The ongoing Extinction Rebellion protests that brought central London to a standstill for a few days in May have at last brought climate change and the environment back on to the agenda. One of the big headline grabbers is single-use plastic, but this is just one example of how our constant search for cheap and convenient solutions can be harmful to the planet.
One example in my world of costume that I have been starting to question is the ubiquitous use of next-day delivery and free returns on clothing purchases from large catch-all retailers such as Amazon and Asos. Last year, the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee wrote to the UK’s leading online-only fashion retailers, raising various concerns including the huge quantities of clothes ending up in landfill. It is an issue of people throwing away cheap clothing, but also a problem with returns.
A BBC blog quoted Sarah Needham from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at University of the Arts London saying: “We know that many of the products that are returned end up in landfill before we even use them, which only adds to the vast amounts of used items already ending up in landfill.”
Asos has recently unveiled a new “fair use” policy that has sent shivers down the spines of costume professionals by threatening to blacklist serial returners. Most costume professionals accept the fairness of not being permitted to return clothes that have been worn, but the policy also cites the people who “…are ordering and returning loads (way, waaaaay) more than even the most loyal Asos customer would order”.
This is a perfect description of most costume supervisors, who often purchase thousands of pounds worth of garments for fittings and return the vast majority afterwards.
There are a number of pressure points driving costume supervisors to the large online retailers. Firstly, budgets and rehearsal periods are being squeezed, and quite apart from being cheaper, it’s much quicker and easier to shop online than trudging round high streets with a basket on wheels. Directors are ever more reluctant to release actors for fittings, so a siege mentality sets in: one chance to get it right and that’s your lot.
For every item of clothing seen on stage, the costume supervisor could have bought 10 to fit
Contemporary costume comes with particular problems of its own, too. Everyone has an opinion on modern clothes in a way that is not true of period costume, so there always needs to be more choice in fittings. For every item of clothing seen on stage, the costume supervisor could have bought 10 to fit. This means returning the nine unwanted items that potentially places them in the category of “unfair use”.
It remains to be seen whether this policy will have a major impact on supervisors, as they fear. But even if not, for any producer or theatre with an environment policy, fast fashion and costume should be on their radar, and, unfortunately for them, the solution may involve a higher budget.
Catherine Kodicek is head of costume at London’s Young Vic theatre. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/catherine-kodicek