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The Impacts of Fast Fashion: A Look at the Fashion Industry Through MOA’s Textile Collection

Twenty years before the Museum of Anthropology was established in 1947, a piece of tapa cloth collected in the South Pacific was donated to UBC as part of the Frank Burnett Collection. Today, the museum holds approximately 7,500 textile and clothing items, the largest such collection in western Canada. Many of these beautiful pieces are technically complex to make and culturally significant in their places of origin.

Museums do more than store objects from the past. Part of MOA’s mandate is to educate. We are two MOA Volunteer Associates who act as Gallery Guides and serve on the textile sub-committee. We have a keen interest and professional experience in the clothing and textiles field. Having researched many of the Museum’s textile holdings, we came to believe that what we were learning would be of interest to MOA’s visitors.

Volunteer Associates Marilyn Bild and Arlee Gale inspect a kimono in MOA’s textile collection. Photo by Cody Rocko.

To address this goal, we capitalized on the richness of the collection and, with assistance from MOA Curators, developed a public tour called Clothing the World. This tour allows us to present textiles from MOA’s vast collection and discuss their cultural significance. Visitors are intrigued to learn of the complexity of textile techniques used by Indigenous and other peoples around the world and the continuing importance of the associated cultural practices.

When studying clothing and textiles, it is easy to overlook the urgent contemporary issue of sustainability. The fashion industry is the second largest industrial polluter worldwide, second only to the oil and gas industry. It accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions.

Lucy Siegle of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London states that worldwide manufacturers are producing over 100 billion new garments every year from new fibres. The planet cannot sustain this rate of production.

As a collective society we purchase 400% more clothing than we did 20 years ago. This is largely the result of the lures of the “fast fashion” phenomenon. Clothing brands used to introduce new collections four times a year. Many brands now produce weekly collections: 52-plus per year.

Most clothing production today takes place in developing countries providing low-cost labour and often substandard conditions. Growing crops and raising animals for textile fibres uses resources that could otherwise go to food production.

A shocking example of the environmental impact of such production is the Aral Sea, located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It once covered 68 square kilometers, but has been drained of water for the production of cotton and other crops and is now a vast desert.

It is not that consumers don’t care. It is that they don’t know. International companies producing cheap, disposable clothing at a rapid pace are reluctant to discuss the devastating effects on land, water and the lives of millions of people.

By looking at diverse forms of textile production, we hope to inspire visitors to make changes that can have a positive impact on our global future. In Japan, for example, the traditional kimono was considered valuable enough to be handed down within families for generations. Sometimes they were donated to temples or shrines where the textiles were repurposed into priests’ robes or banners. In the 21st century, there has been a reawakening of interest in the traditional garment. Secondhand kimono are becoming popular with the young, who often re-style them or combine them with other items of dress.

The Clothing the World tour at MOA gives us an opportunity to address the contemporary issue of sustainability by discussing how Indigenous and other peoples from around the world value and preserve their important textiles. Perhaps we can do the same by purchasing fewer but better quality clothes that last longer, using newer, less invasive textile technologies to reduce our carbon footprint and expanding our current recycling programs to include discarded textiles.

Marilyn Bild has been a MOA Volunteer Associate for 10 years. Arlee Gale has been volunteering at MOA for 18 years. Together, they have helped develop and offer several textile tours related to feature exhibitions. They have been offering the Clothing the World tour since 2014.