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Extinction Rebellion: London Fashion Week Are You Listening?

This September XR will attempt to shut down London Fashion Week in a bid to raise awareness of the environmental destruction caused by the fashion industry. They have written to the British Fashion Council asking that it be cancelled.

Do you agree with the proposed disruption and do you think cancelling LFW will make the fashion world stop and listen?

Greenpeace has been campaigning about climate change since the 1970s and there’s no doubt that the actions of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion (XR) have caused a necessary explosion in media coverage and awareness. London Fashion Week (LFW) wasn’t cancelled, but XR did stage a number of dramatic protests with hard-hitting messages of “no fashion on a dead planet”.

As a fashion designer, I think cancelling LFW would have missed the target and alienated a voice for the rebellion. The real issue is mass consumption, taking place on our real and virtual high streets and there is little connection between fashion and modern consumerism. Style and trends trickle down from the catwalks, but the pressure to produce and continually change trends is exerted in an upward direction from the retail giants. The message that we need to buy in excess and with such frequency is created by marketing, advertising and a greed for profit.

Fashion has always enjoyed new, changing trends. As someone who loves clothes, I like trends; they keep my wardrobe fresh and interesting. And, as a designer, I enjoy playing with new colours and styles each season, but my raw materials are existing textiles remade into new garments.

Fashion shows are a place where designers can exhibit their creativity and skill, but the system of fashion weeks held twice a year representing four seasons is outdated. They were established in a time when designers would spend months preparing for collections. Sketches were interpreted with precision by pattern cutters and technicians who had time to properly toile and fit garments on the models. Fashion designers did not create the model by which inception to sale of a garment takes 14 to 21 days and new styles appear every week.

Fashion weeks have always adapted to changes in the society around them, from Charles Frederick Worth introducing live models in 1858 to expansion outside Paris as a consequence of WW2. In the creative decade of the 1960s, fashion design was recognised as an art form and the last two decades are marked by global consumerism and advances in technology, where clothes can be bought straight from the catwalk. In the face of the apparel industry’s role in climate pollution, parading expensive collections down the catwalk feels distasteful. It is time that fashion weeks reflect the climate emergency.

But would cancelling LFW have achieved what needs to happen? London is the baby of the fashion weeks, first presented in 1984. But with that has come a reputation for innovation in design, not being afraid to push boundaries and comment on cultural issues. Designers such as Vivienne Westwood and the late Alexander McQueen used the catwalk to express their political views and call for a change – both have been vocal about climate change.

Designers who reject the mass market and overconsumption presented shows at LFW. Phoebe English, champions craftsmanship and sustainability and is committed to production from sketch to garment taking place within a 10- to15-mile radius. Bethany Williams works with socially engaged organisations and creates designs using only organic or recycled materials. RE;CODE revitalises and remakes outdated, unsold garments. As small emerging labels, these are the quiet voices of LFW. They have put their livelihoods on the line to present collections true to sustainable principles. But they are the ones whose businesses would be most affected if they lost their share of the £100m-worth of orders placed following the shows.

The loud voices, with the big marketing budgets, owned by big corporations will ride the storm. They will convince us they are responsible, with greenwashed messages of carbon offsetting and recycling, and we will consume in ignorance of the true cost of our clothes. The textile industry is second only to oil for its contribution to climate pollution. It is responsible for 10% of the world’s greenhouse emissions, five times more than all air travel combined. Washing one synthetic garment releases 2,000 plastic micro-fibres into our oceans and food chains and 120 million trees are cut down every year to make clothes. When we dispose of widely used polyester fibre into landfill, it takes 200 years to decompose, slowly releasing methane into the atmosphere.

Yet the apparel industry is projected to grow 81% by 2030, representing an increase from 61 to 102 tonnes of product including some 500 billion new t-shirts. According to a recent report, Pulse of the Fashion Industry, 40% of fashion retailers have not begun to take sustainability seriously, because their research says it is not what drives consumer purchases. Buying habits have changed dramatically. In the 60s we spent 10% of our income on a few investment wardrobe pieces that were altered, mended and restyled as trends changed. Today we might spend the same percentage but our wardrobes are bulging with cheap clothes gathering dust as we wear on average only 30% of what we buy.

XR demands the government TELLS THE TRUTH about the extent of the urgency, ACTS NOW and works with other organisations for change, committing to reducing greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2025. The scale of the problem is massive; the solution for the planet requires a whole industry change. The greedy will continue to produce, whilst the world continues to consume, and they will seek ways to increase profit margins, whilst still driving costs down to encourage us to buy more because we think we are getting a bargain. Urgent policy change is required and tighter legislation. But the government rejected all of the Environmental Audit Committee proposals.

Perhaps the British Fashion Council is listening, which is precisely why it didn’t cancel LFW. It provided an invaluable platform for the XR to shout its message. It is the government that needs to listen and use its power to stop the giants and rein in consumerism. But the real power lies with us as consumers to recognise the distinction between fashion and mass market clothes, to buy wisely and to find alternatives to get our fashion fix.


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