Eight years ago, in my late teens and fresh on to the campus of Trinity I was the bullseye of every highstreet store’s target market. I was a young woman with a jammed social life and a new outfit ready for every occasion, even if it was just drinks at Doyle’s.
The term fast fashion is widely used now as a way to describe brands with new collections hitting the shop (or e-shop) floor everyday rather than the standard two seasons a year. But, back then, I never knew it as “fast fashion”. It was just “fashion” to me. I was spending money I didn’t have on clothes I didn’t need and never stopping to consider the life those clothes had before they hit the shop floor.
The cycle of buy, wear, dispose of clothes that cost about as much as a luxury coffee was, and still is, alive and well. But my view of this was about to come crashing down.
In 2013 I travelled to India with SUAS, the educational development NGO originally founded by a group of Trinity students. SUAS made it very clear to us that we were not white saviours. We were not going to make any significant changes to the many deep-rooted systemic issues we saw. But we would gain from it a realistic understanding of both the good and bad by-products of globalisation.
I turned out to be one of those people who took this to heart and since then it has shaped everything I have done.
I was spending money I didn’t have on clothes I didn’t need and never stopping to consider the life those clothes had before they hit the shop floor
2013 was the year I took part in the programme and for me, it was framed by one of the most catastrophic events in the fashion industry, the Rana Plaza disaster. On April 24th the garment factory in the centre of Daka, Bangladesh, making clothes for some of the most beloved high street brands, collapsed, killing 1,130 people and injuring, orphaning and impacting the lives of hundreds more.
A fashion industry that I once loved, and in many ways, was a servant to, became exposed for all its failings, all its greed and all its cruelty. With fashion’s glamorous facade it’s spent billions forcing the consumer to disconnect both the human and environmental destruction of the industry from the elevated feeling of “status” we get from our fashion. But can anything be truly “beautiful” if the story behind it is so destructive?
I came home hating the fashion industry. It took me a while to realise that by nature, us young ones are not massively motivated when berated for what we do. We respond far better to opportunity, a pressing need for change and an understanding of our role in this change. Even I was guiltily sneaking into Zara before Trinity Ball to get a dress last minute. I honestly did try to go pre-loved first, but my excessive procrastination meant I had simply not prepared myself for the marathon shift it would require. Building a slow fashion lifestyle does not happen overnight. It’s taken me about eight years and I’m still getting it right.
In the search for solutions I essentially went too far. I knew too much and felt too much, so naturally I ended up starting a business called Nuw, which was an app to swap pre-loved fashion. Like all great businesses, it stemmed from the need to solve a personal problem.
I have a wardrobe, like everyone else. I bought fast-fashion, like so many others. I wanted to change my habits and become more sustainable. But there was one thing that separated me from so many others. Money.
A fashion industry that I once loved, and in many ways, was a servant to, became exposed for all its failings, all it’s greed and all it’s cruelty
Did I have the means to go from €20 dresses to €180 dresses from the latest capsule collection? No.
Could I rent pieces? Potentially but this would be few and far between. As I said before – me, little cash, student deal lunches were often the priority.
With this in mind what I could see was an emerging sustainable fashion industry and wider circular economy taking hold. Brands exploring sustainable materials and closed-loop models where garments are designed to go out to consumers and re-enter the supply chain at a later date. Statement pieces sold as investment buys, as they should be, because it costs a lot of money to produce a piece of clothing in a sustainable and ethical way. But I also began to see a deeper emerging trend: exclusivity. Sustainability centred as luxury goods. There was a price to buying your way into sustainability and it was a high price.
It’s important to mention that high street brands have also dabbled in sustainability with “conscious collections” which are still sold at very affordable prices. But I have discounted these from the discussion because so much of this is performative. A brand who has the means and resources to do things the right way but chooses instead to do this for a tiny percentage of their supply and with this continues to drastically overproduce.
A brand who has the means and resources to do things the right way but chooses instead to do this for a tiny percentage of their supply and with this continues to drastically overproduce
When looking at the fashion industry transition from a distance what I saw was a gap and a gap that I fell into. A desire to consume fashion in a more sustainable way, but in the equally as enjoyable and affordable way as I had before. We all have a lot of clothes. We don’t wear them enough, but we often share them. What better way to enjoy changing fashion that is “new to you” than to use what already exists. And by collectively investing in these clothes we ultimately share the cost of these over time, making collective action the most inclusive way to provide sustainable solutions.
Nuw is one solution, of the many that are needed. We have lived and consumed for years under the one fast-fashion buy, wear, and dispose model which focuses on the “individual” and where brands are constantly competing. I believe to create a truly sustainable industry we need collaboration rather than competition. Much like biodiversity, we are stronger and more resilient with a healthy mix of solutions and ideas. Regardless of what the big players say, as they protect their own interests, there is always room for more solutions, and brands are at the mercy of their customers – not the other way around.