The Power of less

“We’ve been sold this idea that life has to be full of consumption and fancy living”, says Patrick Grant. “As a result we’re at the mercy of the three-trillion dollar fashion industry.” It’s time to make a stand, he explains to Emma Clegg.

Successful clothier and businessman Patrick Grant might at first come across as an establishment figure – because of his years on Savile Row, notably turning around the failing bespoke tailoring business Norton & Sons after he purchased it in 2005, combined with his gentlemanly, tailored, modest appearance. Known best as co-judge (with Esme Young) on BBC1’s The Great British Sewing Bee since 2013, Grant is in fact an outspoken critic of the fashion industry and his new book Less, which has already hit the Sunday Times bestseller list, propounds these criticisms.

“Lots of people are now beginning to question the wisdom of building an economy and a society around an increasing volume of consumption of increasingly cheap and increasingly bad-quality things,” says Grant.

“There has been a very deliberate policy from the fashion business to shift from the prevailing modern orthodoxy that existed before the rise of mass consumption when people were encouraged to live with as few things as possible. We were all told that was the way to live in a godly and moral way – to not want too much, to not be envious, to not be greedy. But once those with lots of money discovered that they could make more money by making us want more stuff, that message was quickly and quietly dropped. We were encouraged to buy things all the time, and this was a very deliberate manipulation of society.

“There was a time when most of us would have lived our lives with just one set of clothes and really it was only in the late 19th century that most people could afford more than a couple of bits of clothing. I was born in 1972 and when I was a kid I never felt growing up that I didn’t have enough clothes, and yet today there is five times as much.”

I wonder how long Grant has felt these concerns. He says, “I have been concerned about fast fashion for around 20 years, but it’s really only in the last five years that the pace of it has gone completely bananas. History shows us that the level of consumption has only ever got faster and faster, with more and more things that are cheaper and worse quality.”

This is in fact an age-long debate. “There were people talking about the pace of change within fashion back in Roman and Greek times. Even in Tudor times fashions were changing just every half a century. The pace of change now is daily – there are fashion brands that release outputs of new products every single day. It has become such a hamster wheel that it’s impossible to keep up. It’s almost like fashion is dead because it’s just become a constant whirl of stuff. How can you have fashions if the change every three and a half minutes?”

Surely the increasing awareness of the need for business sustainability has had a positive impact on the industry. Not according to Grant. “The UN reckons that the fashion industry needs to reduce its carbon footprint by over 90%. Even by moving all its production to the very lowest carbon footprint you would probably only reduce it by 30 or 40%. The fashion industry is a three trillion dollar industry. The owners of the biggest fashion brands are some of the richest people in the world and they do not want to admit that the real problem is the whole idea of selling us more stuff all of the time.”

Grant says that those fashion brands claiming sustainability are just greenwashing. “If you are a business trying to encourage people to buy new products every week, it doesn’t matter what you claim about the sustainability of the material that you use; you’re still encouraging the overconsumption of something that’s not needed, and that is not a sustainable way to live. Those brands have huge power. They are not going to come out and say it’s all a load of bullshit. But we can.”

Tailored Savile Row outfits are sold at premium prices, but Grant maintains that the ethic of this business is highly sustainable. “It is an incredibly sustainable way of creating and living with clothes. We only produce the clothes that are needed. And we don’t create new collections every six months or every year. We make everything by hand and in a way so that it can be repaired infinitely. We make using the best natural materials that are long lasting but also at the end of their life can be returned to the soil in a way that doesn’t do anybody any harm.”

What Grant has done in response to his frustrations is create a new business called Community Clothing. He bought a clothing factory in Blackburn in Lancashire that was closing down in 2015. “There is plenty of good-quality clothing in the UK but none of it is affordable. There is plenty of affordable clothing, but none of it is good quality. And that’s what we do, we make good-quality affordable clothing. ”

The business operates online, with all clothes made in the best UK factories. “It’s not Primark prices; it’s top-end John Lewis prices,” says Grant. “We are making the same quality as some of the best designer brands, but we sell it at a fraction of the price. We do that by cutting out all the normal costs of doing business. In our model if you spend £100, £65 goes to the people that make it – in most businesses it’s less than £25. And most of the clothes we make can be recycled into something else at the end of their life, unlike synthetic clothing.”

Handmade things were the default until industrialisation, says Grant. “The transition from products made by skilled humans to a reliance on the power of machines required a change to those objects to make them machine makeable, which led to a reduction in the quality. That reduction has gone through wave after wave to the point where the quality has never been as low. Not just clothes, but the everyday objects in our homes. That lovely work that people used to enjoy doing that gave them a sense of pride and fulfillment has been taken away.

“There is a point of balance that we can find. There is a place in the world where creativity and craftsmanship meet – we are really good at this in this country and it does bring a lot of people a lot of joy. But it has to be small – it has to be 10% of what we buy, not 90% of what we buy.

We need to think more about who we are and establish our own personal style to express our own personality through our clothes rather than following what we are told is the fashion.

“Many people are in a position where they can choose – instead of buying five crap things, three of which aren’t ever worn, we can buy one good thing and make sure that the money goes to the makers and to those who have produced the beautiful materials. We have made changes around our food to make it local and fresh and in some cases that’s ended up costing us a lot more money. We have been prepared to do that, but we haven’t done the same thing with our clothing. And we can do. Spend the money in a way that increases the overall happiness both of the people involved in making it, you and the planet. That would start to make things change.

Less: Stop Buying So Much Rubbish: How Having Fewer, Better Things Can Make Us Happier by Patrick Grant, William Collins, £22.
Patrick Grant visits Bath to talk about his book Less on 26 June at 7pm at St Swithin’s Church, The Paragon, Bath, £10;;