A conversation of hope with Dana Thomas
by The Dyás Admin·
Dana Thomas is a fashion and culture journalist whose written books like Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster and Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. This week, we sat down to discuss her latest book Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. We got the chance to talk about the real price of fast fashion, the future of clothes, and some of the finer points that her newest book discusses.
During your journalism career you have chosen to explore big topics such as sociology, cultural anthropology, the human condition, business, or the planet - but always through the lens of fashion. Why do you believe that fashion is a particularly good way to talk about wider issues?
I chose fashion because every morning we get dressed - unless we are nudists! So fashion, almost automatically, relates in some way to all the big questions of life. It’s far easier to understand the impacts of globalisation on the planet and humanity by studying a pair of blue jeans than a widget. Plus, fashion is sexier.
In Fashionopolis you start with the question, “What should we wear?” and follow up with questions like “How do we solve the consumer's desire for new things and constant change?” and “How do we address people’s addiction to newness?” Could you briefly describe some of the answers you provide in the book - and what’s happened since Fashionopolis was published?
Well, I learned that, even after covering the fashion industry for 30 years - and covering it deeply, as evidenced in my first book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster (i.e., not just attending fashion shows) - I realised that I barely comprehended how clothes are truly made, from field to form. And if I didn’t know, how could consumers know?
So in a sense, the answer to all those questions is to understand what you’re buying. Readers have told me, post-book, that they look at their closets differently, which was my goal - for consumers to start having a proper think about their purchases, and not just buying on impulse because something looks good. As for industry leaders, they thank me, and regularly ask me for advice on how to pivot to greener practices, which gives me hope.
Fast fashion has led to clothes being treated as disposable and their value seems to have been forgotten. So how do we break our habits of buying for the sake of buying and find our way back to a “buy less, but better” mentality?
The best way to break the habit is to never develop it in the first place, which is why I have published an adapted young readers version of Fashionopolis, for 10 to 12 year olds. If we can get kids to never see fast fashion as sexy and enviable - if they can understand the negative impact fast fashion has on the planet and people - there’s a chance we’ll see a break in that segment’s domination of the entire fashion industry. As for existing customers, it’s a fast food: we can tell them it's bad for them and their bank accounts in the long run (since, because it’s so shoddy, you wind up having to buy more); we can tell them it’s bad for the environment, which also touches their lives; we can tell them about how the companies abuse workers, and all the other horrors fast fashion is responsible for; and then they can make up their minds. Some will quit. Some will keep eating it. That’s human nature. In the meantime, a plethora of start-ups will offer sustainable alternatives at increasingly affordable prices. If some fast fashion addicts can make the switch, terrific. The most important thing is we will finally have choice when it comes to affordable fashion - we’ll have the option to go green - and this is key.
Clothes have an important role in our everyday lives, but there is still not enough education regarding how clothes are made. Despite there being numerous initiatives to educate and communicate how clothes are made, it doesn’t seem like it is reaching enough people. Meanwhile, as you mention in Fashionopolis, as many as 1 in every 6 people around the world work in the fashion supply chain. Do you have any ideas on how to get more people educated and aware, especially those who don’t work in the industry?
The only way to clean up the industry - and to get consumers 100% on board - is through legislation. If laws state a company must pay its workers a living wage throughout its supply chain, even if the factory is in Bangladesh; or that it must source green materials, so no more fossil fuel-derived fabrics; or that it can no longer over produce then dump unsold clothes in landfills, then the industry will change. In this regard, it’s not about consumers - they can apply the pressure on companies, but that’s not enough. Companies must pivot themselves. And they won’t until they are made to by the government because change costs money, i.e., profits.
In the end, the entire conversation is about greed.
How would technology help create better jobs, especially in fashion, which is still a very hands-on industry? What are your suggestions on how to create a business culture where investing in the health, safety, and skills of workers is somehow rewarded or non-negotiable?
Tech, such as laser distressing for jeans, or robotic fabric cutting, would eliminate a lot of dangerous, nasty, horrible-paying jobs, and create new jobs where workers are educated to run the machines, and are paid better wages for these more technical skills. As I explain in the book, tech would make the garment industry safer, cleaner, and more efficient. There are some who argue tech would eliminate jobs. Sure. It would eliminate crappy, poorly paid jobs, and create good, clean, safe jobs. It would eliminate forced overtime - meaning when you work but you aren’t paid. It would give workers dignity. And it would make the industry more efficient, which means less waste on every level, which in turn means more profits. So business leaders in theory shouldn’t argue against tech.
What is in your opinion the role of smart technologies and new materials in the future of sustainable fashion? Are they really scalable solutions for bigger businesses?
The future is two-pronged when it comes to materials; natural fibres such as cotton, linen, wool, all sustainability raised; and new tech-driven materials that are not harmful to the environment like our current synthetics, such as polyester and nylon. And yes, it is absolutely scalable - tech start-ups are rolling out new materials in major brand offerings already. The future is now.
We all know there is no such thing as a bargain - someone along the chain paid the price of every cheap fast-fashion t-shirt. But the prices of sustainable clothing have to cover the costs of sustainable materials and ethical manufacturing, so sustainability still remains a luxury purchasing decision that a lot of people can’t afford. Until there is higher demand, and the market changes, what are some suggestions for more affordable, but still responsible, purchasing?
“Buy less, buy better” is my mantra. Don’t buy ten £10 T-shirts made of toxic conventional cotton that will lose their shape, their colour, and wear out quickly. Buy one gorgeous organic cotton T-shirt for £70 that will last for years and always look awesome. Don’t buy the cheap, already-distressed jeans that are trashed in six months; spend twice as much on shrink-to-fit jeans that you distress yourself through wear. My daughter now wears my 1980s shrink-to-fit jeans. 40-year-old jeans! And they look fabulous. Do a bit of homework, spend a bit more money in the short term, and reap the benefits, both in terms of money and looks, in the long term. Think of the long game. And always have fun.
This interview was conducted by the founder of The Dyás, Nuria Revuelta. We would like to thank Dana for her time and knowledge, and encourage you to go out and grab a copy of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes at your local bookshop