S & S Decoded: Sustainability & Sequins – A Not So Ethical Embellishment

This article was originally published via Fashion Roundtable – the essential link between fashion, business, consumers and policy leaders.

At A Glance

In recent years, we have bid adieu to plastic straws, bottles and bags entrenched into our everyday lifestyle and even raised our eyebrows to glitter, so what’s next? Sequins.

This traditionally glamourous embellishment to the finest of frocks, sauciest of skirts and tiniest of tops is best defined as ‘a small round shiny disc sewn onto clothing as decoration’. However, decoration is not the only impact sequins have.

This feature explores the environmental and social effect of this adornment synonymous with special occasions, Red Carpets and new year’s eve. It analyses the waste and pollution created throughout the lifecycle of a sequin, the social consequences of jewelling fabrics and what the future looks like to achieve a similar sustainable sparkle.

With the rise of sustainable dressing on the Red Carpet and runway, many are asking why has this not translated into the omission of sequins from designs? Warning, if you’re beady eyed for sequins like a magpie, this read may be a bitter pill to swallow.

In Focus

Wearing the change you want to see is arguably the biggest trend for 2020. The paradigm shift to sustainability is often viewed through a fashion lens. This is best epitomised by some of the world’s most powerful creatives who are designing wardrobe choices that reflect their values. Whether it’s upcycling iconic dresses (i.e. J-lo in THAT green Versace dress), re-wearing previous awards seasons gowns such as Jane Fonda at this year’s Oscars or embracing sustainable designers such as Stella McCartney, participating in the Green Carpet Challenge is no longer unorthodox.

For those unfamiliar, the Green Carpet Challenge, founded in association with Eco-Age is the world-renowned sustainability initiative that creates a compelling and press-worthy narrative to amplify a brand’s environmental principles. It pairs glamour with ethics and puts sustainability into its rightful spotlight. Global awards ceremonies including the Oscars and the BAFTA’s experience attention from both within and outside of the industry. “Who are you wearing?” is the primary question any starlet is asked before any inquisition on the ceremony or its nominees.  As some of the most beautiful women in Hollywood descend into the sea of paparazzi in couture hand stitched sequin gowns one must ask why is this a problem?

Fashion is by nature trend led and breeds cheap imitation from fast fashion retailers who are not compliant with environmental or social standards/certifications.

The problem with sequins can be divided into two main areas, environmental and social.

Their impact environmentally can be traced through their life cycle. Firstly, the feature is made from petroleum-based plastics such as PVCs that contain toxic chemicals including carcinogens and hormone disruptors. Note that chemicals used in fashion in general is another challenge as over 25% of global chemical output emanates from the textile industry according to Green Peace. In production, according to Material Driven, a platform for designers and artists,  a high average of 33% of the material is wasted through the punching process!  Paying particular attention to the consumer use phase, whilst the ornamented garments are worn for a few hours on the dancefloor, their material composition means they can take thousands of years to fully decompose. Their contamination of water sources is another environmental sticking point. When laundered they release thousands of microplastics into freshwater streams as with many other synthetic materials like our favourite svelte sports leggings which can shed as many as 700,000 microfibres in a single wash!

Why is this an urgent dilemma? At our current trajectory, by 2050, our oceans will contain more plastic (by weight) than fish where our annual plastic production will have increased by 500%.  This is the result of the 13 million tonnes of plastic that are dumped into our oceans each year. The consequences of also polluting fresh water streams leads to  the harming of marine ecosystems as many of the organisms consume and ingest sequin particles or glitter. This is troublesome not only for marine wildlife but fish fanatics as according to Lucy Siegel’s ‘Turning the Tide on Plastic’, 1/3 people in the UK already consume fish that contain microplastics.

As with many other textiles, sequins have social implications for the hands that stitch them. Whilst the previously showcased award ceremony gowns are sewn by fairly paid workers in design houses, it breeds a landscape where there will be an influx of imitation designs into the market.

Sustainable fashion consultant Alice Wilby argues that “Wearing a couture gown embellished with sequins that have been sewn by a seamstress who is well paid and well treated is no excuse,” she said, citing the impact on the trend-cycle. “It creates the desire for a raft of cheap, imitation dresses that will be worn a few times and then tossed. It’s time to stop.”

So, whilst imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, when it refers to the embellished pieces we are able to readily purchase from fast fashion retailers or even at the higher end of the high street, it is unlikely those that have individually stitched each sequin will have been paid a fair wage. This draws attention back to labour behind the label and who really made your clothes? Unregulated labour of women and children in the garment industry is a seismic issue. This is not only applicable to international workers but also within the UK. For example concentrated in Leicester, supplying clothes to River Island, Boohoo, New Look and Missguided, a Channel 4 investigation revealed that 75% to 90% of the regional sector was paying an average wage of about £3, a violation of the legal minimum which stands at £8.20. In turn, one can deduce that the party top promoted on social media with sequin sparkle is likely to have been crafted by a fellow human subject to illegal working conditions.

So, what would an environmentally, socially-just sequin look like? In a dream world it would be natural, produced with renewable energy consisting of materials organically grown and abundantly available. The colouring would also deploy animal friendly dyes and ones that did not harm water sources.

Innovating this space is the Sustainable Sequin Company founded by Rachel Clowes. Having studied Fashion and the Environment at London College of Fashion, Rachel has created sequins that are created utilising recycled PET plastic. These are available to purchase via her Etsy Store and I would thoroughly encourage you to take a look.

Having re-imagined the possibilities and brought this to life, Rachel’s work should inspire investment and innovation in the eco-friendly sequin sector.

The Sustainable Sequin Company founded by Rachel Clowes

Final Thoughts

Making ethical decisions through our wardrobe purchases is one of the most powerful means to inspire change. For those in positions of influence, I would argue more consideration should be given. Within the BAFTA’s 2020 Sustainable Dressing Guide, it stated ‘“The ‘Red Carpet’ is a powerful platform. Our clothes speak volumes about who we are and what we stand for,”.

Sequins are far from an ethical embellishment but are not the only flawed material component or textile adorning our garments. Wearers of jewelled designs including celebrities and Hollywood starlets, should however be mindful of utilising their influence to render fashion as a force for good. For as long as imitation by fast fashion created by unregulated and forced labour by retailers persists, the challenge will remain.

If you’re interested in the environmental impact of chemicals in the fashion industry, you can read my feature here.

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