy the new, learning the sewing and mending skills of our grandparents to revitalize garments that may only require a little love and attention, shopping for requirement rather than recreation and of course shopping those brands who have a genuinely sustainable and ethical footprint.
We can all be part of the slow fashion revolution and we can all start today.