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Sustainability in times of quarantine

BoF report highlights a change in consumer attitudes could bring about a brighter future for sustainable brands

Millennials buy more clothes than any other generation

Do you remember going shopping? Walking down Oxford Circus only to have something from a shop catch your eye, then making an impulsive buy, because it was on sale and you’d just gotten paid and it was only £20 anyway… do you remember how fun that was?

You’d probably look forward to wearing that new item so much. You’d take pictures in it and delight over the compliments you would get over it. Then a week would pass, and another, and that same thing that brought you so much happiness now looks old and dull. So you’d get on your phone and begin scrolling the ‘New in’ section of your preferred fashion brand.

This behaviour is known as Attention Deficit Fashion (ADF), a term coined by Jana Hawley and Andrew Reilly, from the University of North Texas and the University of Hawai’i Mānoa, respectively. The term describes the way factors such as social media and the constant need for instant gratification shape Millennials’ experience of fashion.

According to Hawley and Reilly, this behaviour is influenced by the increasingly fast pace the fashion industry has fallen into over the past decade. Social media also plays a key role in this, aiding to create a vicious cycle in which the value of a piece of clothing is inherently linked to the virtual attention the wearer will receive from posting a picture in it. In other words, clothes are only as valuable as the likes they will generate.

Almost one in ten shoppers buy clothes with the purpose of sharing it on their social media

The State of Fashion 2020, a report by Business of Fashion, was published with the sub headline ‘coronavirus update’ on the 8th of April. According to this report, the combination of general pessimism regarding the economy and fashion companies expecting to be under financial distress, the industry is currently on red alert.

But in between all of the uncertainty the pandemic has brought with it, there is one aspect that could be positive: certain shifts in consumers’ habits, such as the growing animosity towards waste-inducing fashion brands, as well as the preference for sustainable business models, which had already been seen before the pandemic, could be accelerated by the quarantine.

“This pandemic is really going to rock the boat,” says Lauren T. Franks, founder of the sustainable fashion brand Aardes. She continues: “But even with all the reflecting people are doing now that we’ve been forced to slow down it’s really hard to know if the pandemic will turn people towards sustainable fashion.”

One shoulder top from Aardes, £80

The way Lauren sees it, the first thing on the to-do list for big fashion brands in a post Covid-19 world will be to maximise production and minimise costs. She says: “And when they want to cut corners like this, the welfare of the people making the clothes and the environment will be the first two things they’ll throw out of the window.”

When Lauren decided to create her own sustainable fashion brand, she knew she wanted to do things right, both by the environment and by the people making the clothes. After taking a few months off from her job in London as a fashion editor, Lauren travelled to Jaipur, India, where she became particularly fascinated with the ancient technique of block printing.

“People hand carve these blocks of wood and then print them on to the fabric, no machines involved,” Lauren explains, “it’s such a beautiful technique, and I wanted to bring it to a new customer.”

She adds: “I really wanted to understand all of the phases of the supply chain, make sure people were working in the right conditions and were being paid properly.” Lauren’s own interest in creating a responsible and fair business ended up bleeding into the very ethos of the brand, and so Aardes was born.

Block printing in the Aardes studio in Jaipur, India

Despite only producing one collection a year, with limited designs, Aardes has already caught the attention of the industry and was listed earlier this month as one of the “championed” sustainable brands by Who What Wear editors.

The launch of Aardes new collection, which is currently on standby due to the coronavirus outbreak, is the second collection they’ve ever produced, and Lauren admits she was particularly excited about it. “We’d changed our supplier so we could use organic cotton and natural dyes,” explains Lauren.

Sustainable practices and fair wages for workers rank high on shoppers’ demands from fashion retailers, but they don’t want to pay for the extra costs that meeting said demands imply. The price for one of Aardes block printed tops, for example, ranges from £80 to £130, which is more than fast fashion regular consumers are used to pay for their clothing.

“It’s a mess,” Lauren says, “In Europe we hold the fashion industry on a pedestal, but the people making the clothes are one of the worst paid around the world.” The European Parliament has used the term ‘slave labour’ in the past to describe the harsh conditions many Asian garment workers are forced to work under.

Lauren continues: “If you pay these artisans properly, it’s going to push the price up for the consumer, but at least you’ll know you’re paying the correct value of their work.”

There are other factors along the supply chain that elevate the final price of the product, such as using natural rather than chemical dyes, for example, and the use of organic cotton. According to Lauren, employing these methods in the production of her second collection costed her twice as much as her first collection.

Clara Balonga, co-founder of the Spanish slow fashion brand Green Forest Wear, admits that although they also produce their yearly collection in India, they try to maintain their products relatively affordable by keeping their profit margins “really, really thin”.

Green Forest Wear t-shirt, 30€ (£26)

Green Forest Wear, which was founded by Clara and her husband Joaquin, offers t-shirts, sweatshirts and shirts that are made from 100% organic cotton. They also deliver a sapling with every item they sell, so that their customers will plant it, with the purpose of balancing the C02 emitted in the production of the garment.

Their prices range from 30€ (£26) to 70€ (£61), which is not much more expensive than the prices seen in fast fashion brands like H&M or Uniqlo. “I’ve had people telling me 30€ is too much for a t-shirt,” Clara says.

“If you’re used to never spending over 20€ in clothing, I understand anything over that price will be seen as excessive,” Clara continues. “But if you’re willing to pay that amount for one cheap garment every month, why not pay a bit more for a sustainable garment, which offers you better quality and it will last longer?”

However, within the fashion industry, pricing can often be misleading. For Alice Early, a London-based designer of sustainable clothing, it was her exposure to the unsustainable practices employed by high fashion brands that inspired her to launch her own collection made entirely from responsibly sourced materials.

Models are wearing the Raminta Shirt Dress from Alice Early collection, £260

“I became a bit disenchanted with the industry,” Alice admits, “I was working in high end fashion, which ultimately felt like fast fashion.”

According to Alice, the higher number on the price tag of a designer garment is not a guarantee of sustainability: “High fashion might invest in more interesting techniques, and the fabrics they use are maybe more beautiful, but that doesn’t mean they’re sustainably produced.”

She carries on: “So I did feel that I needed to approach my brand as sustainably as I could.” Unlike other sustainable brands, Alice produces her pieces in the UK. “There are pros and cons to it,” she says. “It is amazing that I can go and meet the people making my clothes and learn from them, because these people really are so knowledgeable,” Alice continues. “The downside is that it is considerably more expensive,” she adds.

The higher cost of producing locally means higher prices. On the Alice Early website, prices range from £132 to £795, and although Alice admits she has considered the advantages of producing her brand abroad, her views on the question of sustainable fashion being too expensive are surprisingly similar to Clara’s from Green Forest Wear.

Alice says: “In the end, it’s all about the attitude you have towards fashion, whether you prefer to invest in one beautiful piece of clothing every six months rather than buy a cheap one every month.”

But Alice is aware her prices are not accessible for everyone: “It’s true not everyone can afford one of my pieces,” she says. “However, if more and more people begin supporting sustainable brands, this will create a higher demand, leading to designers using organic and sustainable materials more often.”

Alice concludes: “If that happens, the prices of materials will come down and sustainable brands will be more affordable. I think everyone would like that!”

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