Bags and bags of clothes lined the sidewalks surrounding the Latimer Road area. More piled up on the floors of surrounding churches and community centres. Just hours after the horrific fire tore through Grenfell Tower in west London last month, donations came flooding in: clothes, bedding, toiletries, nappies, food and drink from all over London. As volunteers sorted through the piles, a word that will now always be linked in our collective consciousness with the disaster cropped up in their conversations: cladding. Not a word that was ever a part of my vocabulary until that grim Wednesday.
Cladding is used to insulate and improve the appearance of a building. Grenfell Tower’s infamous cladding, with its flammable core inside an aluminium casing, was installed last year as part of a £10 million makeover. From the outside, the building was shinny and new, but nothing was done to improve safety. In fact, it was the glittering new exterior that caused the rapid acceleration of the fire.
In 2013, the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 garment workers and injuring scores of others. It was this disaster, much further from home, that first nudged me to think about whether I knew where “my cladding” comes from. The true human cost of a high street bargain, as well as our never having enough, started to nag my conscience, but really did nothing to change my buying habits. I even wrote an article on sustainability for “The in house lawyer’ magazine. But old habits are hard to break. Convenience and the instant gratification of online buying put an end to my many attempts to investigate the provenance of the fabric in those “must have” clothes and the manufacturing methods of suppliers and retailers. Preaching on Sundays about God loving the world added to my unease – especially when it is clear that “the world” isn’t just people, it’s the environment, too. And I’m not the only one who finds it easier to buy than to think. The fashion industry relies on millions like me to shift its stock and pile up profits.
In March this year, my church, St Peter’s in Notting Hill – invited the then editor- in -chief of Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, to speak at a fund raising event. Among all the usual questions about her favourite handbag and best-loved shoe (the Manolo Blahnik black BB pump – it’s mine too), I asked her what she thought about bringing the church and the fashion industry together to address the issue of ethical fashion. There are obvious reasons why Christians should care and the church does happen to have a captive audience on Sundays! The question seemed to catch her off guard and she replied that she was rather uncomfortable about the idea as she didn’t see how church and fashion could go together. But the issue obviously stayed in her mind and she answered my question a few weeks later, in a diary piece she writes for the The Telegraph:
“I’m not sure fashion and religion are obvious bedfellows – although it is tempting to picture cassocks designed at Alexander McQueen and hassocks covered in Simone Rocha designs. But then again, the enthusiastic middle-class congregations that fill the pews in order to squeeze their child into the local church school would, in fact, be the ideal target for all kinds of retail messaging.”
Here remarks were a tipping point for me and renewed my desire to do something to start changing my habits, hopefully bringing along with me Shulman’s “enthusiastic middle classes”, who attend church, “to squeeze their children into the local church school”, as well as all those churchgoers who don’t fit this category and who fill the pews, chairs, cushions and floors of churches every Sunday – and, of course, those who would never step foot in a church. Perhaps I could even ask Sarah Burton to design a line of cassocks, or cool black suits for women priests.
I have no idea yet how I’ll do any of this. But that’s no reason to sit back and do nothing. As a start, I’ve resolved to buy less, and only to buy ethically made clothes, shoes, make up and accessories. “Buy less, buy better”, as they say. I’m not sure how long I can hold out, and this blog is about my journey into unknown terrain….
Clothes are necessary and can be beautiful and creative but we can’t just look at the appearance of the finished products that clad us and ignore what lies beneath. All that glitters is not gold.