PARIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 01: A model walks the runway during the Stella McCartney - Econyl outfit - show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2019 on October 1, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Yanshan Zhang/Getty Images)
A model walks the runway during Stella McCartney's Econyl show, part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear SS19 © Getty

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. There is increasing pressure on consumers to buy less clothing, especially one-season “disposable” pieces from fast-fashion outlets, which pause only briefly in our closets before heading to a landfill. In the UK, an Oxfam campaign is asking consumers to abstain from buying new clothes for all of September — just in time for London Fashion Week.

It is the extreme labour intensity of cutting and stitching fabric, and the chemicals needed to colour and soften it, that have led to the industry’s particular troubles. Some of the awful history here is familiar, from the satanic mills of 19th-century Manchester to the Triangle shirtwaist fire in New York in the early 20th, to that disaster’s terrible repetitions in today’s Bangladesh, most notably the Tazreen Fashion factory in 2012, which killed at least 117 workers.

Front cover of 'Fashionopolis', by Dana Thomas

Some of Thomas’ reporting was eye-opening for me, though — such as her description of the wasteful, dangerous and polluting process that is required to pre-wash and distress blue jeans. Each pair can generate several gallons of toxic wastewater, and workers often hand-sand jeans to create that weathered look, in rooms clogged with cotton dust.

Thomas joins Kelly in hoping that a better-informed consumer might make better choices, but the positive side of her book is primarily devoted to the notion that better technology can eliminate the worst jobs and limit the environmental impact. This means everything from modern, hyper-automated spinning mills to robot stitchers to leather and silk grown in test-tubes or vats. Thomas does a good job of describing each innovation from the point of view of the entrepreneur behind it.

One heartening example, well past the start-up stage, is Econyl, a recycled form of nylon made by the Italian manufacturer Aquafil. The company turns old fishing nets, carpets and the like — millions of pounds of them a year — into new Speedo swimsuits, Breitling watch straps, and Stella McCartney outerwear. Recycled nylon now accounts for almost half of Aquafil’s production.

A nice feature of technological advancements is “rightshoring”, which brings jobs back to former manufacturing hubs in regions such as the American south or northern England. These hubs are close to the customer and to garment workers who can be rehired, often after years outside the industry.

The flip side to this is that those “bad” jobs using old technologies are a key part of economies in countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia. Thomas does not have a solution to this, but displacement by technology stumps everyone else, too, and it would be absurd to argue that destructive manufacturing processes should be preserved to protect employment in the emerging world.

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. Most of us wear a lot of their clothes, they all make a lot of noise about their efforts, but it’s hard to assess the substance behind the claims.

I didn’t come away from Fashionopolis much the wiser on this. Thomas urges us, rightly, not to buy disposable clothes and to choose high-quality goods that can be repaired. But the quality of the T-shirts or trousers I buy at Uniqlo is as remarkable as the low prices; I keep them for years. What I want to know is if they would be worthy of Florence Kelley’s white tag.

Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion — & the Future of Clothes, by Dana Thomas, Head of Zeus, RRP£20/Penguin Press, RRP$28, 320 pages

Robert Armstrong is the FT’s US finance editor

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