Jeska Grue is “a made-to-order fashion studio operating next to a giant marsh” in Sackville, New Brunswick. Jeska Grue is both the name of the studio and the name of the seamstress behind extremely wearable cotton, silk, and linen separates. Grue is one of many fashion entrepreneurs actively fighting against the fashion industry’s increasingly unsustainable production practices by designing and creating high-quality garments without the waste and exploitation customary of fast fashion brands.
Fast fashion, including brands like Zara, H&M, Joe Fresh, and Uniqulo, is defined by its planned obsolescence. It is a quick and cheap approach to designing, creating, and marketing clothing.
According to Grue, the “average Canadian purchases 72 new clothing items a year while sending 80 pounds of textile waste to landfill, of which 85% could be diverted to recycling or second-hand clothing streams for reuse.”
As fashion cycles have become more fast-paced, fast fashion manufacturers have adopted increasingly unsustainable production techniques to keep up with demand and increase profit margins.
Earlier this year, Fast Company published an article online: “We have to fix fashion if we want to survive the next century.” The article was renamed, and renamed again: “Your H&M addiction is wreaking havoc on the environment. Here’s how to break it.” Its author, Elizabeth Segran, writes, “Enough is enough. Stop making me think it is normal to shop all the time, not just when I need something. You make flimsy dresses in cheap factories, and I snap them up.”
According to the article, the fashion industry is the planet’s second largest polluter, second only to the oil industry. The fashion industry currently relies on 98 million tons of oil to make synthetic fibres, toxic dyes contribute to 20% of the world’s water pollution, and the textile industry generates 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases. Incinerating clothes releases 2,988 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, which exceeds that of burning coal (2,249 pounds per megawatt hour) and natural gas (1,135 pounds per megawatt hour). In some cases, it’s actually cheaper to dispose of unwanted garments than to wash them; clothing purchases far exceed the pace at which fabric is able to break down.
With the rise of fast (and cheap) fashion, the demand for second-hand clothing has declined in the global north—clothes now are not meant to last very long—forcing nations in the global south to find new ways to deal with post-consumer textile waste. In response, second-hand, vintage, and consignment clothing retailers are beginning to turn their backs on fast fashion.
In March, after receiving an overwhelming number of fast fashion throw-aways, bell.weth.er, Fredericton’s Queen Street vintage and consignment shop, posted to its Instagram “6 Reasons to Ditch Fast Fashion,” a list released by the Sustainable Fashion Forum. Laurel Green, the Fredericton shop’s owner, wrote the following to caption the list: “Someone asked me the other day, ‘Why aren’t you accepting certain brands?’ Great question! We are steering away from accepting ‘fast fashion’ brands and garments for many reasons—mainly [those] listed here”: it’s cheaply made and designed to fall apart; it leads to a huge amount of textile waste and environmental pollution; it exploits garment workers and has claimed the lives of many; it’s often harmful, and in many cases deadly, to animals; fast fashion giants are notorious for copying [independent] designers; and it creates a throw-away mentality that makes us believe we need to constantly buy more.
Consumers are not only buying more but also becoming farther removed both from the ecological sources of the clothing they buy and wear and from the human labour that mediates each garment’s changing form. Each t-shirt bought on impulse is the equivalent of 700 gallons of water. Gallons of chemical waste. Physical and emotional human labour.
“I often feel perpetually behind the ‘design cycle’ and ‘product release schedule,’” says Grue. “Sometimes the pace at which things considered ‘slow fashion’ are still expected to move—new design, new fabric, new photography—is dizzying. I think some of the pressure comes from larger ‘slow’ fashion companies marketing themselves as not-very-different from single-person craft operations. On Instagram, it can become confusing—who is making clothes out of a spare room in a house they rent, and who is working out of a 10,000 square foot warehouse with several dozen employees? I am routinely compared to companies who are literally 25 times the size of my own. It can be stressful.”
Designers and seamstresses like Grue, who use the make-to-order model, have valuable insight into the intensive labour that goes into each piece of clothing.
“I get to see the garment as a non-garment first,” says Grue, “part of a bolt of cloth. Then, as cut pieces—cut from paper pattern pieces I previously drafted and graded into sizes. And then, through sewing, it moves into its final, wearable three-dimensional form. When you first finish sewing a garment and hang it on a rack, it hangs a bit differently. The garment needs gravity. It’s the very subtle last step.” Grue’s customers can rest assured knowing that their linen “marsh pants” and silk “anyday tank” are sustainably made and their materials ethically sourced.
“There is so little fabric being produced outside of very large, automated weaving mills (that produce thousands of meters per hour),” says Grue. “But there is also some very cool stuff going on regarding production models, ownership models, and types of materials used. Regionally, there is a fibre-shed project in Nova Scotia growing flax and producing linen yarn—this is a singular undertaking in Canada and the U.S. The closest linen being woven right now is the mill I order from in Ireland (which operates on a few old looms).”
Grue attributes the success of her small business to an Employment Insurance (EI) self-employment program, but also to her childhood in rural Bass River, Nova Scotia, and the necessary autonomy living in a community with a dire job market instilled in her. The Dominion Chair Company in Bass River was irreparably destroyed in 1989 by a factory fire. The factory “operated with very old machinery,” says Grue, “and about three-quarters of the adults living in Bass River had unionized employment there. Thirty years later, it’s still a difficult conversation in [the] community. There are next to no jobs.” Because her small business is self-directed, Grue has been able to establish her studio an hour from Bass River, in Sackville. Hers is a future she could not have imagined for herself. “I am impishly delighted to be doing [Jeska Grue] at all, let alone far away from any fashion center.”
The fashion industry’s manufacturing sector began in high-wage economies, arguably with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and its accompanying “mass production.” But due to the increased pressure to match product and consumer demand, and due to production reorganization within global commodity chains in the early ‘90s, production shifted to newly-industrialized countries. Supplies in these countries are less expensive, and unskilled labour can be easily matched to apparel assembly operations. The shift can also be attributed to the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA), lifted in January of 2005 and resulted in low-wage competition in the fashion industry overseas.
The MFA was an international trade agreement on textiles and clothing in place from 1974 through 2004. It imposed quotas on the amount of clothing and textile exports from developing countries to developed countries. When the MFA ceased to exist, retailers were able to make, buy, and ship garments at much lower prices from these newly-industrialized countries.
In order to keep their costs as low as possible and to maximize profits, many fast fashion companies force factories in countries like Bangladesh and India to compete against each other for contracts. Because the manufacturers want the business, they agree to low rates for their employees’ work. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to consumers that the people who lose out most are the factory workers, 85% of whom are women.
In 2013, Maritime artist Peggy Woolsey created a series of paintings that thematically explored the throw-away culture of clothing. Part of the exhibition, titled “Worn,” was an “altered book,” a painted-over Joe Fresh catalog. Woolsey’s work was a reaction to the conditions of clothing factory workers and a fire in a Bangladesh factory that supplied clothing and fabric to Canada’s Joe Fresh.
Fashion—and the processes that increase and expedite its production and distribution—is a big business. “The fashion industry allegedly employs more than a billion people,” reports Grue. “From agriculture, fibre processing, fabric production, garment manufacturing, design, retail, etc. How do all our best consumer intentions add up next to the sheer scale of this fashion system? What’s needed is action. Why is this [fast] fashion system allowed to exist? How can we put it in the recycling bin of time?”
Lauren R. Korn is a research assistant for the RAVEN project Summer Institute and an M.A. student of Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick.