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Fast fashion’s global challenge starts with us

Hilary Scott discovers how the University of Northampton fashion department is designing for the future…

The word ‘fashion’ will probably prompt one of two pretty polarised responses: a frivolous, superficial obsession of (mainly) women, or a crucial, confidence-boosting, creative reflection of the individual.

Or maybe it’s just clothes.

But as Mark Twain famously stated: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

Influence is something the fashion industry has in spades. Fashion makes over £28billion direct contribution to the economy in the UK alone. Take that influence global, and the figures are staggering: $2.5 trillion, according the World Economic Forum.

What we might forget as consumers flicking through the rails of generic High Street stores is what gets that shirt on the shelves; that fashion provides over 900,000 UK jobs, the largest employer of all the UK’s creative industries, according to the British Fashion Council. The supply chain is fragmented and global; you may find that your £15 cardigan has been across the world and back before it made it into your wardrobe: designed in the UK, patterns sent electronically to China, cut from chemically-treated fabric sourced in India, sewn together in Turkey and shipped back to the UK aboard a huge container ship processed through our ever-growing commercial ports. Then there’s the lorry haulage to distribution warehouses before it gets to the shelves.

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Emmeline Child Programme Leader Fashion and Textiles

“Fashion might be the 4th biggest industry worldwide, but it also has a major issue: that global fashion just isn’t sustainable,” says Emmeline Child, Programme Leader for Fashion and Textiles at The University of Northampton.

“You buy a ‘fast fashion’ item that costs a few pounds, wear it a few times and send it to the charity shop or waste recycling bin. A small percentage of items are resold but the rest is bailed and sent abroad, mainly to Africa where it is sold on markets.

“Quite a considerable amount of western clothing that is sold in countries within Africa, gets a second life. However if it is not resold on the markets out there, then western clothing is ending up in African landfill sites. Often this product takes a long time to decompose, if at all due to the synthetic materials it is made from.”

And Emmeline knows this from experience. Apart from helping dozens of bright new designers and technicians graduate each year, including at this year’s Graduate Fashion Show, she also contributes to research into sustainable fashion, having had her own rapid rise to fashion fame in her early 20s.

“You might imagine that fashion graduates just go into high-end design houses – but my career was slightly less glamorous: I started on a project working with the Salvation Army’s redundant stock. I made ‘up-cycled’ clothes and got a line in Topshop at 24 and was showing in Paris by the age of 26. It was an amazing whirlwind.”

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When the markets crashed in 2008, Emmeline decided to continue her work on tackling the growing problem of waste clothing, returning to Northampton to do a PhD in up-scaling and up-cycling with large manufacturers like H&M.

The figures on clothing waste are as eye-as the cost of a Birkin handbag: According to research published in The Ecologist, approximately two-thirds of clothing materials are sent to landfills, making it the fastest growing component in the household waste stream. Within the last five years, textiles disposed of in landfill sites have risen from 7% to 30%.
But Emmeline says that despite the frightening rise in waste fabrics, all is not lost for the world of ‘fast fashion’ and we won’t all be forced to invest in expensive wool and silks – there are new alternative fabrics being developed.

Interviewing an expert in fabric recycling brought some guilt at my own clothing choices – and not just because of my lack of style. I was wearing a thin navy cardie during our interview: bought from a high street retailer and made of a synthetic fabric.

“The processes used to make fabrics usable can be chemically harsh, many man-made fibres are derived from plastics and are therefore petroleum based. Then the dying process requires huge amounts of water, and emit chemicals that if not handled correctly can end up in our global waterways,” said Emmeline, “but it’s from M&S and they’re one of the High street retailers working hard at reducing their overall carbon footprint.”

But does this mean we’re all going to have to wear identical, itchy, dye-free eco-clothes of off-white hemp?

“No, the UK is leading the way in sustainability research and that means new materials are going to start to replace the plastic and oil-based man-made fibres that don’t break down, this will all eventually be on the High Street,” Emmeline says.

There are already plant-based fabrics like those made of soya and bamboo, as well as some which sound even weirder, like some made from pineapple or by-products from the wine industry. Designer Suzanne Lee makes clothes out of a culture made from yeast and green tea, which you can literally put on your compost heap once you’ve discarded it from your wardrobe.

But don’t go chucking your cast-offs in the compost just yet.

“The best thing you can do with your used clothing is to give it to charities such as the Salvation Army when you no longer need it. They will make sure your product is dealt with ethically as well as raising money for fantastic causes,” says Emmeline.

The sustainability message is firmly embedded in all the fashion teaching at the University of Northampton, whose final year students featured at Graduate Fashion Week 2017. Previous graduates have gone on to work in famous fashion houses like McQueen and Vivienne Westwood.

“Northampton is unique for those wanting careers in fashion because of its leather heritage, and we are the only university with a working tannery, as well as having state of the art pattern-cutting equipment. We teach a broad range of skills as well as theory and have a fantastic range of resources, which will all come with us when we move to the new Waterside Campus.”

I might not be rushing out to buy a coat made of pineapple just yet, but researching fashion a little more deeply than whether ra-ra skirts are making a comeback has made me look twice at what I’m wearing, and not just with the usual sigh after catching sight of my outfit choice in the mirror.

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