Book Review: To Die For – Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? by Lucy Siegle

Book Description (from Publisher Harper Collins)

“Coming at a time when the global financial crisis and contracting of consumer spending is ushering in a new epoch for the fashion industry, TO DIE FOR offers a very plausible vision of how green could really be the new black.

Taking particular issue with our current mania for both big-name labels and cheap fashion, To Die For sets an agenda for the urgent changes that can and need to be made by both the industry and the consumer. Far from outlining a future of drab, ethical clothing, Lucy Siegle believes that it is indeed possible to be an ′ethical fashionista′, simply by being aware of how and where (and by whom) clothing is manufactured.

The global banking crisis has put the consumer at a crossroads: when money is tight should we embrace cheap fast fashion to prop up an already engorged wardrobe, or should we reject this as the ultimate economy and advocate a return to real fashion, bolstered by the principles of individualism and style pedigree?

In this impassioned book, Siegle analyses the global epidemic of unsustainable fashion, taking stock of our economic health and moral accountabilities to expose the pitfalls of fast fashion. Refocusing the debate squarely back on the importance of basic consumer rights, Siegle reveals the truth behind cut price, bulk fashion and the importance of your purchasing decisions, advocating the case for a new sustainable design era where we are assured of value for money: ethically, morally and in real terms.”

I confess this book has been sitting on my desk now for some months, awaiting me finding the words to express how I feel about it and what I have learnt. In the meantime disaster of the nature Lucy warns struck a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, bringing home the truth of her message in great stinging style.

This book was first published back in 2011 and Lucy has been writing a weekly column on ethical living since 2004 for The UK’s Observer newspaper. She has many other credits to her name, a well-known researcher, writer and campaigner for an alternative fashion industry that replaces “turbo fashion with sustainable and equitable style”.

I found reading this book a profound experience, it has helped to consolidate my thoughts and influence my buying behavior. However more change is required, not only by myself but by thousands of others. For me, I need to reread this book, take copious notes whilst I do and fully investigate what options are available to me to make better choices and proactively contribute to positive change.

One of the most difficult things about issues such as these is that for many of us it requires thorough knowledge to inform and convince us, and considerable effort on our part to change our habits. Without a personal experience of the problem we might feel distanced from it, and wonder what impact, if any, our efforts alone could make on change.

For this reason I would like to share a couple of segments that rang big bells for me and encourage others to read this book and seek further knowledge.

Here are my experiences related to these issues.

Salaula – second-hand clothing

Back in the mid 90’s my boyfriend and I traveled to Eastern Africa, our decision to go was made quickly and we were relatively unprepared, knowing little of what to expect. We were traveling independently, just us and our packs and off the beaten track. (Not that the track is very well beaten.) The trip was an eye-opening, life changing experience in many ways. We were struck not only by the dire poverty but by the obvious lack of value for human life. Human beings were expendable. Death, disease and disability common place. Basic requirements for healthy living such as clean water, fresh food, sanitation and medical services simply not available. However those experiences were to be expected. What surprised us was the clothing that we encountered the local people wearing. We had expected indigenous clothing or quite dated or well-worn western style clothing, however what we encountered the local people wearing was relatively new, often fashionably branded, western clothing.

Whenever we went to the local markets we would encounter stall holders with mountains of western clothing for sale. Whilst at the time we discussed this between us and tried to understand why the situation was like it was, we didn’t continue to question it or find out more when we returned home. On some occasions this clothing seemed particularly out-of-place. One was a police chief, in a dusty, barren town wearing a three-piece pinstripe Pierre Cardin suit, despite the temperature being in the mid 40’s. It was like something out of a movie, surreal and comical, a little sinister. We asked ourselves, “how was it possible that these people who did not always have food, water, shelter, education, or medical services had Nike, Gap, and Pierre Cardin?”

Skip forward to 2013 and I am reading Lucy’s book, Chapter 11 Dumped, Trashed and Burned.

In this chapter Lucy describes the practice of sending thousands of tonnes of second-hand clothes from Europe to African nations. Now this might seem like a good idea, a reasonable way to recycle western waste? Well, that is the subject of much debate, as it whether or not it is a good idea. This particular issue for me highlights how truly complex solutions to western consumerism really are.

Most of these clothes come from people cleaning out their wardrobes to make room for further purchases, so further consumption is already present, including the environmental impact of manufacturing, shipping and the retail environment. These clothes are then taken to a charity shop, the owner, who has donated with good intention, walks away feeling that they have done something good for the environment and society. Unfortunately, the condition of a very large proportion of the items that are donated is not suitable for resale in western markets, being either too poor quality, worn, damaged or decidedly unclean. All of this clothing needs to be sorted, to separate the saleable clothing from the unsaleable and this consumes further time, money and resources but it does provide much needed jobs.

In Europe and the UK there is apparently so much waste clothing that sorting and separating it has become an industry of its own. Only 10% of charity shop donations will be sold through the stores with the rest on-sold to large organizations who pay the charity by weight or bin and then resell the rest for profit. To me, this still sounds relatively ok, we need a solution, right? However some people argue that there is an ethical issue here, donors are generally not aware of what becomes of their donations, they presume that their donations will be of benefit more locally and the reality perhaps would not meet their approval.

So from here, according to Lucy, Europe’s left overs are either shredded or used as rags whilst approximately 50% will be bundled and transported to poor countries for resale as Salaula or Mivumba.  So what is the problem with salaula, I hear you ask?  well, the quality and appropriateness of the garments that are bundled is very variable. A salaula stall holder is given limited choice and access to bundles and is only allowed to inspect one tiny amount (reputedly the size of a 50c piece) of the bundle before wagering a significant sum of money on its purchase. This purchase might be a lucky one, with several saleable garments, or it might be unlucky with nothing that is appropriate, and therefore the investment lost. Another issue is that salaula garments are sold at a fraction of the cost of a new locally made item of clothing. This means that refuse clothing for local people is cheap to buy, but it is very difficult to impossible for a local textile industry to survive as a competitor. Local industries have collapsed, destroyed by globalization. Finally, whilst the individual garments are being sold very cheaply with little profit and a good deal of risk for the stall holder, the large powerful western companies companies that sell the bundles make good profits.

And so now my African experiences make sense. Disheartening sense. Such a complex issue, of which the only answer is possibly prevention rather than cure.


Way back when I was a shoe making student in Sydney, a fellow student and I were keen as beans to learn about the process of leather tanning. This knowledge was not available through the institution we where studying at, and so we arranged to visit a local tannery. I remember fronting up to this rather large industrial building full of equipment and specialized facilities to find not much happening and one lone man working. He was generous, and took the time to speak with us, and whilst we learnt very little about leather tanning we did get an insight into the history of industrialization in this country and the meaning of a global economy. His version of events was thus: tanning is a highly toxic, messy and foul-smelling activity. Due to this more than ten years ago (so that would be approx. the early to mid 80’s ish) the government brought in new regulations to make the tanning businesses safer, and less unpopular. However the knock on effect has been that many tanneries have closed as they believed the impact of the new regulations to be too restrictive and costly, or moved their businesses off shore, whilst a small number of tanneries remained.

At the time I viewed this information as sad and disappointing, yet another example that I was being presented with of Australian manufacturing in the apparel industries as being unsustainable. Having not sourced leather for many years now, I am pleased to report that there remains a number of Australian tanneries surviving today and I note that they all seem to quote an extensive family history in the business, I am presuming that they have managed to find a way to be viable whilst staying within Australian regulations.

However reading Lucy’s book I was shocked and horrified to fully comprehend the nature of this story. Yes, leather tanning is an incredibly toxic, messy and smelly process, but the problem has not been resolved,it has been relocated. Lucy details terrible stories of factory waste of a chemical and animal nature being discharged into waterways without any environmental protection processing. These waterways are relied upon by poor farmers and families further downstream and problems related to the pollution of their rivers effect their health and economic prospects. Then there are the factory workers subjected to health risks and desperate working conditions. When you consider the terrible physical, psychological and social conditions these people are forced to endure in the name of large companies making large profits and you and I having access to cheap clothing it’s no wonder that Australian manufacturing has been considered unsustainable.


These stories are just some of many. Lucy’s thoroughly detailed research and account of world realities is shocking and disturbing. It is a must read for anyone who buys apparel (so yes everyone!) Change will be slow, some will not be interested, others will approach change with the best of intentions but limited dedication and then there will be those highly valuable and committed people who will make the difference. Real change will only come when the options that are safe for our environment and safe for our human population are also affordable and desirable. We all have a long way to go, I judge no one as I know that I need to improve my choices too.

Close to the end of the book Lucy turns her attention to solutions or “The Perfect  Wardrobe”. As you would expect by now, the solutions are also many, complex, imperfect and developing. I don’t want to take away from the value of reading the book by giving away its punch line here. However here are my 10 quick and easy first steps to reducing your wardrobes negative impact whilst developing and refining your personal style:

10 Easy Steps

Step One: Start reading To Die For by Lucy Siegle

Step Two: Invest in a Personal Colour consultation with a qualified Colour Consultant. By understanding which colours best compliment your individual colouring you will make better, longer, lasting clothing selections.

Step Three: Invest in a quality style consultation with a qualified professional who will leave you with informative guidelines around how to select clothing styles to suit your body shape.

Step Four: Get to know your personal style identity. Spend time collating a visual reference of clothing styles that appeal to you. Analyze it yourself or take it to a professional to help you become clear on what it is that makes you feel good and truly authentic.

Step Five: Plan your wardrobe. Look carefully at what you own, identify the gaps that need filling and make a list. The challenge is sticking to it.

Step Six: Embrace mending, recreating, reconstructing and adapting things you already have.

Step Seven: Embrace second-hand clothing. Swap clothes with friends, gift things to others, buy from secondhand markets, charity shops and vintage dealers.

Step Eight:  Spend some time informing yourself on how else you can contribute to a cleaner, greener, kinder fashion industry by making more informed purchases.

Step Nine: Aim to buy less, but be prepared to spend more on the right item to suit your criteria and be of good quality.

Step Ten: Influence others with your fabulous, unique, sustainable style.

Here are some organisations worth checking out:

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