“There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
Just under 10 years ago I entered a school essay competition with a short essay titled ‘Throw away remarks about a throwaway society’. This simplistic but well-meaning piece focused on the vast amount of clothes we throw away as a society and how we have lost the ability to recycle our clothes through clever home sewing. 10 years later the same problem exists but on an even bigger scale. My maternal grandmother was an accomplished sewer, who had had a tailor for a father. She was an incredibly thrifty person who never wasted anything, she would save the buttons from worn-out clothes and salvage any undamaged fabric. This attitude to clothes was echoed across her life choices and there is no doubt she could have taught our current polluting and mass consuming society a few good lessons. She may have been the product of war and post-war austerity but I do not think we can blame our socio-cultural context completely for our current behavioural choices. Just because we live in a time of mass consumption does not mean we can keep consuming in an unsustainable way especially with the overwhelming evidence it is destroying the planet.
Fast fashion is the inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends and it is now strongly vying for environmentalist’s public enemy number 1. Fast fashion has been widely criticised recently for epitomising the big problems with the global economy. It is economically, socially and environmentally exploitative and perpetuates the inequality between those who make the clothes and those who buy them. I love clothes and I am definitely guilty of buying clothes from some of the worst fast fashion offenders. It is hard to accept that something that facilitates personal expression and frivolous entertainment is so bad. But there is no doubt in my mind after the many recent articles and documentaries that I cannot continue to buy into fast fashion and that as an economic model fast fashion has got to go.
The exploitative nature of fashion is nothing new. The V&A’s exhibition ‘Fashioned from Nature’ shows the many offences orchestrated by the fashion industry through time, from the exotic feathers that adorned 19th century hats and devastated bird populations, to the present day catastrophic water scarcity caused by cotton production. However, what is new is the vast scale of exploitation, it really is global. 80 billion pieces of clothing are consumed each year- a 400% increase in two decades. On average, we spend £625 a year on clothes and for that, you’ll accumulate 28 kg of clothing which adds up to a total of 1.72 million tonnes of completely new clothes each year in the UK. Fast fashion connects people across the globe from the farmers who grow cotton to the people turning that cotton into garments, to those who load and unload the clothes off lorries and finally to those who buy them. This global connectivity is now being matched by fast fashions reputation as a massive global polluter.
Fast fashion really got going in the 1980s/90s when department stores started creating their own cheap lines. This put fashion retailers under pressure to bring down the cost of their clothes down. This was the start of an economic battle, as clothing retailers came up with new ways to out-compete each other, bringing out as many collections as possible and catching consumer interest through adverts and deals. This led to consumers buying more and more clothes as they tried to keep up with the latest trends. A Cambridge University study showed that by 2006 consumers were on average buying ⅓ more clothes than they were in 2002. More recently the cheap high street brands are being outcompeted by online retailers who sell thousands of products at unbelievably low prices. They offer free delivery and returns which encourages consumers to purchase many items and send them back if they do not like them. But more often than not consumers simply keep all the clothes and throw unworn items out or give them away. There is no doubt that the fast fashion industry has been making a lot of money. It is estimated that Amancio Ortega, the owner of Zara amongst other fashion brands, has a net worth of $82.5 billion. In 2017 Ortega was estimated to be the richest man in Europe and the richest retailer in the world. Fast fashion grew big and grew fast.
The price of clothes has fallen a lot with the rise of fast fashion. Between 2003-2007 average prices in retail fashion fell by 10%. We are simply being able to buy more for less. This fall in price has been accompanied by two strong trends. First, the quality of clothes has dramatically decreased as clothes retailers cut costs on materials and manufacturing quality. Second, it has fundamentally changed how we value our clothes. Clothes have become disposable and sometimes ‘one wear items’. Many people now feel they cannot wear the same party outfit twice or even appear on Instagram in the same clothes! This is the ultimate economic trick; the fashion industry has made us think we are spending less on clothes because individual items are cheaper while in fact annually we are spending more because we are buying more. There has been another shift, in previous decades proportionally more was spent on the materials and making the clothes compared to the marketing. But now incredibly approximately only 25% of the cost of each item is spent on the materials and manufacturing and, the remaining 75% is spent on the retail, design, advertising, administration, distribution and shipping. It is no surprise that as soon as you buy an item from a fast fashion brand a button falls off. I was so shocked last summer when I bought a playsuit and it began to fall apart as I was wearing it for the first time. I then decided to visit the store and inspect the brand-new playsuits on the rail and I found they too were falling apart on the hangers. This brand was literally producing clothes that could only be worn once before they fall apart. This is anecdotal evidence but there seems little doubt the quality of our clothes has decreased with fast fashion.
The easiest way to make fashion cheap is to make production as cheap as possible and, one way to achieve this is through exploiting human labour. In 1990 half of the clothes in the US stores were made in America but now that percentage has dropped to 2%. Most of our clothes are now produced in factories in Asia. 80% of those working in the factories are women and 98% of employees are paid less than the minimum wage. On top of the unethical wages, there are many reports that working conditions are appalling and the working hours extreme to meet the deadlines imposed by the fast fashion production model. I thoroughly recommend you watch ‘The True cost’ documentary on Netflix if you want to understand more about the sweatshops which produce our fast fashion. I often hear the argument that these factories are at least providing some employment, the ‘something is better than nothing’ philosophy. This argument is problematic for three key reasons. First, fast fashion contracts with these factories tend to have a short lifespan, often the industry quickly moves on to the next factory or next country where it can find cheaper labour. Therefore, it is not sustained employment, in fact, it is very insecure. Second, people should be paid properly for the work they do, just because they are being paid ‘something’ does not justify the practice. The ‘something is better than nothing’ argument has been used for centuries to exploit vulnerable people, not so long ago it was used frequently to argue against gender pay equality. Third, many of these factories also cut corners on safety and injured workers suffer for many years after the fast fashion industry has moved on to new factories. For example, the Rana Plaza collapse took place in Bangladesh in 2013. 1134 people were killed and another 2500 were injured when the factory building collapsed. This was a high-profile disaster but there are thousands of incidents in these factories which remain hidden and leave workers injured and less able to provide for their families. There is no doubt fast fashion exploits people. We are far removed from those who are making the clothes we buy but it is horrible to think that our clothes are made under these circumstances.
Fast fashion is wrecking the environment and making a substantial contribution to anthropogenic climate change. The textile industry produces 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 per year which is more emission than international flights and maritime shipping put together. 60% of the textile industry is used in clothing production and a large proportion of clothing factories are in countries which rely on coal power stations. It has been estimated that the clothing industry is responsible for 5% of the total global emissions and by 2050, if it continues unchecked, it will be responsible for 25% of the global carbon emissions. Furthermore, fast fashion is very resource intense. 40% of all fabric used in the clothing industry is cotton. Cotton is a thirsty crop and is contributing to water insecurity on a global scale. For example, to make a t-shirt and pair of jeans from organic cotton takes 19,000 litres of water. Cotton is a needy plant in other ways. While it only takes up 2.4% of all the cropland on Earth, it uses 10% of all the fertilisers and 25% of all insecticides. I am not arguing we should stop using cotton, cotton biodegrades which is a huge advantage over its synthetic counterparts. We need make fewer clothes in the first place and put a proper price on the resources needed to make them. Synthetic materials are problematic. They are made from petrochemicals which do not biodegrade. It is estimated that all the polyester used to make clothes requires 70 million barrels of oil each year. Furthermore, these synthetic fabrics shed microfibres in our washing machines and these end up polluting our oceans. Sadly, our clothes are also contributing to land pollution. Shockingly, according to Patrick Grant (fashion retailer), about the same volume of clothes bought each year in the UK also ends up in our landfills sites. Although, most people do not directly put their clothes into the black bin, our charity shops are completely overwhelmed with donations and so tonnes of these carefully donated clothes end up in our landfill sites. It is estimated that only 10% of the clothes people donate to charity shops gets sold. It has been estimated that almost 60% of all clothing produced is disposed of within one year of production in a landfill or incinerated. This contribution to climate change and global pollution is completely unsustainable. Fast fashion is robbing us blind, we keep buying into something that is helping to destroy the planet.
I recently went to a talk at the Royal Geographic Society where the panel of Lucy Siegle (journalist), Patrick Grant and Pauline Op de Beeck (Carbon Trust lead on sustainable fashion) talked extensively about the social and environmental exploitation tangled up with fast fashion. The take-home message was that in their opinion the fast fashion industry was doing virtually nothing to change its ways and become more sustainable. Patrick Grant said that ‘there is still no fast fashion brand that can demonstrate it is paying all of its workers a living wage.’ Both Lucy Siegle and Patrick Grant made it clear that they did not believe the fast fashion brands would ever become sustainable, instead, they hope rival sustainable retailers and instruments, like ‘clothing swap apps’, will eventually out-compete them. I left the talk thinking firmly that fast fashion has just got to go and that we, the consumer, need to push it out of the door. Increasingly fast fashion is being seen as a bad long term investment due to its impact on the environment and people, anecdotally Patrick Grant said that ‘investors are selling their shares in fast fashion brands for this reason but rather than fast fashion companies seeing this as a warning and changing their ways, they are simply going on ‘business as usual’ and buying back the company’. Equally governmental policy change seems to be far too slow. On 19th February, an MP report was announced that called for 1p to be added to the cost of each clothing item to pay for a £35 million recycling plant. But this is just too small scale to deal with the massive problem that is unsustainable fashion.
We need stronger policy which really internalises the environmental costs of clothing production and pays the people who make the clothes an appropriate wage. I often hear the argument that if we make clothes more expensive it would adversely impact poorer people. This is true and access to clothing for all would need to be addressed. However, I do not accept this argument as a justification for the vast majority of us continuing to have access to cheap clothes produced through the exploitation of people and the environment. We need our clothes to be better quality so that they last longer. We need our clothes to be designed with recycling in mind and therefore not made of blended fabrics which cannot be recycled. We need to buy fewer clothes and we need to learn how to repair them. We need to do all this and we need to do it now. There is no doubt that consumers have the power to act on this issue, we need to stop propping up this exploitative industry and make more sustainable choices about our clothes.
A recent Guardian article criticised Marie Kondo’s declutter phenomenon for not emphasising that, rather than ‘getting rid’ of all our stuff we should ‘stop buying’ so much stuff in the first place. While a good point well made, I do not agree that Marie Kondo is missing the point, her approach is a positive way of showing us mass consumers that fewer possessions can bring more joy to our lives and relationships. This is an important message to communicate if we want to create a more sustainable society which consumes radically less. We need to see that buying less could actually improve our happiness and well-being. Therefore, given the evidence that fast fashion is not changing its ways, that we have a seriously long way to even a makeshift sustainable society and that our government is reluctant to legislate, we must act ourselves. We should all give up fast fashion for lent! And after Easter, we should buy far fewer, better quality garments and ignore Instagram influencers and, fast fashion adverts which actively encourage us to keep destroying the planet.
So, let’s all give up fast fashion for lent and then hopefully forever!
Links to interesting articles and videos:
- Patrick Grant: ‘Why we should all feel uncomfortable in our clothes’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_p52WrspEE
- Lucy Siegle: ‘Why fast fashion is slow death for the planet’ https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/may/08/fast-fashion-death-for-planet
- Nature Climate change: ‘The price of fast fashion’ https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-017-0058-9
- Get inspired to make your own clothes by watching the Great British Sewing Bee with Patrick Grant as one of the presenters https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/b03myqj2