By now, we all know that the convenience and accessibility of fast fashion come at a great price. Both in terms of the social ills it imposes (unethical practices, substandard pay, and often sweatshop-like conditions), as well as its environmental effects (textile dyeing being the second largest source of water pollution in the world, and 85% of garments ending up in landfills).
While we often associate the fast-fashion chain to take place between the West and the Global South, in reality, the issue at hand is much more global. For instance, the Visegrad region, consisting of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, is projected to produce an estimated fashion revenue of nearly $9 billion this year (Statista), the majority of which is from items that are harmful to both society and the environment. The section has also become one of the significant areas of garment production in Europe, with factories participating in unsustainable manufacturing. In addition to the producers at hand, a distinct consumer base, shaped by the socioeconomic realities of its communist past, is also uniquely conditioned:
“After a period of scarcity and limited choices of goods, including clothing, the floodgates of consumerism finally opened after the fall of the Iron Curtain… In the 1990s, you could smell chemically purified second-hand textiles, which were swallowed up in large numbers, but you could also sense the desire people had to surround themselves with new items as soon as possible. So it didn’t take long before local buying power became enough to attract the interest of global players”.
Kristyna Holubova, Fashion Forward Visegrad: Sustainable Fashion in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, p. 23
This desire to consume freely, in every sense of the word, after the collapse of communism, did not cease in the following years but amplified over time. And so, a new fashion consumer segment, and its ready-for-entrepreneurship suppliers were born.
From fragmented projects to unified voices
All this is not to say that the region lacks initiatives that pioneer practices when it comes to sustainable fashion, on the contrary. A region that is rich in generational wisdom on how to reuse, conserve, and innovate with very little is much present; just think of Swap Prague (Czech Republic), Romani (Hungary), TELLMYS (Slovakia), or The Atlas of Sustainable Colours (Poland). These are just a few examples that explore sustainable fashion from pre-production to post-consumption. But, while initiatives similar to the one mentioned are wildly successful in their own communities, they often have difficulty accelerating. Part of the issue is a deep distrust, a direct consequence of decades of scarce opportunities and corruption that is ingrained in the artisans, blocking them from joining forces. Unification would be essential in gaining a strong voice, and recognition in the global sustainability discourse, led by the West.
The Visegrad Fund, an international donor organization promoting the development of closer cooperation among the Visegrad Group countries, is on a mission to provide unified platforms for these actors, allowing them to co-create value and be heard. Some of the following initiatives are not only rooted in the region but offer insights to the global fashion brand community, as well.
The ideas worth exploring
Swap Prague (Czech Republic)
Taking place in the major cities of the Visegrad region, Swap Prague organizes about 30 events a month where visitors may bring their surplus garments and exchange them with others. This is an initiative that is thoroughly democratic and accepting of the desire to dress and experiment.
“However, a closer look into the details leaves the attentive visitor in no doubt that our motivation comes from ecological concern and a sense of responsibility… We borrow from concepts like the classic principles of the ‘buyerarchy’ pyramid and illustrate concerns like cost per wear or the benefits of community sharing. Then, in the event space, we host practice-oriented workshops, discussions, and lectures that offer solutions and answers to pressing environmental issues and questions such as the non/sustainability of the textile industry, upcycling, greenwashing, and the lifespan of things”.
Kristyna Holubova, Fashion Forward Visegrad: Sustainable Fashion in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, p. 24
Brand takeaway: Social sustainability often focuses solemnly on the producer. While it is an absolutely essential component, social equity and accessibility amongst and for consumers are also vital.
Romani Design (Hungary)
Erika and Helena Varga are the two sisters behind Romani Design, a Hungarian fashion label that challenges centuries-old stereotypes of the Hungarian Romani population. With social entrepreneurship at heart, this brand truly utilizes fashion to yield prestige to their community, as well as access to education and training. Under a Visegrad Fund initiative, Romani Design collaborated with Slovo 21 from the Czech Republic and Association for Better Life from Slovakia. Together, they popularize the often forgotten clothing traditions of Roma by engaging with Romani women and youth in fashion workshops.
Brand takeaway: Diving into the deep meaning of heritage, culture, and provenance is not a luxury for brands to conduct, but a necessity to practice authentic social sustainability.
TELLMYS, aka Tell Me Your Story, is a Visegrad Fund-backed initiative that embraces blockchain technologies to highlight human stories and crafts behind garment production.
Aimed at connecting designers, producers, and customers, this ecosystem is accessible via mobile app and web portal, and intertwines storytelling and radical transparency.
Brand takeaway: Transparent quantitative and qualitative data are equally important to create a deep connection between brands and customers, as well as promote responsible practices.
The Atlas of Sustainable Colours
Providing a catalog of biodegradable, non-toxic dyes, The Atlas of Sustainable Colours is a journey to colors made with plants and bacteria.
“The project is an outcome of comprehensive research into alternative colouring for the textile industry. It’s a call for rediscovering aesthetics in fashion by exploring possibilities of sustainable colour sourcing. It is an attempt to catalogue artisanal natural dyes together with innovative ways of colouring with naturally pigmented bacteria, as well as looking for a spectrum of colours offered by algae pigments and textiles made out of clothing waste.”
Julia Kaleta, Founder
Brand takeaway: Founder Julia Kaleta masterfully balances accessible complimentary educational content, ensuring the accessibility to a more sustainable system, and paywall services that allow brands to produce at ease.
Cover image source: Anna Sullivan