How Fast Fashion Is Destroying the Planet

How Fast Fashion Is Destroying the Planet

Among the book’s delights are Thomas’s sketches of her individual subjects. I can’t get her description of a woman as “peaches-and-cream pretty” out of my head; I know exactly what she looks like. The author also has a gift for bringing luxury to life: She conjures Moda Operandi’s London showroom so vividly that I felt as though I’d moved in.

In the last section, Thomas marvels at the ingenuity of those trying to “disrupt” fashion. She makes a strong argument for the importance of science applied to (what are often seen as) the frivolities of fashion, especially if we want to move away from the unartful excesses of mass production.

Stella McCartney gets a disproportionate amount of attention here, and for good reason. McCartney has long been committed to sustainable practices, in her own business and others’. As the head designer at Chloé in the late 1990s, she refused to include leather or fur in her collections, which many executives then considered a death wish (some still do). She made it work, and has amplified those practices in her eponymous company, using, for instance, only “reclaimed” cashmere, refusing to use polyvinyl chloride or untraceable rayon.

However, it is in contextualizing this single industry from a broader climate perspective that the book falls short. Some statistics are exaggerated: Livestock are not responsible for “at least half of all global greenhouse gas emissions,” but rather closer to 15 percent of them; nor is fashion production alone consuming water at a rate that, if maintained, “will surpass the world’s supply by 40 percent by 2030” (not even the world’s total water demand necessarily will). And much of the discussion of new materials and production methods raises further questions. What are the differences between organic, conventional and “Better Cotton”? (Organic cotton is periodically touted as a sustainable alternative, though it currently makes up only about 0.4 percent of the cotton market, making it nearly impossible for any company to rely on now or in the near future.) Another: Does the landfilling of non-synthetic clothing matter? Thomas doesn’t say, but in fact it does, because it contributes to global emission of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas.

A lot of faith is placed here in the idea of “a circular — or closed-loop — system, in which products are continually recycled, reborn, reused. Nothing, ideally, should go in the trash.” But the practical considerations — cost, efficiency, resource limitations — are often left unaddressed. Ultimately, Thomas finds that renting clothing is the most sustainable model, and that feels like a more realistic solution than the futuristic materials she describes at length. In the end I was left wondering: If the fashion industry is this damaging, and none of these developments alone will fix the problem, shouldn’t governments be regulating production beyond enacting stricter pollution standards?

That may be a question for another book; it is not the goal of “Fashionopolis” to provide all the answers. Thomas has succeeded in calling attention to the major problems in the $2.4-trillion-a-year industry, in a way that will engage not only the fashion set but also those interested in economics, human rights and climate policy. Her portraits of the figures who are transforming a field that hasn’t changed all that much in the last century or more sound at once like messages from the future and like nostalgic reveries of life in a smaller, simpler world. If we can combine them, this book suggests, the envisioned “fashionopolis” could transform from an urban nightmare into a shining city on a hill.

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