Her gift for scene-setting and her sharp assessments of many of the trendsetting entrepreneurs behind the scenes across the globe keeps Fashionopolis engaging throughout. Though fashion’s high visibility as an industry means that it tends to get the most attention, it is not the only polluter of the environment – other consumer items such as electronics have questions to answer about their production in low-cost countries and the waste material generated, but, as they say, sin scéal eile.
Florence Kelley had a good idea for pushing cruelty out of the clothing supply chain: a simple white tag that would go on any garment, letting consumers know that it had been made under humane conditions. When we make a purchase, she insisted, we are responsible for what went into it. It is a shame her idea didn’t catch on. Kelly, a Chicago-based activist, proposed it in 1899. It might have saved the world a lot of misery over the intervening 120 years, as Dana Thomas details in her engaging and thorough book Fashionopolis. For people interested in clothes or working in the industry, this book will have two uses. It provides a history of the human and environmental damage done by the mass production of clothes, and it tells the stories of entrepreneurs and scientists who are trying to make clothes with less cruelty and filth. The book has implications beyond cloth and thread. It could, in a sense, have been written about any class of consumer product — food, say, or consumer electronics. The story is globalisation, and in particular how it delivers cheap, high-quality goods by externalising the costs of production while concealing this manoeuvre from the end consumer. It is a pattern infinitely repeated, and it can’t go on. It’s a timely narrative... Thomas’ emphasis on upstart innovators and entrepreneurs is part of what makes the book a pleasure to read. It has a downside, though. I would have liked to hear more about what the biggest brands — Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and so on — are doing to reform their supply chains.
Although the cost of those clothes is low — temptingly, addictively low — the real cost to the planet and the people who make them is high. Thomas’s aim is to show how and why we got here, and to look in detail at the often grotesque nature of that. Endemic subcontracting and so-called offshoring have led to an epic tendency, corporate and consumer, to look the other way, especially if there’s a cute jacket for under £60 at stake. Thomas, a Paris-based fashion journalist, takes a story most of us think we know, but tells it better and in compelling, readable detail... But can we get our heads round fewer clothes and can fashion brands accept smaller profits? As David Attenborough once said: “Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.” The same goes for an infinite wardrobe. Fashionopolis certainly convinces on why this is the case, but it also engagingly elucidates how we may change things.