Asos. Misguided. Forever 21. Boohoo. Primark. H&M. Zara. Urban Outfitters.
Chances are, you have probably shopped at, or at least heard of these clothing companies. They dominate the fashion market by providing cheap as chips clothing with a rapid turnover of styles and allowing the fashion conscious millennial to keep up with the latest trends, even on our tiny minimum wages. Sounds pretty good? In theory, yes. In practice? We have got things massively, terribly wrong.
Over the last few years, these ‘fast fashion’ giants have emerged, thriving on our insatiable consumerist culture which has successfully conditioned us to believe we can be happier if we have more stuff. And do not get me wrong, I totally support the ‘more stuff = happiness’ argument when we are talking about cake, or popcorn, or adopting dogs.
But the fast fashion industry has a dark and dirty side that is not included in any of their adverts depicting white skinny happy people who you just know must be intelligent, kind, thoughtful and ambitious, because they’re wearing the latest trend (but that’s another angry rant for another day….).
This dark and dirty side is an environmental crisis that WE, the consumers, are perpetuating as we fall hook, line and sinker for the ‘more stuff = happiness’ narrative. And we need to stop it. RIGHT NOW.
So, what exactly is this crisis, and how was it triggered? As usual, it all comes down to money. In the past, there used to be spring, summer, autumn and winter ‘collections’ for fashion lovers. But the fast fashion industries are purely and simply businesses – and businesses like our money. And to get more of it, they needed us to buy more often than four times a year. Enter the 52 micro-season concept. Yep, that’s right there is now a new ‘season’ of fashion EVERY SINGLE WEEK. To generate this huge turnover, clothes are being made faster, cheaper and of poorer quality to keep up with the demand. As these cheap, poor quality clothes fall apart and outdate so easily, we discard quicker and quicker, forming literal mountains of clothing that nobody wants and nobody knows what to do with.
And the result? The fashion industry is now the second largest generator of pollution on Earth after oil1, with 300,000 tonnes of used clothing going to landfill in 2016 in the UK alone 2. Additionally, when clothing made of natural fibres like cotton ends up in landfill, it behaves much like food waste; producing the greenhouse gas methane 3 as it degrades in the abnormal, anaerobic environment. Synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon are essentially made of plastic – and don’t biodegrade at all. Both types of clothing will have been bleached, dyed and printed with chemicals during the production process and once in landfill, these chemicals leach into the soil and groundwater3. Thus, the cast-offs of our hunger for cheap fashion are poisoning the earth.
“But don’t panic!” I hear you say, “I give all my old clothes to charity shops”. And that’s a lovely sentiment. However, while donating old clothes to charity might ease one’s conscience, in reality it makes a pretty small dent in reducing textile waste. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, just 20% of donated clothes are sold on by charity shops3. The clothing that isn’t bought ends up going to textile recyclers. These recyclers either sell it in bulk as shredded rags for industrial use (which again, will ultimately go to landfill), or ship it off to developing countries such as Uganda and Kenya. There the donation of second hand clothes from developed countries has caused the collapse of their textile industry4. Not such a charitable gesture after all…
How these clothes are made does not hold up to scrutiny either. No matter how hard brands try to distance themselves from it, low cost clothing companies make their money by exploiting resources – including human beings – from countries such as Bangladesh, China, Cambodia and India. There, cotton is grown by farmers who are paid pitifully, and exposed to the toxic pesticides they need to use to protect their only source of income5. The fabric generated from this cotton is then sewn by ‘slave labour’ – adults and children alike who typically work 14 hours a day, 6 days a week in unsafe conditions, to earn as little as $21 a month6. Remember the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh that collapsed in 2013, killing 1100 people who were stitching clothes for Primark7? It is easy to forget when caught up in the thrill of purchasing the most recent bargain. Textile workers are also exposed to carcinogenic chemical dyes used on the fabrics – which in themselves are causing their own environmental disaster…
Let us look at The Citarum river in Indonesia as a case study. The river has been used as a chemical dump for years by textile factories that line its shores. Recently, Greenpeace analysed its water and found it to be polluted with lead, mercury, arsenic and nonylphenol1 (an endocrine disrupting dye which has been banned from the EU due to its environmental implications). The alkalinity of the water was equivocal to that of lye-based drain unblockers1 (picture yourself taking a dip in a river of Mr Muscle – you know the one with all the warnings of “can cause severe skin burns and eye damage” …). And this is by no means an isolated event. Annually, over half a trillion gallons1 of fresh water are contaminated in textile dying and are then dumped, untreated, into rivers where the water will eventually go on to pollute the sea.
Half a trillion gallons. A year. On clothing. When people across the globe are dying every minute from drinking unclean water.
Unfortunately, this water pollution does not stop once the clothes are nestled safely in your wardrobe. Every time a polyester or nylon garment is washed, tiny plastic microfibers are shed into our drains, taking with them yet more chemicals and microplastics8.
This is all getting a bit morbid, isn’t it? Human exploitation, thousands of tonnes of unbiodegradable waste, pollution of waterways, death of aquatic life, collapse of budding textile industries and depletion of natural resources for the sake of a £10 t-shirt..? It’s time to re-prioritise.
The good news is that there is a powerful opponent to fight this problem. This superhero/heroine is called: The Mindful Consumer (that is you). Us consumers wield a great deal more power than many of us realise – and every time we buy this ‘fast fashion’, we are creating the demand for it. We are condoning these practices; we are saying that this is ok by us. But you can choose to say something else instead.
You can choose to watch the documentary True Cost, or read Elizabeth Cline’s ‘Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion’. No, it is not light entertainment, but we cannot limit our education to the niceties.
And there are many ways by which you can choose to stop contributing to this ridiculous disaster;
– Buy second hand (check out ‘Thred Up’ and the wonderful Scandinavian baby clothing initiative, ‘Vigga’).
– Buy good quality clothing that is ethically produced (such as Patagonia, Prana, People Tree).
– Buy what you NEED rather than what you WANT.
– Stop mindlessly supporting cheap brands that are made to not last.
– Repair what you can (some shops such as Patagonia offer free repair on all their clothes).
– Repurpose your worn out clothes into something you will use, like cleaning cloths. Not only will you increase the lifespan of your textiles but you’ll also be avoiding paying out for household items that you can make out of what you have.
Most importantly, you can choose to shift your attainment of self-validation away from buying things you don’t need, and instead invest your time and energy in experiences that enrich yourself; reading, walks in the great outdoors, catching up with friends, supporting small local bakeries, stargazing, cycling across the peaks, working out, falling in love – there are SO many more amazing things in the world than tramping around Meadowhall or scrolling on Asos.com.
We need to end our culture of materialism, ignorance and convenience. It is time to start living thoughtfully.