Updated: Oct 1, 2021
All of us buy clothes, and a lot of us enjoy keeping up with trends, fashion styles and buying rapidly in-and-out-of-trend garments from shops like New Look, Brandy Melville, Zara, Urban Outfitters, Topshop, Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, River Island, Shein and Princess Polly. But in recent years, more and more light is being shed on the damaging and polluting fast fashion industry, and how our shopping habits have awful consequences for the environment and people all over the world.
Clothing for fast fashion companies are made in countries where the workers are paid illegally low wages and often forced to work in terrible conditions, often in the Global South. This was exemplified in the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 that killed 1,134 workers and injured approximately 2,500. Additionally, a huge proportion of factory workers experiencing these dangerous workplaces are women of colour, making fast fashion even more of a social justice and equality issue.
In recent months as the COVID-19 pandemic and global lockdowns have taken hold, many scandals have emerged of fast fashion brands further underpaying, or withholding entirely, worker’s already meagre wages, while the already wealthy company CEOs receive millions in revenue and bonuses. On the environmental side, fast fashion clothes are either made from fossil fuel-based polyester or water-intensive cotton (the average water footprint for a kilo of cotton is between 10 and 20,000 litres) and use toxic chemicals, as well as fertilisers and pesticides. These chemicals cause huge environmental damage, as well as birth defects, tumours and death for the workers who grow the product. Meanwhile, organic cotton still only accounts for less than 1% of the world’s annual cotton crop. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally, and this usage and contamination of clean water in already hot and dry countries where it is produced causes water scarcity, an issue that will only get worse with climate change. Brands are making billions, while the environment and vulnerable people are suffering horribly.
Once made, the product is shipped to consumer countries, like the UK. An item of clothing can be packaged in plastic up to three times throughout this process, each normally with a single-use plastic hanger. More fossil fuels are used to transport these products in planes. In the consumer country, the garments are bought often with little thought to their lifespan or quality. The pieces are worn but the “mend and preserve” mentality is largely gone due to the convenience and cheap price of the clothes. When they almost inevitably break, they are binned and synthetic fabrics are sent to landfill, breaking down into microplastics and polluting our oceans hugely. These fibres build up in the food chain — 35% of the microplastics in the oceans comes from clothing, and they take between 20 and 200 years to decompose.
Clearly fast fashion is unethical and destructive on many levels. But what can we actually do about it?
Buy clothes second-hand, whether on Depop, eBay, or in-person in a charity shop. This is almost always cheaper than buying clothes brand new, and you can also find more unusual pieces. Buying second hand also allows you to define and improve your style much more than buying mass-produced fast fashion pieces.
In shops like New Look or Topshop, we’re constantly bombarded by new styles, cheap prices, bargain marketing and clever shopping strategies. With trends changing so quickly, we’re encouraged by adverts, celebrities and the price point to buy lots of pieces we don’t particularly need or like - meaning your style often becomes a mashup of unwanted fast fashion garments.
But shopping second hand, with limited “stock” of everything, means that you can really explore and develop a signature aesthetic. However, an important thing to consider with charity shopping is to buy only what you need, to be inclusive and keep charity shops accessible to everyone. It is a privilege to be able to choose to shop second hand or in charity shops; people on low incomes may depend exclusively on charity shops for clothing and homeware. The gentrification of charity shops in recent years (in particular driven by the phenomenon of vintage online retailers and commercial depop sellers buying huge quantities of clothing stock to resell and profit off) has made some stores more expensive, therefore decreasing accessibility for those who need them most; so be mindful when buying from them. Additionally, if you see a garment a few sizes too large for you that you would plan to buy and then alter to be smaller, remember to consider whether there are enough options for people of that size in the shop - by buying clothes in bigger sizes for an oversized fit, or buying to then alter, you could be excluding plus-size people from buying in charity shops.
This moves us on to mending your broken clothes instead of throwing them away. The ease and cheapness of fast fashion means we often don’t think that fixing our clothes is worth it - but it’s so much better (and in fact cheaper) to stitch up a hole in a piece instead of just disposing of it.
Also, you can download the “Good On You” app, which clearly rates brands on how sustainable and ethical they are, so you can make more informed purchases. There are lots of sustainable clothing companies out there, including Lucy and Yak, Patagonia, Organic Basics, The Hundred Club, Tala and many more!
Finally, we can continue to pressure governments - by signing petitions, protesting with school strikes, talking to MPs about the proposed fashion tax and boycotting fast fashion companies. Our government and industry should be making large-scale changes to combat this crisis, but they won’t change without our habits changing too.
Thanks for reading!