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Fast Fashion and the Global Climate Emergency: Changing How We Think About Clothing and Developing a Sensibility for Sustainability

Fast fashion

Professor Clare Saunders and Dr Joanie Willett, Politics at the University of Exeter, Cornwall.

Key findings

  • The fashion industry is more polluting than aviation and shipping combined, so we need to change our behaviours with regards to clothing.  We ran a series of workshops in Cornwall to see what happens when people learn how to make, mend and modify clothing, starting with the raw materials
  • The fabric and the garments that we wear are precious and time-consuming to make!  Even if we treat them as if they are disposable.
  • Learning about clothes in a practical, hands on way in a non-judgemental, supportive space helped people to develop new pro-environmental norms that became supported by the group.
  • High street retailers might offer opportunities for regular workshops to mend and modify garments purchased in-store.


According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry produces more greenhouse gases than aviation and shipping combined. Fixing Fashion is a key problem if we are to address catastrophic climate change, and our Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project ‘Developing a Sensibility for Sustainable Clothing’ (S4S) had this question at its heart. We sought to understand what people think about clothing, what happens when people learn more about the processes involved in making (and maintaining) clothing, and what that can teach us about creating more sustainable behaviours.

Over nine months we ran workshops in Cornwall and the West Midlands to take participants through the clothing cycle. In Cornwall, we began with a series called ‘from fluff to fibre’, which introduced our group to the lengthy and time-consuming process of making fibre from the raw material, dyeing and weaving yarn. Next we explored making our own fabrics through knitting and crochet, before moving on to learn how to make and mend our own clothes. Finally, we were introduced to the idea of modifying clothing – literally buying second hand garments for the fabric which we made into other garments.

What did we learn from this process? It is very complicated to make fabric! Contemporary disposability is a far cry from previous generations for whom this time-consuming task meant that garments were precious and expensive. We began to reflect on the items in our own wardrobes, the amount that we buy and the number of pieces that have sat unworn for years. The new skills that we learned then enabled us to work on how we could start to wear these garments once more. For those of us that were bored of our clothes, we learned how we could modify them to make them more interesting, fresh, and exciting. For example, did you know that you can make a cardigan from a jumper? We didn’t either, but you can.

There was no silver bullet which radically altered people’s behaviour, but the workshops did lead most participants to make profound changes in how they approached and purchased clothing. Often this meant a reduction in the amount of items purchased, either because participants started to think more deeply about the quality of the things they bought, or because they were more stringent about whether they needed that new garment.

We purposefully created a non-judgemental space by allowing participants to explore the issues and reach their own conclusions. They made up their own minds and actions based on what they heard and saw. This is much more conducive to behaviour change than telling people they are doing something wrong, or trying to shame or scare people into amending their choices.

Additionally, the making groups became a mutually supportive and enjoyable way for people to share skills, acquire new skills, and enjoy companionship. Being a part of a like-minded group helped to develop new pro-environmental norms, and provided a supportive network to help to uphold these new practices. This is really important because it is very difficult to maintain a more reflective attitude towards clothing if, for example, an individual is part of a social group which places value on a less reflective relationship with the material objects that we use.

What can be done now? We need more spaces which enable people to come together to make, mend and modify clothing, generate conversations about clothing, and for sharing knowledge. There is a role for policy here, but this might even be something for our pressured high street retailers to lead. Imagine if your favourite high-street retailer hosted space and regular, supported workshops where people can modify and mend garments that they had purchased previously?

»Find out more on the S4S project website