The question of sustainability in fashion is becoming a topic of growing interest, spurred on by the recent outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the wake of crisis, many people had a moment to rethink their priorities and values and boycotted brands which did not align with them, or that mistreated their employees and business partners. Now, perhaps more than ever, customers want to hold big fashion players accountable for their sustainability commitments.
As someone working in fashion, I think I have a pretty good understanding of what goes on behind the scenes. I know the real cost of producing clothes, I know what the process looks like, and I’ve become more aware of the ugly dealings of certain fashion companies. When I first found out about this exhibition, I started wondering if it would add anything new to the conversation. Still, curiosity got the best of me and I visited the Museum of European Cultures last month. Here’s what to expect if you’ve been thinking about catching the exhibition too…
The exhibition opens with a display of high street pieces mixed in with designer creations. In the corner, there’s a video station that shows the glamour of couture runway shows in juxtaposition to the poor working conditions in Asian sweatshops.
The theme of contrast in fashion continued as I made my way towards the central area of the room. It takes visitors on a trip back in history by highlighting how consumers’ purchasing behaviour shifted throughout the decades. In the crisis-ridden 1930s and 1940s, people only bought what they needed or had to get crafty and make their own clothing from existing materials. We can see various examples of such creations on display, including a girl’s dress that grew with the child and a dress made from two different fabric leftovers.
In the background, you can read a number of interesting facts about current consumption patterns and the numbers might just surprise you. For instance, did you know that the amount Germans spend on clothing is on the decrease?
Scarcity and surplus
However, don’t let these promising projections blindside you, as we still have a long way to go. One of the defining characteristics of fashion is its seasonality. We are not only sold pieces of clothing, we are sold a promise of a better lifestyle. Marketing departments of key fashion players work around the clock to build an entire story around their clothes.
Two seasons are now a thing of the past as designers present new collections every couple of months. From these shows, new trends keep emerging and making their way into the streets and shop floors. Brands lure customers in with absurdly low prices and regular sales promotions to get rid of overstock. Purchase decisions are no longer dictated by our needs. Instead, they’re more fickle and impulse-driven than ever.
The next section aims to answer the question on many people’s minds: what happens to all the surplus clothing? The exhibition touches upon the topic of reclaiming the fibres with the use of shredding machines. Around 60% of the garments donated to UK charities is shipped back to developing countries where it is cut up and broken down back into fibres. I either gift unwanted clothes to my friends or donate them to my local charity shop thinking they would go to a better home, so I found this number astonishing!
Globalisation of the textile industry
The next part of the gallery wall was easily my favourite. Initially, it gave me a good laugh just looking through the photos of people wearing silly slogan tees. Then, as I got closer, I realised it aimed to shed some light on a serious problem that plagues Haiti. Garments are mass produced in Haiti and shipped to the distribution centres of major American apparel companies. When Americans donate their old clothes to thrift shops and charities, they end up in sorting warehouses. Anything that cannot be resold on the local market ends up back on the island.
As a direct result of these back-and-forth shipments, we can see locals in distant provinces of Haiti sporting T-shirts with the dumbest slogans, too tacky even for souvenir shops in tourist hotspots. Not only is it very wasteful, but also detrimental to the economy, as it put many Haitian tailors out of work.
Global clothing market
When I entered the next room, my eyes were immediately drawn to a contour world map hanging on the wall. It was mostly blank, except for a couple of large dark patches. As I approached the map, I noticed that said patches were actually clumps of clothing labels that were ripped out and glued to the origin country of a given garment. I checked for familiar labels and soon spotted a couple of household names in the mix. How many can you recognise?
In the centre of the room, there was yet another video station. What made it stand out, however, was the fact that the seats were made of clothing bales. I admit I had to do a double take to make sure I wasn’t about to sit on an exhibit! Now that would be a painfully awkward reason to get told off or kicked out of an exhibition, wouldn’t it?
Once I knew I was good to go, I sat down to watch the video. In it, various European and African garment workers recounted the hardships either they or their colleagues have faced and described their current working conditions. I found the video really captivating. We often think that European production is a foolproof remedy to the problem of exploiting Asian workers. However, the reality is that countries like Turkey or Bulgaria are not immune to human rights violations. I loved that the exhibition provided a much-needed fresh insight and some food for thought!
The environmental impact of the fashion industry
In addition to countless exploitation claims, the textile industry has also faced backlash for being the second biggest polluter of our planet. The next section illustrated its impact on the environment, from various chemicals used in the manufacturing process to the way materials are made.
There was also a rail full of clothes – each of the finishing chemicals used in their production was described in full detail, including some eco-friendly alternatives. It shocked me to learn that each 1 kg of textiles requires up to 1 kg of chemicals. Although 90% of these substances are eventually washed out, they end up in our drinking water and watercourses. A photo of the purple river in Indonesia perfectly illustrates the extent of this problem. I know that certain companies have been introducing innovative dyeing techniques, but sadly, they are yet to become the norm.
Practices of animal abuse
The fast fashion section ended on a very powerful note. Earlier this year, I learned where cashmere comes from, which was a real eye-opener. All this time, I lived under the conviction that cashmere was a premium material and totally worth the investment. Sadly, in fact there’s nothing luxurious about it. Goats that live on cashmere farms in China and Mongolia (responsible for around 90% of the world’s cashmere production) are subject to violent abuse. Workers step on them, bend their limbs, and use brutal force to shear them, even in the middle of winter when they need their coats for cold protection. As a result, some goats can even die of cold stress. Many other are brutally slaughtered when they are no longer profitable.
The exhibition built on my previous knowledge by focusing on the abuse of sheep and Angora rabbits. You could even watch some undercover videos from farms around the world, although they were definitely not for the faint-hearted!
In the last exhibition room, we can see a completely different approach to fashion. It introduced me to the pioneers of Berlin’s sustainable fashion scene who create their garments from upcycled materials and base their supply chains on local production.
There’s a space where you can share your best slow fashion tips with fellow visitors and get inspiration from others. I loved that you could even grab mini repair kits to give your clothes a new lease of life. I’ve had some of the pieces in my closet for nearly a decade, so it will definitely come in handy! I’ve also heard that the museum organises various creative workshops and lectures to accompany the exhibition, which definitely sounds worth looking into!
So… Is the exhibition worth it?
All in all, I loved learning more about the dark sides of fashion and exploring various sustainable alternatives. I mean, what better place to do so than the global hub for ethical fashion? Now, for full disclosure purposes, I’ve always been transparent about the fact that I could never fully give up on high street retailers. While I’d gladly invest in a number of higher-end pieces, I’d generally rather spend the money elsewhere.
I would say that a huge portion of my closet comes from thrift shops. I only purchase brand new clothing a couple of times each year. Going through the racks of pre-loved garments and looking for the best deals brings me so much joy. Plus, you simply can’t beat the feeling of achievement when you find a real gem!
I also think that most of the responsibility is wrongly placed on the customers. People sometimes receive criticism for turning to fast fashion brands when often, it’s all they can afford. Of course, many of us have unhealthy shopping habits and should make more conscious purchase decisions, but we need to hold big fashion players accountable for their actions too. Safety standards around the world should be much stricter and fashion brands should look beyond their bottom lines. No human being should sacrifice their well-being to keep their job. No animal should endure torture just so we can have a new jumper. Finally, our planet shouldn’t be the one to pay the price.
Call me hopelessly optimistic, but I believe that one day, affordability and fairness won’t have to be mutually exclusive. And if it means that profit margins will be lower or we’ll have to pay a few extra quid… Well, it’s a trade-off I’d be happy to make.
Want to plan your visit?
If my review of the exhibition piqued your interest (which I hope it did) and you’d like to see it in person, you only have time until the end of January 2021. Admission tickets are €8 (adults) / €4 (concessions) – you can find all the necessary information on the Museum for European Cultures website!
While we’re on the topic of clothes, I’d also love to know – what is your most treasured item of clothing? If you could only pick one thing to wear for an entire week, what would it be and why? Mine would probably be my thrifted patterned dress that I wear all year round. You can see me wearing it in the NYC heat in my Brooklyn Bridge photo, as well as paired with tights during my weekend trip to Oslo. I took it to every continent I’ve ever visited – and I hope it will continue to travel the world with me in the years to come!