Ethical fashion has been lurking in the back of my mind for a few years but I only recently discovered Lucy Siegle. She never registered on my radar before, probably because living in France obscured my vision of most British cultural developments… Lucy is a journalist and writes a weekly column on ethical living in the Observer. She’s also on telly, currently as a reporter on the BBC 1 programme, The One Show, and has written two books. The second book, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?, documents the current state of global clothing production. If my copy (photo above) looks a little battered, it’s because it’s been in my handbag for the past seven weeks – this is not exactly light reading, despite its novelesque size.
Lucy researches the complex clothing supply chain, from growing raw materials to treating, dyeing and sewing final products. She also explores the environmental impact of clothing production, including the poisoned Ganges in Kanpur and the desertification of the Aral Sea, as well as reporting on the daily struggles of the average garment worker in India, China and beyond.
For all this research however, the book moves from topic to topic quite quickly. This is both a good and a bad thing. While providing a general overview for novices, there’s also some serious detail for those already well-versed in the clothing supply chain. Lucy looks at the system from many angles, including government policies and flawed auditing, in a clear and concise way, but I find myself wanting to know more about everything. In saying that, the book is replete with an astounding amount of facts and figures and sneaks in some really specific information. For example, I didn’t know what mulesing, salaula or perc were before, and now I do. Likewise, the inclusion of historical information and trends gives context to each of the aspects explored. I imagine Lucy has a library of collated information and I dream of a day when she publishes the encyclopaedic version of this book (unrealistic, I know). Meanwhile, I think the publication really reflects ethical fashion’s current standing. Although some progress has been made, we are very much at the beginning of this process of change, and a book that dips its toe in each area expresses this reality.
Siegle has been accused of forensic levels of investigation into the infinite processes of production and while they might seem tedious to some, the truth is, if we are to effectuate real change, we must discover exactly what’s going on and the ramifications of current practices. The information is blunt and relentless however, it ranges from human exploitation to irreversible environmental destruction. About halfway through, I felt like I was drowning in toxic sludge myself, and that the problems were insurmountable or certainly beyond the realms of my control. There are hopeful moments of clarity though, and Siegle’s straight-talking writing style just about keeps the book buoyant, while an honest portrayal of her own less-than-perfect wardrobe is cheery and realistic. Rather contrary to the rest of the book, the last few chapters focus on practical solutions and ways in which the individual can reform this fast-fashion extravaganza. Most of this section was not news to me, but is a very useful guide for anyone wishing to change the landscape of his or her wardrobe.
Overall it is a fascinating read and a real eye-opener, whether you are interested in ethical fashion or are unburdened by injustices in the garment industry. My favourite thing about this book is, while Siegle expresses anger and frustration, her approach is generally balanced and offers the facts without judgement at several points, notably with regards to fur and animal management. This is the new face of ethical fashion, one that focuses on education and encourages the consumer to make informed choices.
I bought the book at Brick Lane Bookshop and I’m sure it’s available online. If anyone else has read it, please chime in with your comments below.