To Die For – Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?

Posted by Jill Chivers in Helpful Books and Resources

A perspective-, and possibly life- changing book

I recently finished reading Lucy Siegle’s book To Die For.  Lucy is an English writer on topics in the sustainable realm, and she spent quite  few years researching and writing this book.

The blurb on the back of the book states that it “peels back the layers of the global wardrobe to reveal the naked truth about the big name ‘it’ brands we swear by and the cheap clothes we can’t live without”.

I don’t know about you, but the blurb on the backs of books, combined with the front cover, are the two determining factors that make me want to open and read page one, or close it and move on.

That back blurb made me want to read on.  Immediately.  And I’m glad that I did.  Because of the research-based and journalistic style of this book, I found it very credible.  I also found it very compelling.

This book takes us on an interesting journey.  And what was so fascinating for me was how it leads all of us who are on our individual, personal shopping journeys to a mega highway.  A mega highway that has “global consequences” written all over it.

Your shopping is impacting the world

No matter what your personal circumstances and relationship to shopping (and each of us is on our own individual path there) this book makes it impossible to ignore and deny the larger impacts of our shopping behaviours.

I’ve included the photo above for a particular reason.  This is the actual copy of the book I read, and my photographic skills being as, er, undeveloped as they are, you can see it’s not the publishers image.  Why I chose this photo was because it includes the post-it notes sticking out of the book.  You can see how many there are (well maybe you can’t, the photograph not being so great – but trust me, there’s a lot of them).

How I’m going to share my impressions of this book is to provide you with a sampling of the compelling and startling thought-starters that I gained from reading this book.  Because I can’t include everything surrounding each piece in this review, some of these will be quoted out of context, so please note that.  The idea of doing the review this way is it will prompt you into wanting to read the book yourself.

Compelling and startling thought-starters from To Die For:

  • Faster and cheaper: a fashion industry writer observes a young woman emerging from Primark (a large discount department store in the UK) with six or seven shopping bags.  She drops one of them (the handles of the bag being unequal to the task of carrying the contents).  Instead of stopping to pick up the bag, the young woman walks on.  The conclusion the author comes to is that “fashion was so expendable it had turned into litter.”
  • The author quotes young fashionistas (consumers of fashion, I take that term to mean) as having an expendable attitude to fashion.  So much so that they throw out worn socks, rather than launder them.
  • The typical retailer expects an average of four visits a year from its ‘typical customer’.  Zara, the McFashion retailer of the moment, expanding around the world at a dizzying rate of knots, expects an average of 17 visits per year from its customers.
  • Immediately following Cyclone Katrina, many of those devastated by it were provided with emergency debit cards to the value of $2000.  The purpose of these cards was to help those in dire need to feed and accommodate themselves and conditions were placed on the use of these cards to prohibit the purchasing of non-essentials (including alcohol and tobacco).  Within hours of these cards being released, some were being used at the Louis Vuitton concession store in Atlanta to purchase $800 handbags.
  • Birkin handbags, made by Hermes, are amongst the most expensive handbags you can purchase (or rent) in the world and start at £4200 ($6700 USD) and can go as high as £11,000 ($17,500 USD).  Victoria Beckham has a collection of one hundred of these handbags, with a total price tag of £1.5million ($2.4M USD).
  • Textile production has doubled over the last 30 years and in the UK, each individual (man, woman and child) is consuming up to 55kg of new textiles per year.  By 2007, the amount of textiles the world was producing and consuming was nearly 80 million tonnes, or eighty billion kilograms.  That’s the weight that is being placed on the planet every year, which (as the author goes on to demonstrate) is not sustainable.  The earth simply cannot continue to produce this volume of textiles every year.
  • Each of us is responsible for producing 0.6 kilograms of oil, 60 kilograms of water and one kilogram of solid waste PER KILOGRAM of fashion we consume. If we are an “average” consumer of fashion, this adds up to 33 kg of oil, 3,300 kg of (non-renewable) water, and 55 kg of waste in total, per year – that’s the “cost” of the fashion we are consuming on an annual basis.  If our consumption of fashion is average.  On page 119, the author states “there is no such thing as fashion without a footprint”.
  • The Cotton Bowl in India is where much of the world’s cotton is grown.  The economics for the cotton grower are so dire (they receive so little of the profits) that this region has been renamed the Suicide Belt.  Over 10,000 suicides were reported in the Cotton Bowl in 2008.
  • The more complex the ‘finish’ on any cotton garment, the more (non-renewable) water it uses to produce it.  One pair of stonewashed denim jeans requires 11,000 – 20,000 litres of water to produce.
  • All fabrics need to be coated and finished which includes the use of oils, chemicals, compound waxes/solvents, non-renewable water and high temperature ovens.
  • In December 2007, Marks & Spencers (that most British of department stores) sold two cashmere sweaters per minute, an increase in cashmere sales of over 400% for the year.  It takes 4 years for a goat (or goats) to produce one sweater’s worth of cashmere. In 2004, the number of Gobi goats (those who ‘produce’ the cashmere) increased from 2.4 million to nearly 26 million.  The impact on the pastureland these goats occupy seems impossible to quantify.
  • Crocodile skin is a desirable material for many luxury brands.  It takes 3 – 4 crocodiles to make one handbag, a rep of Hermes is quoted as saying.  Prada processes 280,000 crocodile skins a year.
  • It takes a gallon of oil to make 3 fake fur coats.  Michigan University research states that twenty times more energy is required to produce a real fur coat as opposed to a fake one.
  • The US mink industry produces over 80,000 mink coats a year, coming from 270 mink farms (each producing over 10,000 minks per farm)
  • 6 – 7 million tonnes of cow hide are processed annually.  About half of that is used to produce shoes. In 2006, around 14.8 billion pair of shoes were manufactured globally.
  • The global trade for second hand clothing is estimated at around $1 billion. Much of this is sold in bundles to African nations.
  • The author estimates that if everyone in the UK alone purchased one ‘reclaimed’ woollen garment (instead of always buying new), it would save about 370 million gallons of water and 480 tonnes of chemical dyestuffs. Per year.
  • About 2 million tonnes of textiles end up in landfill every year.  The average person contributes 26 pieces of ‘wearable clothing’ into landfill each year.
  • An average 15% of fabric is wasted during the cutting process.
  • In an effort to discourage discounting (not only in the financial sense, but of their ‘brand’), luxury houses resort to burning unwanted and ‘mistake’ merchandise.
  • An Oxfam and Yougov study reported that collectively, we have 2.4 billion pieces of unworn clothing in our wardrobes – that’s the number of items hanging unworn in our collective wardrobes in any given year. The dollar value of these unworn (and wasted) wardrobe items is £10 billion ($16 billion USD).
  • Nike estimated in 2008 that their carbon footprint was 1.36 million tonnes – that’s the environmental cost of producing their goods, mainly trainers.
  • 80 people will have been involved in the production of one sweater.  34 people in the production of one pair of shoes, and 90 in the production of a manmade fibre suit (in 101 separate stages needed to finish and ship it).
  • Dame Vivienne Westwood, iconic British fashion designer, is quoted as encouraging people to “get off the consumer treadmill” in a bid to encourage Brits to ‘stop shopping’.
  • Nearly 70,000 tones of CO2 are created each year by the use of tumble dryers in the UK alone.

Please let me reiterate that these are random pieces from this book that made me stop and often re-read the passage to make sure I had understood it correctly.  The book needs to be read in its entirety to place these pieces into their proper context.  After all, the author spent many years compiling the book and it’s worth reading the way she wrote it.

But I do hope that this collection of parts from the book will inspire you to get your own copy and read it (and make sense of it) for yourself.

And maybe you’ll find yourself looking at those cheap t-shirts and sneakers in a different light.  I sure did.


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