5 lessons from Dana Thomas’ Fashionopolis: for the aspiring, but time-pressed, fashion activist

February 7, 2021

Thread contributor Chiara Maurino unpacks five key things she learned from Dana Thomas’ Fashionpolis, helping the time-pressed, aspiring fashion activist to better equip themselves to make socially and environmentally conscious sartorial decisions.

Going into 2021, setting a New Year’s resolution felt a bit pointless. Hopes of the ‘great reset’ or at least a new (better?) normal have begun to wither since the announcement of a third lockdown, leaving us in a ‘new-year-new-me’ limbo. The desire for positive change is there, but it's shrouded in uncertainty, a vague desperation brought about by COVID-19 and the ensuing, inevitable third-lockdown-lethargy.

It is, however, amidst and perhaps even because of all of this that it has never felt so essential to cling onto the hope of a better future. As the conversation around sustainable fashion grows louder, many of us are enthusiastic to educate ourselves, make more socially and environmentally conscious decisions with our money and promote fashion as a force for good. And yet, many of us don’t really know where to start. Learning about the problems that surround the fashion industry is no easy task, so here I unpack five key concepts I learned from Dana Thomas’ seminal book, Fashionpolis.

Slow fashion

Thomas defines slow fashion as:

‘a growing movement of makers, designers, merchants and manufacturers worldwide, who, in response to fast fashion and globalisation, have significantly dialled back their pace and financial ambition, freeing themselves to focus more on creating items with inherent value, curating the customer experience, and reducing environmental impact.’

Slow fashion, the arch nemesis of mass-consumed fast-fashion, came about as a reaction against profit-driven, trend-led brands such as Zara and H&M. But the term alludes to more than just companies that operate within a ‘slow-fashion’ framework. It is a movement that aims to change people’s consumption of fashion, restoring value to each and every item of clothing and decelerating the unnatural pace at which fast fashion companies currently churn out new collections.  

Subcontracting

Subcontracting refers to the practice of ‘assigning or outsourcing part of the obligations and tasks under a contract to another party known as a subcontractor.’[1] In other words, fashion retail brands who don’t manufacture all their clothes will often contract supply companies to produce them at lower cost. Such suppliers are typically located in less developed countries where worker's rights aren't as strictly regulated, giving rise to sexual violence, gender discrimination and abuse of power.

‘subcontracting is endemic in the apparel industry, creating a fractured supply chain in which workers are easily in jeopardy.’

It is because of subcontracting that big fashion companies are able to sell clothes at such a cheap cost, and purposefully turn a blind eye to labour rights and environmental policy.

Fashion and tech… a love/hate relationship

Although technological advances have produced the fragmented supply chains and unnaturally rapid turn-around rates that today’s fashion world is notorious for, tech can, counterintuitively, also be the tool that 'finally transforms textile and apparel manufacturing to something more personal and ethical.’ The future of fashion needs tech to get us out of the mess it has led us into, and, as ‘strange as it sounds’, Thomas assures us that:

‘technology will bring humanity to the supply chain.’

Reshoring

An example of fashion tech pioneering the way for a more sustainable and ethical future can be found in the recent increase of reshoring;

'the act of bringing back the manufacturing that went offshore during the post-NAFTA globalisation boom’.

Economists have called this trend a ‘reversal’ of globalisation and Thomas envisions a landscape in which, ‘clothes don’t have to be made by poorly paid, poorly treated workers’ in far off countries. Bringing back the manufacturing process and automising it will create a small portion of, ‘good, safe and well-paying’ jobs for local communities, but whilst this practice has the potential to ‘re-invigorate’ the western manufacturing industry, how will it impact less developed economies, who rely on their textile workforce?

Circular fashion

Circular fashion has become a bit of a buzzword since pandemic-inspired talks of the ‘Great Reset’, but for many, still remains shrouded in uncertainty. It refers to a:

‘closed-loop system’ of supply and demand in which ‘products are continually recycled, reborn, reused.’

This is a system in which 'nothing goes to trash’, in which you can drop off your unwanted clothes at the very shop that you bought them from so they then can be reworked or reinvented. We need to pave the way to a future where 'pre-consumer waste’ (waste materials created during the process of manufacturing and delivering products) is eliminated entirely. It may sound ambitious, but it needs to happen, and it needs to happen now.


Whilst these bite-sized insights into Thomas’ book may give you a point of entry into the complex debates around today’s fashion industry, I cannot recommend reading the book for yourself enough! Slowing down and being more mindful about your consumption doesn’t just profit the environment and the global workforce, it also has positive effects on each and every individual.

by Chiara Maurino

Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes by Dana Thomas is available to buy on Bookshop here. Support local, independent bookshops by getting your books on Bookshop!

[1] https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/subcontracting.asp