Written by Holly Pittaway
The current climate has thrust the fashion industry under a critical spotlight, as more and more people have begun to question its unnecessary excess and self-indulgence. Every day, new calls emerge for change; ‘the fashion industry must stop exploiting the cultures it so often dismisses’, a recent headline from The Daily Telegraph reads; ‘Black in Fashion Council aims to hold the fashion industry accountable’, reads another from Forbes; ‘COVID-19 could herald more conscious fashion sector’, suggested the Retail Times. With all of these stories, turning a blind eye to the negligence of the fashion industry – particularly fast fashion – is impossible, and as consumers we can no longer support the corruption and environmental devastation that our greed for new clothes brings.
Perhaps now I should introduce myself. My name is Holly, I’m a sustainability blogger in my free time, and I quit fast fashion a year ago. Before that I was an avid consumer of fast fashion; every month, a large portion of my income would go on bulk ASOS orders, most of which I would send back; I shopped as a form of leisure, perusing my local high street favourites on the regular, not giving a thought to how my clothes got where they were, or who made them. All of this changed when my eyes were opened to the ugly truth behind the green-washed face of fast fashion – so, let me share some of these truths today.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion can be summarised as low cost, low quality clothing that makes its way from factories (largely in Global South countries) to your basket in lightening speed. Think companies like Zara, H&M, ASOS, PrettyLittleThing, Fashionnova and Topshop (though this is not an exhaustive list), that churn out new collections every few weeks. Low cost and high speed necessitates unsustainability, both in terms of effects on the environment and treatment of workers, so as much as such companies may market their brands as ethical (ahem, H&M) sustainability and fast fashion cannot co-exist.
Why is the fashion industry so bad?
Firstly, there’s the environmental factors to consider. The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter in the world, only falling behind to the oil industry – that means for all the emissions you produce driving your car to work, or flying on your summer holidays, what’s in your wardrobe is worse, with the fashion industry being responsible for 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. For comparison, that’s about the equivalent to the annual emissions produced by the entire country of Russia.
Along with this, synthetic polymers are a principal ingredient in clothing manufacture, as they improve fabric durability – not only do these polymers have to be manually produced, which releases potent nitrous oxide gas into the atmosphere, but when clothes are washed they release tiny microplastics into the water system, which humans and animals later consume.
Water is another issue in fashion production – manufacturing processes are incredibly water intensive. It takes a whopping 2700 litres to produce just one cotton shirt, and that’s before more water is used in dyeing processes. What’s worse is that most clothing plants are located in the warmer regions of the world, where drought is already a problem, so this water intensiveness only exacerbates longstanding issues.
Perhaps worse than the toll of clothing production is its disposal. In the UK, 350,000 tonnes (about £140 million worth) of used clothing ends up in landfill every year – most of this waste is still completely wearable. Once in landfill, polyester takes 200 years to decompose and nylon between 30 to 40 years, all the while they release more microplastics into the soil. Even when clothing is donated to charity shops there can still be issues – a 2018 Telegraph article reported that charity shops were having to turn away many cheap fast fashion items because of their poor quality, amid worries that people were using shops as ‘dumping grounds’. Courtesy of the lockdown wardrobe clear out, our old clothes threaten to flood charity shops once again, as an estimated 67 million items of clothing and 22 million pairs of shoes are set to be donated.
If this wasn’t enough to convince you of the negative impact of the fashion industry, there are also the human consequences to consider. Companies like Zara, H&M, Topshop and more have been accused of maltreating their employees at all stages of the supply chain – fashion workers are consistently underpaid and forced to work inhumanely long hours in unsafe, oppressive conditions. All these factors came to fruition in the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, when a building containing multiple clothing factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed killing 1,134 people and injuring more than 2,500. Such factories were supplying the likes of Benetton, Bonmarché, Mango, Matalan, and Primark, and in the days before the collapse, the owner had been warned it was not structurally sound – nonetheless, he told employees it was safe and threatened to withhold pay from anyone who didn’t turn up to work, leaving 3,000 people inside on 24th April when the catastrophe occurred.
Garment workers supplying your favourite companies routinely have their human rights violated. In 2018, a report from Global Labour Justice discovered that hundreds of female workers at a factory supplying H&M and Gap were subjected to daily gendered abuse, including slapping, gender-based bullying, misuse of power to pursue sexual relationships, and rape. Zara has also faced accusations of slave labour occurring within their supply chain since 2011, despite the fact that Amancio Ortega, owner of Zara’s parent company, Inditex, was at one point the richest man in the world.
Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, now more than ever garment workers are under threat. Last month, it was reported that a number of companies, including Arcadia (Topshop’s parent company), Primark, New Look, ASOS, and Urban Outfitters, amongst others, had abandoned signed contracts following the closure of high street shops – in many cases they also refused to pay their suppliers the agreed sum, despite products being already made and ready to be shipped. This has left garment factories in the Global South struggling to stay afloat, and employees are being forced to work in unsafe conditions to fulfil the few contracts they can get, lest they lose their job. Worse, social distancing measures are not being enforced in many of these factories, with some workers even having to pay for their own PPE in order to stay safe.
There are countless more examples of crimes in fashion supply chains – these are just a few.
Source: The Ethical Consumer (2020)
How can you quit fast fashion and what else can you do to help?
The first step is to stop. Stop buying from fast fashion companies that promote wasteful consumption and devalue the human rights of their workers. Stop allowing yourself to be taken in by trends advertised through reality stars and influencers.
Once you have stopped doing these things, however, where do you start buying from? Charity shops and second-hand sites like Depop, eBay, and Vinted, are the cheapest and most accessible ways to shop if you don’t have the cash to splash on expensive sustainable items. With second-hand shopping becoming more mainstream in the past few years, it is beginning to lose the stigmas attached to it, such as ‘donated clothes are dirty’ or that ‘you can’t find fashionable items second-hand’. As someone who used to spend most of their free time (pre-lockdown) in charity shops, I can tell you I’ve found some of the nicest items I’ve ever owned there.
If you want an even cheaper option, look to your own wardrobe. The best way to be sustainable is not buying anything new, so dig out some of those items that have been lost under piles of clothing over the years or upcycle something to make it more your style.
When you are ready to invest in some more basic items that you don’t want pre-worn, look to sustainable, slow fashion companies – but beware of greenwashing! Organic Basics sell ethically made underwear and other basic items; Alexander Clementine specialise in undergarments made from seaweed and TENCEL; TALA offer a slow fashion alternative to athletic wear. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of sustainable businesses out there leading the way at the moment, but for a more comprehensive guide to these visit The Good Trade. Though, when choosing a product to invest in, try and find the most local option to minimise transport costs, and support smaller businesses when you can.
As well as boycotting brands, you can show your active opposition of fast fashion by getting involved in activism – though, this doesn’t have to be as extravagant as heading a climate protest if you don’t fancy it. Write to your former favourite fashion companies explaining why you are no longer a customer and demand change from them. Educate people around you on what you have learned about fast fashion, whether this be through word of mouth, writing an article, or filming a YouTube video. Sign and share petitions relevant to fashion industry reform. Donate to non-governmental organisations working to deliver fashion justice like The Circle’s Living Wage Project or the Clean Clothes Campaign, if you have the funds.
The world is on the brink of climate catastrophe, but we can still do something to help. Find out how making the pledge to quit fast fashion could not only benefit the environment, but the people at the bottom of these supply chains.