Staying on top of the latest trends and fashion is a huge draw for us, especially young people. Casually scrolling Instagram is a modern day past time, full of influencers trying to sell off the latest fast fashion fad and the opportunity to display your bestest, brightest and freshest selves. This has led to the sad reality that 70% teenage girls today would be embarrassed to be seen in the same clothes twice on instagram. My eyes have only been opened to the many issues of this world within the last year. These high street brands are geniuses. They convince us there is a new ‘in’ look every week, producing 52 seasons a year rather than 4. It is the very concept of the fast fashion model which is not sustainable. Clothes are being considered temporary and disposable, coming and going with the trend. Clothes are a necessity but their over consumption is being encouraged which is detrimental to the planet. We have doubled the amount of clothes we consume in the last 10 years yet up to 80% of a Londoner’s wardrobe remains barely worn. Of those thrown away, only 1% of clothes are collected and recycled and only 10% clothes donated to charity get sold in charity shops. The rest are either sent back to the developing world (they do not need such an immense burden) or sent to landfill. Currently the fashion industry is a linear system which needs to catch up on trend with growing circular economies.
Fast fashion: is the high street revolution. Budget fashion on an industrial scale. It is currently focused on profit, with very little consideration into the human and environmental cost which it incurs. The entire fast fashion industry is worth 3 trillion dollars. This figure is just too large to comprehend and a symbol of how much they have tricked us to buy into their changing trends.
The fast fashion industry is more polluting that both the international aviation and marine shipping industry combined. (Ellen MacArthur Foundation).
If it continues along this trajectory it will take up a quarter of the whole worlds carbon budget by 2050. The carbon footprint of fashion is huge. The industry impacts the environment all through its production processes. From the cotton farms, to the factory, surplus product, disposal and washing, this is an industry which needs to change to match the times. As far as I can see, the environmental impacts can be divided into 3 categories: Consumerism, Materials and Pollutants.
In short: our consumption has gone up and our use has gone down so clothes are ending up in landfill, many having been barely worn. The equivalent of 1 1/2 empire state buildings full of unwanted clothes are sent to landfill every single day. This consumption is led by social media, encouraging the throw away attitude we have with clothes. The fast paced changing fashion trends results in an ever growing wardrobe in which the majority of items we have worn one then thrown away. The sheer volume of clothes is the problem, we produce 150 billion garments of clothes every year. There are only 7.5 billion people on the planet. Where are these clothes going? Some of these clothes never even reach the consumer, due to over stocking and ordering. Indeed, H&M in 2018 had $4.3 billion worth of stock which couldn’t be sold. Yet despite this, they continue producing more garments at a vast scale. Fashion brands are bringing out multiple new lines per week, in various colours and sizes. The reality is these large brands only need to sell 2 of every 10 of the garments to be well within profit. The prices of these clothes are dropping, along with the quality. You can now buy a dress for a fiver on some of these fashion websites, surely that highlights the lack of quality and ethnicity within them. The clothes are no longer able to last, being of poorer quality, encouraging further consumption. In the UK the average lifetime of our clothing is just 2.2 years.
From looking around the materials clothes are made out of a varies considerably with some great new fibres coming into play such as eucalyptus fibre (allbirds tree runner shoes made from this are fab). However the usuals are plastic, cotton, linen etc. They all have their benefits and their drawbacks. Natural materials will biodegrade in landfill, releasing greenhouse gases. Plastic clothes are here to stay forever. Some may break up (photo-degrade) and contribute to the micro-plastics in the oceans. Mixed blends of fabrics, are an absolute no. They make trying to get the original fibres to reuse incredibly hard.
Plastic: Up to 64% of our clothes are now made from plastic. Plastic is everywhere. Plastic clothes use almost double the energy needed for cotton clothes to be produced. Polyester and Nylon are doubly unsustainable as they are energy hungry, use water for cooling and produce pollutants. Nylon manufacture releases nitrous oxide which is a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide!
Cotton: Cotton clothes require huge volumes of water. One cotton T Shirt a volume of water as great as up to 3 years drinking water per one person. Denim jeans, require almost 10 years worth drinking water. When you wear the standard ‘Jeans and a T Shirt’ 13 years worth of one persons drinking water has gone into making it. We need to make our clothes last, we cannot be throwing this much water away with one or two wears. Cotton is also the most pesticide intensive industry (as seen below).
I think it can be concluded, less is more. Wearing just half our clothes for 9 months longer can cut carbon emissions by 8%, save water and reduce waste. Avoid the unnecessary emissions and water expenditure by buying only those products we know we will wear and get some use out of. (I am going to investigate fabrics further!)
One, often unknown, pollutant of plastic clothing comes when we wash them. Small microfibres are released into the ocean unable to be filtered out by our waste system currently. One load of clothes could be shedding up to 17 million tiny fibres from washing. To prevent this wash in large loads with fabric conditioner to reduce friction. GuppyFriend is a great invention. It is a bag you wash your clothes in which prevents as many microfibres breaking off and collects those which do so you can dispose of them before they reach the water network. Yet I am still uncertain about the disposal of the microfibres once you put them in the bin, they still could reach the ocean! Hopefully technology will advance to include washing machines with filters and the ability to treat clothes so prevent them shedding.
Cotton farming also releases pollutants in the form of pesticides sprayed onto the plants to increase efficiency. Sadly 10,000 people die every year from pesticide poisoning in the fashion industry, this is directly (the pesticide sprayers) and indirectly through contamination with the water supply. Pesticide chemicals also remain on the garments throughout their lifetime, slowly being released through wearing. Organic cotton is the way forward. Pollutants are also released through the dying of the clothes, the waste water of which usually just enters into the river networks. I read that somewhere in China knows the latest fashion by the colour of the water in the streams. This cannot be good for anyone or the planet.
Just to briefly mention, the industry also has huge social ethical issues. Transparency is practically non existent and the workers are often being compromised (as was the case of the Rana Plaza catastrophe April, 2013). the competing high street prices are getting lower and lower. It is not the brand who is suffering when these wages drop, but the workers. How can a T-Shirt be £2, a dress a fiver and a bikini only £1!
So what can we do:
- Wear our existing wardrobes with pride. Show off the fact you chose an item of clothing you love and wear it well.
- Buy 2nd hand through marketplaces, charity shops and organisations like Depop.
- When the clothes begin to wear thin, which they will do (fast fashion is made to break) then attempt to fix them or look into more sustainable equivalents (and reuse the old ones for other purposes like cleaning cloths!)
- 30 wear rule (Livia Firth) – ‘Think before you buy’ (Venetia falconer) can you see yourself wearing that item of clothing 30 times in the future. Make buying the clothes an investment, no impulse buying!
- Borrow/Rent: For that moment when you need that one off out there outfit, swap and borrow. Companies such as Hurr, Hirestreet and OurCloset are there for you if friends are not.
- Consider only buying clothes in store, our lives are so busy this will naturally curb our consumption as finding the time to go to the shops is often hard.
- Buy a Guppyfriend for washing clothes
- Watch The True Cost it is honestly enlightening
Sustainable Fashion Brands:
There are some lovely ethical brands emerging to match the raising awareness of the issues within the industry. However, as Jennifer Nini says, “We can’t just consume our way into a more sustainable world”. It is our attitudes which need to change, consumption needs to drop and we should be choosing timeless pieces of high quality which can last. Our clothing can then absorb a meaning, associated with the memories of when we wore it. Rather than worn once and then discarded.
Many of the high street fast fashion brands have sensed the change and are beginning to bring out ‘sustainable’ and ‘responsible’ collections. Do not be phased by this. These brands are still essentially fast fashion brands with a fast fashion unsustainable business model. These side line collections have been brought out purely as a tick box for the consumer interest. The cost is still low – meaning someone is paying somewhere (usually the workers) and the quality is not great. They are pushing the brands who are trying to do good further and further out of the picture. Research the brands if you need to buy. The Good on you app is great for this.
Myth: Sustainable Fashion is expensive. Fast Fashion is expensive! Livia Firth suggested this in her Deliciously Ella podcast feature. If we collect the total money we spent on clothes which we wear 1 or 2 times from fast fashion brands, evolving to match the trends, the figure will be large. Yet if we wear our wardrobe, combined with a one off buy of a more expensive sustainable item, created ethically, with a timeless design – you will get more wears out of it.