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ISSN : 1226-0401(Print)
ISSN : 2383-6334(Online)
The Research Journal of the Costume Culture Vol.27 No.1 pp.57-63
DOI : https://doi.org/10.29049/rjcc.2019.27.1.057

Strategic focus for substantial rewards

Michael A. Hann†
Professor, School of Design, University of Leeds, UK
Corresponding author (M.A.Hann@leeds.ac.uk)
January 13, 2019 February 13, 2019 February 18, 2019


Due principally to the desire to seek lower production costs, the bulk of the world’s textile and clothing manufacture migrated to low-cost zones, mainly outside Europe, over the course of the late-twentieth century. In the early-twenty-first century, fast fashion became a dominant force worldwide, with ‘Western’ retail buyers hunting cheaper deals from clothing manufacturers (mainly in Asia), and with occasional disasters not changing matters beyond the duration of a fashion season. Progressively, seams became narrower, cheaper raw materials were used and durability was no longer an aim. Why bother to do otherwise? This was what the ‘Western’ consumer wanted: fashion to be worn only a few times and then discarded, despite the fact that vast amounts of human, technological and financial resources were wasted in such a quest. By the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the production of textile and clothing products continued to contribute substantially to global warming. This paper reviews briefly the current conditions of manufacture, and argues that the research agenda should be focused on addressing the implications of a progressively changed focus, not on fast-fashion products, but instead on the production of products with greater durability. Meanwhile ‘Western’ consumers need to turn away from fast fashion and realise that waste is bad for their economy and their society. It is argued further, that after a period of re-adjustment, substantial financial rewards await the national textile and clothing industries that undergo such a turn around.


    I. Introduction

    By the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the focus of the vast majority of textile and fashion producers and retailers worldwide was on short-lived products, non-sustainable, designed for short-term use and produced with the lowest possible manufacturing costs. Not surprisingly, the aim was (and continues to be at the time of publication) on profit maximisation and, in this case, manufacturers could argue that they were simply responding to consumer demand worldwide. Meanwhile, it appeared that the environment continued to suffer and precious resources continued to be wasted.

    The clothing industry, located mainly in Asia during the early twenty-first century, though responding to the whims of major western retailers, came under intense (though short-lived) scrutiny, particularly after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh (24th April, 2013, with 1,134 as the reported death toll); this and similar events have helped to focus the attention of western consumers on what is known as ‘ethical’ manufacture. Ethical manufacture and sustainability are closely aligned. Wages and working conditions in the clothing industry, worldwide, are appalling (with only a few exceptions), and appeared to remain so even after press exposés of one kind or another. Pressures of ‘fast’ fashion have forced manufacturers to squeeze profit margins, and this has led to the use of the cheapest available fabrics, narrower seams, cheap and weak sewing threads, cheap buttons and other fixtures, all aimed at the satisfaction, largely, of powerful western retailers.

    This paper presents an unusual perspective. It is readily accepted that current manufacturing procedures are non-sustainable. Also non-sustainable, are the demand for fast fashion, the attitude of manufacturers, retailers and consumers, and the lack of accountability throughout the system. In recognition of this, a largely familiar, though rarely used, word is suggested as an addition to the fashion vocabulary of the twenty-first century: ‘durability’. The introduction or re-focusing on improved durability of products could have positive consequences economically, internationally and in terms of sustainability, the improvement of the environment and the stimulation of fairer employment practices. The objectives of this paper are to: re-open the debate on sustainability in general, review briefly the nature of both re-cycling and up-cycling and to consider the implications of manufacturing durable products.

    Ⅱ. Background

    The amount of textile rubbish produced worldwide has escalated especially following increased participation by manufacturers worldwide in fast fashion. By the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, packaging had become more sophisticated and was designed to enhance the product and to attract the attention of the consumer, with little concern for the environment. Waxed paper and card had been replaced largely with polystyrene and polythene, making higher volumes of lightweight rubbish all detrimental to the environment. Further to this, a large proportion of clothing purchases was online (with further undesirable postal packaging created). By the early-twenty-first century, millions of tons of plastic were used worldwide each year and, often this had been made from crude oil, was non-biodegradable and produced noxious gasses if incinerated. Landfill areas were expanded in most urban areas, but associated activies offered dangers for the future, particularly with the eking out of toxic liquids, which, when washed through the soil after rain, contaminated local drinking- water sources and generally poisoned the environment making it unsuitable for future use in farming or building. All in all, by the early twenty-first century, land fill spaces were running out and were reaching total capacity, a situation recognised by Morgan and Birtwistle (2009) at the end of the first decade.

    Addressing these environmental issues has been a theme of numerous conferences and much literature. A representative selection, addressing various environmental issues as well as sustainability in general, recycling and up-cycling, include: Allwood, Laursen, de Rodriguez, and Bocken (2006), Armstrong, and LeHew (2011), Burall (1991), Cooper (1994), Farrant, Olsen and Wangel (2010), Fletcher (2008), Mackenzie (1991), McLaren, Bullock, and Yousuf (1998), Morley, Bartlett, and McGill (2009), OECD (2001), and Wrap (2015).

    The uncomfortable truth in the early twenty-first century, was that a large percentage of clothing given to re-cycling organisations ended up in land fill sites or was incinerated, some was sent to other, less prosperous, locations in the world and only a very small proportion of items were reused or had their constituent fibres extracted. Cheap cotton/polyester or wool/acrylic blends, constituents of a large percentage of fast fashion items worldwide, are typically expensive to re-cycle in any meaningful way.

    Up-cycling may well contribute to addressing the textile waste problem. The phrase is used to de-note the extended life-cycle of a product, possibly in a new form, after further adjustment or change by a manufacturer with the intention of creating a product of high retail value. Up-cycling is something which has been done in numerous cultures over the centuries and is by no means a new idea. It is simply the desire to avoid waste. It was not uncommon in European cultures for one hand-made garment to pass in use from one family member to another. In fact, upcycling was a common practice worldwide. With past upcycling, each stage of use was ‘engineered’ by individuals with sewing skills (know-how, which had been passed down through the generations, from mother or grandmother to daughter of granddaughter).

    In past years, skills such as lace, sewing, embroidery, tapestry and hand knitting were practiced in homes, invariably as female-associated skills that were passed through the female (or distaff) line. In the early-twenty-first century, there had been a great expansion in up-cycling activities across much of Europe, at the domestic level, but to be effective, the skills of participants needed to be improved. Up-cycling has become a common activity among a relatively small number of skilled and creative individuals. Also, for up-cycling to make a positive impact and reverse the past detrimental effects of manufacture on the environment, a major expansion would be required. Some disadvantages can be identified. It is difficult to see how up-cycling (on its own) can maintain employment levels across the many locations of early-twenty-first century manufacture. Also, it appears that up-cycled products are only aimed at a privileged élite.

    Product durability has a wide range of implications for producers, consumers and societies in general. Durable products have a heightened physical performance, last for longer, and are immediately more expensive to produce than typical ‘fast’ fashion products. More expensive fabric is used, seams are more generous, and threads are of higher quality and expense as are buttons and other fixtures. Is this cost effective for the producer? It can be, if the product is sold at a higher price. Is this economic for the consumer? It can be, if quality levels are high and consumers are convinced of the long-term functionality of such products. There are further implications and to realise these it is necessary to focus on the nature of less durable products, as these are more prone to breakage/tear; if the producer is culpable then replacement (rather than repair) is a feature and this can influence future consumer loyalty towards the retailer. Durable products are more environmentally friendly. Yes, ‘fast’ and ‘durable’ products have similar raw materials but the longer life of durable products allows more time for the recovery of the environment. Why did the consumer turn away from durable products? It is clear that the demand for durable clothing products decreased due to the availability of cheap, mass-produced, easily replaceable, short-lasting, clothing and this, in turn, led to the closure of numerous manufacturers (many in western Europe), the loss of numerous associated skills and the transfer of production to many parts of Asia where it replaced largely traditional, invariably sustainable and ethical, manufacture. Many of the skills associated with durable products can be recovered provided a concerted effort is put in place to re-gain them. Numbers employed in the early-twenty-first century in Asia could be retained, but conditions of employment need to be improved substantially. The focus could be on high quality durable, long lasting, though expensive garments, rather than cheap, fast, throw-away clothing. Waste would be avoided. First, however, consumers need to be encouraged to focus on not buying fast fashion goods. If demand changes, manufacturers will respond (particularly if their profit margins are at risk of being lowered).

    Ⅲ. A Modest Proposal

    According to the Clothing Durability Report, published by Wrap (2015), if the active life of all clothing could be increased by nine months (during the second decade of the twenty-first century), this would reduce the annual carbon, water and waste foot print of UK clothing by 15%‒30% and cut resource costs by 5 Billion (UK pounds). So up-cycling can help in this regard, but is this a final solution? It is suggested here that the Korean clothing manufacturing industry could gain an enviable strategic position by not just focusing on recycling and up-cycling, but also on the improved durability of products produced and thus reap substantial rewards. Why follow when you could lead? What is a reasonable life expectation of a clothing product: One year, three years, five years or more?

    Currently there is a relatively large mark-up for both manufacturer and retailer, and both have grown rich on the back of fast fashion; they must now be convinced that it is in their interests in the long term to focus on durability. There are numerous unanswered questions, and numerous further issues need to be addressed. There is a culture of intransigence and waste worldwide, and this needs to be transformed. It may be thought that probably the most effective means for transforming the behaviour of international retailers is through compelling them to include various information on the purchase or swing ticket, so that the consumer can see at a glance the exact conditions of manufacture, who produced it, how much they were paid, what type of fibres were used and the length of life expected from the product. Further to this. some onlookers may argue that this would necessitate the introduction of various forms of international legislation, enforced at governmental level. However, but this may have little effect with manufacturers focusing instead on how best to avoid the pressures of such legislation. It would be better to ensure that manufacturers perceive the positive benefits (i.e. higher profits) of manufacturing durable products. There needs to be intensive promotion away from fast fashion.

    Of course, levels of employment need to be safeguarded and currently available processing technology needs to be used. There are many quality improvements required, including improved yarns (made from sustainable fibres), improved fabrics, seams, buttons and other clothing fixtures. A sustainable manufacturing pipeline needs to be created. So, this paper can recognise a favourable direction, but there are numerous issues to be addressed, and numerous questions to answer. What type of fibre should be used? Which processing arrangements? The focus needs to be on sustainability and durability rather than simply profit maximisation; it is certain that if manufacturers and retailers continue on the current path then a negative effect will be the result.

    Offer the consumer much after-sales service (dry cleaning, repair, and replacement). One year solid guarantee. Offer dry-cleaning for the life of the product, covering postage and packing. All details of manufacture should be shown on ‘swing ticket’. Get the consumer to appreciate durability.

    <Fig. 1> is textiles collection boxes, Brussels, Belgium: early-twenty-first century. Such pick-up points have become common worldwide. Often, however, only a small proportion of deposited items are actually re-cycled. <Fig. 2> is a bunch of roses, up-cycled from unused library books. The implementation of such a solution requires great creativity and well developed skill. <Fig. 3> is the Harris Tweed logo. Harris Tweed is one of a few durable textiles still (by the second decade of the twenty-first century) produced worldwide. Commercial success has been closely attached to a reputation for durability.

    Ⅳ. Conclusion

    It is recognised that this paper raises many questions, but presents only a few answers. What is certain is that current behaviour cannot continue for the foreseeable future. Textile and clothing manufacture, as practiced currently, is not sustainable. Recycling and up-cycling are valient attempts at changing the mind set of society and as such make a significant psychological contribution, a contribution which manufacturers can build on through the production of more durable products using currently available processing technology.



    Textiles collection boxes, Brussels, Belgium. Early-Twenty-First Century. From Ben2. (2006). https://commons.wikimedia.org


    A bunch of roses, up-cycled from unused library books. From JulieN2212. (2017). https://commons.wikimedia.org


    The Harris Tweed logo. From Ryj. (2009). https://commons.wikimedia.org



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