To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? by Lucy Siegle review

by Claire Regnault / 09 July, 2011
The ethics of fashion are hung out to dry.
Lucy Siegle is a British journalist and television presenter who focuses on environmental issues and ethical consumerism. In her first book, Green Living in the Urban Jungle (2000), Siegle encouraged readers to adopt a greener lifestyle. In To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?, she turns her attention to the bursting wardrobes of the Western world. For a fashion book, Siegle’s paperback might look like a Plain Jane, but her content packs a punch, and although the book is almost illustration-free, her writing is visual.

The testimonies on the back cover initially lured me into a false sense of anticipation, with Vogue.com declaring Siegle has made “ethical fashion interesting, entertaining and stylish”, and Livia Firth (wife of Colin) enthusing that “If Lucy didn’t exist I would’ve had to invent her!” To Die For is not an entertaining read, however, and I am sure there are many in the fashion industry who wish Lucy didn’t exist. To Die For is deeply depressing (despite Siegle’s keen eye for absurdity), and often overwhelming. Page by page, Siegle shows how the contents of our wardrobes are minefields of environmental and ethical issues, such as the “ecological wreckage” of the Aral Sea in Central Asia because of cotton-growing in Uzbekistan and Kazakh­stan, with heartbreaking human cost.

From the outset, Siegle establishes her ­position not as an anti-fashion puritan but as a fashion lover committed to becoming an “intelligent fashion consumer”. She opens with her own wardrobe (she has three), laying bare her “mistakes, corrections, good buys, bad buys, comfort buys, drunk buys” as a “testament to the extraordinary way we now consume clothes”. Siegle is immersed in the culture of the British high street with its “it girls” and “it bags”, and her primary target is Fast Fashion (cheap, throwaway, in one week, out the next)  and its partner-in-crime, Big Fashion (large-scale retailers). It’s a story that takes the reader from frenzied sales at Primark, where a pair of shoes and a dress can be bought for the price of a latte and a panini, through the supply chain to Fast Fashion’s hidden coalface, the developing world.

Covering ground from Bangladesh to West Africa to Uzbekistan, To Die For is a well-researched, often personal, eye-opening journey. Whereas Big Fashion deals in contractors and subcontractors, Siegle introduces us to individual workers – such as Ismail Dauda, a skin tanner who processes crocodile and python skins; Gulnara from Uzbekistan, who at 16 was forced to pick cotton in adverse conditions; and the widows from India’s Cotton Bowl or “Suicide Belt”.

Siegle observes that when it comes to the environment versus people, for big fashion being “eco” is a far easier prospect than being “ethical”.

Siegle also confronts luxury labels, particularly those promoting animal-based products. It’s here New Zealand gets a mention. Icebreaker’s Baacode, which enables consumers to trace their garment back through the supply chain, gets Siegle’s thumbs-up, and our merino growers redeem themselves by no longer mulesing – removing flaps of skin from sheep to prevent flystrike – a practice that has placed the Australian wool industry under attack. She leaves readers to make up their own minds about the legitimacy of New Zealand’s possum-fur industry.

Rather than simplifying issues, Siegle’s strength is that she allows them to remain complex. Instead of presenting clear-cut solutions to creating the perfect ecological and ethical wardrobe, she offers questions and guidelines to set readers on their own pathway to becoming a thoughtful fashion consumer.

In places, To Die For suffers from the pitfalls of “fast publishing”. Further editing would have helped the dense and at times repetitive text, and saved Siegle from some stylistic mannerisms that become irritating over 300 pages. In saying that, I am glad I read it, and I have to wholeheartedly agree with Livia Firth’s testimony that “It has changed the way I view and wear my clothes”. I am now left to grapple with my own decisions.

TO DIE FOR: IS FASHION WEARING OUT THE WORLD?, by Lucy Siegle (Fourth Estate, $34.99).

Claire Regnault is a senior curator responsible for fashion and textiles at Te Papa and co-author of New Zealand Post Book Awards finalist The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design Since 1940.
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