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

The journalist's look at the fashion industry is a chilling exposé

By now, most casually informed shoppers know that cheap fashion is something none of us can afford. We're aware that the nimble needlework of children has been found in high street shops, that seas have died satisfy our cotton addiction and that sweatshops are far from being a thing of the past. But according to Lucy Siegle's new book, this is just the thin end of an unsightly wedge. "Big Fashion" has become unsustainable and if you hoped you were doing your bit by avoiding Primark, you need to think again.

As well as being this paper's ethical living columnist, Siegle is a reformed fashionista. Her wardrobe, dubbed "fashionably overweight" by one expert, offers a bulging index of high street fashion fads from the past two decades. The story of its greening comprises the latter third of this book, but first, she leads us off on a tour of the industry's seamy side, totting up the real cost of trends such as It bags and "cheapskating".

There are conversations with Cambodian garment workers, visits to factories in Bangladesh and west Africa and tales of forced teen labour in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan. Human misery seems endemic at every point in the production line, from the alarming suicide rates among Indian farmers to young seamstresses forced to take contraceptive pills.

Social injustice is just one of the skeletons lurking in fashion's closet. There's also the industry's devastating environmental toll to consider – rivers flowing denim blue, the uncertain legacy of "Frankenpants" cut from GM cloth.

Animals don't fare much better. You'll have to trust me when I say that nobody of vegan sensibilities will want to hear about the sorry end met by silkworms – 1,500 of the little critters for every metre of fabric.

I'm ashamed to say I picked up this book feeling just a little bit, well, smug about my wardrobe. I'm a frugal shopper, waiting for the sales to buy pieces whose cuts and fabrics suggest they'll last more than a season or two. With a bit of rummaging, I can even produce an LBD that I still wear occasionally, almost 20 years since it was bought for my teen self in a Laura Ashley sale.

I was feeling downcast by the time I reached the end. Not much of the cotton I own is organic or fair trade, and what use is a "made in Italy" label if it's attached to a pair of heels which have been made by migrant labour with leather whose creation is helping to destroy the Amazon rainforest?

The unspoken purpose of the "quick fashion hit" is to race out of fashion or else fall obligingly to bits, sending its buyer back to the store for more. But our bulimic passion for fashion is symptomatic of a broader malaise. Disposability, instant gratification, the idea that impulses are there be indulged, regardless of impact – these sentiments permeate our lives.

Siegle doesn't really pause to consider this. It's anger that keeps her marching on through the dense data she has amassed. On the final page, however, she allows herself some love for a garment. Dropping off a bag of her old clothes with the designers at Junky Styling in London's Brick Lane in the East End, she returns a couple of days later to reclaim a made-to-measure cocktail dress.

Sustainable fashion has a hair shirt image, but while I'm less convinced about the matching cummerbund and bolero, I believe Siegle when she says that her dress is sophisticated. Only she knows that it is made of the first suit she ever bought. This ex-suit, she says, offers a chance "to recreate the joy I first found in clothes".


Hephzibah Anderson

The GuardianTramp

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