Review: To Die For: is fashion wearing out the world?

You MUST buy this book. And while you’re at it, buy it for someone else, too.

To die forIt’s taken me a while to write up Lucy Siegle’s book To Die For and the reason is, it’s had a very strong impact on me. It is an exposé of the emotional, health and environmental cost of fashion, and more specifically ‘fast fashion’ – the proliferation of cheap fashion that has taken over (in particular) the UK high street. 

Let me start by saying that I don’t think of myself as a naive consumer. I try to live an eco-life. I buy Fair Trade and organic foods. I compost; I recycle card, paper, plastic, glass, metal and organic materials. I give old clothes to charity. I buy organic cotton where I see it and I try to buy secondhand rather than new. I know that cotton is a monoculture crop that requires harmful pesticides to produce it, that third-world garment workers are exploited and that the best kind of wardrobe is a balanced, quality-led one with fewer, rather than more, items.

But I must admit to a galling chagrin at myself that not even I have been immune to the pull of fast fashion, for all that I live an isolated country life and thought myself worlds away from it. I am nowhere near as clued up as I thought I was.

I had no idea, for instance, that some things sold New With Tags on Ebay have been bought in high-street sales by Ebay resellers and instantly sold on (I had assumed they were honest mistakes or unwanted gifts, silly me).

I was totally unaware that most women today don’t know what their clothes are actually made from. I sew, and for anyone who goes to great efforts to create garments, the handle and quality of the cloth is absolutely paramount – it had not crossed my mind that other women just don’t give a stuff.

I didn’t know that adding to lycra to garments makes them impossible to recycle. I didn’t know that half of all clothing produced for Europe goes to the UK because of the British addiction to fast fashion piled high and sold cheap. I had not heard of the Ethical Trading Initiative. 

I had no idea that the quality of cashmere is falling, perhaps irreversibly, because of interbreeding to create a cheaper product, creating a desert in the fragile ecosystem of Mongolia. And I had no idea that so very very few of the human rights/anti-pollution/eco-aware measures that garment manufacturers  claim to have introduced have actually ever been effected.

But this book has pulled the scales off my eyes big-time and it has made me feel both stupid and guilty. It is so full of FMR (fuck me rigid) moments and blinding realisations that it makes you weep.

I fully admit, I started out pretty smug while reading it, as Siegle details how her wardrobe is full of mistakes and mis-buys, tatty rubbish, fashion fads and things bought on impulse etc. Because mine isn’t. Over the years, I’ve bought carefully and well. I’ve owned some of my garments 20 or 30 years. I favour vintage and since becoming a downshifter I’ve had little money to spend on clothes, so I’ve had to focus on basics. Aren’t I a clever girl?

And yet, and yet. I DO pick up tee-shirts with the weekly shop. I DO buy fleece. I DO buy ends of lines at Noz, where consumer goods go to die. I DO allow myself to be kidded into thinking that organic cotton must be OK cos it’s, well, you know, organic… (never mind how many gallons of water it takes to produce, how much land that could be used for food production it takes up, or how harmful the dyes are). Above all, I own far, far, far too much stuff.

Siegle’s book is written in the rather bloggy, breathless style so familiar in modern journalism, and it can be a bit irritating at times, but don’t let it put you off. The reason it feels a bit rushed is that her pen is dipped in vitriol – she is incandescently, ragingly fucking FURIOUS at how the fashion industry works. At how it lies to its customers and cheats its workers, at how it butt-fucks the developing world and devastates the environment in the name of profits and at how she herself has been gulled as a consumer into having blood on her hands without realising it.

She also, like most of us, wants it both ways, because she loves fashion and clothes and wants to enjoy them without exploiting the world. 

Because it is easy, it’s true, to just say you’re anti-fashion. To say that clothes don’t concern you at all. This would be my friend M’s answer: "I’m not a consumer". And yet, in truth, she owns a houseful of clothes and benefits from other people’s addiction to fast fashion, as do I.

It’s a nice idea that you can just buy stuff when the old stuff wears out, stand tall and not give a toss about what anyone thinks of you. But actually most of us don’t live lives of such freedom. We need to work and to present an image that’s acceptable in business. We also like our new clothes – it’s nice to have pretty things, which is why the earliest human artefacts other than tools are items for personal adornment. But I am sure, as Siegle is, that most people don’t, at heart, want to think that the things they own were produced by child slaves or that the dye process gave some Indian baby birth defects.

Being anti-fashion is also a bit of a cop-out, because just because you yourself aren’t a consumer isn’t making the world better for producers. It is possible to produce clothes more sustainably. What we need to do is start lobbying manufacturers and governments to protect the environment and to pay their fibre producers and garment manufacturers a living wage.

But back to the book. The first half of To Die For is an exposé, and I pink-highlighted almost every page of it as the statistics piled up thick and fast: the death of the Aral sea; the cotton yield of India versus Pakistan; the child slave labour of Uzbek; Environmental Damage Units… They make for terrifying, dismaying, angering reading.

Just as you’re sinking into a depression, thinking you can never buy anything ‘clean’ again, the second half, thank God, posits some solutions. Allowing for the fact that everything produced has SOME environmental impact, there are still many ways of reducing yours. You can buy a proportion of your clothing secondhand; you can pass garments on, so they have a second usage, you can favour ethical, fair trade producers. Most of all, you can create a ‘curated wardrobe’ where everything you own is carefully thought out and chosen, and has meaning for you, where you buy fewer, quality things and care for them well.

Because Siegle doesn’t sew, she wasn’t familiar with the idea of SWAP – Sewing With A Purpose. Again, I assume everyone is, which is thick of me – I forget how many women don’t sew (she describes us as ‘ladies of a certain age’ which really made me wince, though I suppose it is true: nobody her age ever had to learn to sew because they were broke but liked clothes, as I did). I’ve detailed SWAP before on this blog, and will do so again, but I’m also making another pledge, that Second Cherry will from now on endeavour to focus on eco or fair-trade-friendly producers and manufacturers, and that as I myself tussle with building and maintaining an eco-light wardrobe, I’ll blog about it.

So, dear reader, watch out for upcoming blogs on my conversations with Orvis and Land’s End; Patagonia and PeopleTree; SWAP; Refashioning, home sewing, EDUs etc. 

But above all, please buy this book. And while you’re at it, buy another for a friend, and pass it on. It’s time to drop the blinkers. 

To Die For is published by Fourth Estate


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