Designer Confronts the Problem of ‘Fast Fashion’ — Her Beautiful Solution Turns Trash Into Art
Fashion designer Reet Aus takes a hard look at the fast fashion industry.
What price does the planet pay for a pair of jeans? It’s a question that Estonian designer Reet Aus set off to find an answer to.
“I’m a fashion designer who loves her job,” Aus said. “But I’m worried that we’re overproducing.” Fast fashion refers to cheap, trendy clothing, and it’s the way of an industry that always has a new collection for each season.
In fact, the purchase of new clothing has increased by over 400% in the past 20 years. Clothes may not last long in a person’s closet, but they last virtually forever in a landfill. Many textile fabrics never decompose in nature.
Reet Aus wanted to attack the problem from two sides, by creating high quality clothes that people could buy less of to begin with, and by making them with leftover scrap material from mass production. So she decided to visit clothing manufacturers in Bangladesh to get a better idea of the supply of fabric that these factories are just throwing away.
The Shocking Impacts of Fast Fashion
What she found was astounding: every manufacturer she visited was throwing away tons and tons of material.
There weren’t processes in place to reuse any extra material. So Aus decided to dig deeper. She visited the family farms that produced the raw material for fabrics and found generations of people living below the poverty line. Then she visited the factories where chemicals render the fibres into fabrics like denim.
She learned that to make one pair of new jeans, 10 cubic meters of water are used. That’s as much as a 4-person family consumes in a month. The chemicals that are used are extremely hazardous to the environment and to human health—and these chemicals are still present in the final garment.
Aus asked herself, what is the cost of fast fashion in terms of pollution, social justice, and the health of workers who work with dangerous chemicals? We have so many cheap goods because we don’t measure these costs.
Why One Fashion Designer Is Determined to Make a Change
Discouraged but not defeated, Aus decided that she would do her part to bring awareness to the problem and create small change in the industry. “I can’t fight against mass production [uniquely as a designer],” she recognized.
Aus claims that the only people who can force change are consumers. Instead of always going for the next trendy thing, consumers need to buy quality clothes that last, she says. When there is demand for clothing that respects the workers who make it and the environment we live in, then the industry will change.
Indeed, executives from major clothing brands echoed her sentiments. In a documentary called Out of Fashion, they admitted that, while the idea was noble, until they could profit from it, change would not happen.
During her travels in Bangladesh, Reet Aus found one major manufacturer that was willing to give her a chance. Tens of thousands of t-shirts were about to be thrown into landfill. Could Aus find a way to reuse the material to make new clothing?
How a Designer Is Upcycling to Counter Fast Fashion
The idea of using something old, something already produced, and turning it into something useful and new, is called upcycling. To Aus, it means “giving new life to old material by design — so trash becomes fashion!”
To do so, the fashion designer doesn’t draw up her design and then go in search of fabric. Instead, she has to look at what she has and then decide what can be done with it. “My design has to be resourceful,” she says.
In her design space, she lays out the pattern pieces and covers them with fabric that she has salvaged from piles and piles of fabric that the manufacturer would otherwise send to landfill. Each piece that she makes is unique. Each piece, Aus says, has a story. Each piece is a small part of the fight against fast fashion.
Although upcycled clothing is a niche market at the moment, Aus is not alone. Designer Victoria Ladefoged has been doing this since before it was called upcycling. She likes the feeling of tea towels and other typical kitchen fabrics in clothing. She likes the story that industrial fabrics (such as hospital blankets) bring with them to fashion. She focuses on retaining the original details in fabric when she reuses them in creative ways.
Orsola de Castor in England is also an upcycling designer. She came to upcycling by mistake when a fancy boutique wanted to order a large quantity of a jumper she had made with patches. De Castor insists that upcycled fashion is a passion project, that her actions alone won’t change anything. The sentiment is echoed by many designers and manufacturers: the demand has to come from the public.
How One Designer Is Proving Small Changes Can Make an Impact
Although Aus’s upcycled t-shirt project had its ups and downs as the massive clothing manufacturer learned to deal with the fashion designer’s new process, in the end, the project was a success and Aus delivered tens of thousands of new t-shirts made from old materials. Her upcycled products use 90% less water and energy than creating clothing from virgin materials.
While these upcycled clothes often cost more, Reet Aus doesn’t believe that clothes should be cheap. Her lesson is to value what we have and to care about the impact of our actions on others. So while she knows that she can’t change the fashion industry overnight, she vows to keep chipping away at it and encouraging others to do the same. Many small changes can’t help but make a big impact.