In the past couple of months there has been a big media buzz around the devastating environmental and human rights implications of
cheap, mass produced ‘fast fashion’, and the fashion industry in general. It is a huge problem that has been bubbling away quietly while climate change, plastic waste and air-pollution have been at the fore. The truth about ‘fast fashion’ made UK headlines after the Commons Environmental Audit Committee began examining the impact of mass produced cheap clothes.
The Enviro Audit Committee said that the UK consumes 26.7kg on new clothing per capital, which is the highest consumption rate in Europe. At this scale, the fashion industry has a massive environmental impact; 235 million items of clothing were sent to landfill in 2017, 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions were produced by the global fashion industry in 2015, and 3,781 litres of water are used within the full lifetime of a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans. (Enviro Audit Committee, as cited by BBC News, 2018). On top of this, the apparel industry (which predominantly employs women as garment workers) is rife with serious labour abuses such a low pay, denial of maternity benefits, sexual harassment, forced overtime work and a very poor health and safety policies and monitoring.
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t like clothes or didn’t enjoy treating myself to a new outfit now and again. I have long avoided a couple of high street chains whose poor labour standards and ambiguous supply chain information are more well known, but I have also been guilty of grabbing a bargain or buying something new and only wearing it a handful of times. If I really did my research, there are probably countless high street chains that should be on my blacklist too.
At the moment, truly sustainable fashion is a luxury item that most simply can’t afford. With supply chain transparency and low carbon credentials comes a hefty price tag that isn’t realistic, particularly on a low wage or with a large family to clothe. I hope that the work of the Enviro Audit Committee is just the beginning and that high street retailers will soon be required to meet much tougher regulations. Until then, I think the most important thing we can do – surprise surprise – is consume less and waste as little as possible. On an individual level, extending the life cycle of our clothes is undoubtedly the way forward, and this includes thinking carefully about what happens to them when we no longer have a use for them. Swapping and sharing clothes with friends, selling clothes online, altering and mending clothes, dying clothes when the colours fade, and donating clothes to charity shops or groups gathering donations for refugees are all great ways of extending the life cycle of your wardrobe. (With these last couples of options, please make sure that your charity shop of choice isn’t already overloaded, as surplus items end up on landfill, and check websites like helprefugees.org to find out exactly which items they really need). Wherever possible, we need to swap, share, recycle and mend. You may be doing all of this already, and this is a public note-to-self if so.