Everyone loves a bargain. But what is the true cost of cheap clothing? Not just for the people who made it, but for the planet, too?
The most successful fast fashion brands use influencers and other ploys to push trend-driven items at low prices, often releasing new collections every two weeks. The 2020 McKinsey report on the State of Fashion estimated 100 billion items of clothing are produced each year. That’s nearly 14 items for every human being on the planet. However, according to 2019’s House of Common Environmental Audit Committee, “Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined.”
For most fast fashion brands, cotton is a staple but one of the most polluting to grow. Most fast fashion production processes allow toxic waste to go straight outside to pollute waters and lands. according to McKinsey data, “Solvents, and dyes used in textile manufacturing are responsible for one-fifth of industrial water pollution.”
Not only are we, the consumers, getting rid of unwanted wardrobe items, but retailers are throwing away or burning unsold stock. The Clean Clothes 2019 campaign research showed that in the UK, one in three fast fashion items ended up in a landfill. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) 2017 Valuing our clothes report makes equally sober reading; an estimated £140 million worth (around 350,000 tonnes) of used clothing goes to landfill in the UK every year.
But change is afoot. From grassroots to governmental level, attempts are being made to turn the fast fashion vicious circle into a sustainable circular economy. And with a few simple switches, it’s easy to end this toxic relationship with fast fashion once and for all.
1. Research Before You Buy
The Rana Plaza incident in 2013—when an eight-story building collapsed in Bangladesh killing and trapping more than 1100 garment workers—shone a light on the horrific working conditions of fast fashion factories around the world. Since then, many brands have taken a stand by considering the “human” cost of their products, as well as the environmental costs.
However, beware of “greenwashing” when companies invest more time and money on marketing their products or brand as “green” rather than actually doing the hard work. Common misleading terms include “environmentally friendly”, “natural”, “eco-conscious” and, of course, “green” which are not based on any scientific proof or credible data. As a sustainable consumer, the key to success is doing your homework. Before you buy that “green” product check the brand’s claims and certifications online, or cross-reference with a trusted third party.
The purpose of any certification in fashion is to build trust between buyers and retailers. As a sustainable consumer, the key to success is doing your homework. Before you buy that garment, shoe or accessory, look for a common, reputable certification such as Global Organic Textile Standard, Oeko-Tex, Cradle 2 Cradle, Bluesign, Certified B Corporation, Fair Trade Certified, and PETA Approved Vegan. These all cover different aspects of a product’s sustainability but in essence ensure an ethical and environmentally friendly end product. Finally, if in doubt—ask! Contact the brand with questions about their products, the materials they use, and so on. If you don’t get an answer, that’s a bad sign, no matter how many certificates they have.
2. Invest in a Capsule Wardrobe
Do you really need that new tee, bag or pair of trainers? It doesn’t matter how sustainably it’s been produced, the reality is somewhere along the line—from raw materials, and manufacturing chemicals and water, to shipping emissions—every item of clothing you purchase for your wardrobe will have an impact on the world. So forget fast fashion and go for a “less is more” approach. Declutter, declutter, declutter (whilst remembering to resell, reuse, recycle – more of that later), keep your clothing collection small and slow, and shop mindfully with a capsule wardrobe.
3. Choose Sustainable
A 2020 United Nations report suggested it takes between 20,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans and up to 3,000 to make a T-shirt. Plus, polyester, nylon, and Lycra are all oil-based. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade but breaks down into tiny bits of microplastic which find their way into rivers and oceans. Now, brands like Levis Strauss & Co are experimenting with Tencel and hemp in an effort to reduce reliance on cotton and lower water footprints. As a consumer, you can do your bit and choose organic cotton, hemp, linen, and bamboo.
Whilst ethical fashion brands are trying to do their bit to redress the sustainability issues within the fashion industry, it makes sense for consumers to show support from the outside. More brands than ever are investing in circular initiatives and innovative technologies to make sure they are part of the solution, not adding to the problem. Look for smaller, independent ethical labels who, for example, sign up for the 1% for the Planet initiative, or big name brands such as Stella McCartney and Adidas who using chemically recycled nylon and polyester in their collections.
A great way to catalyse your capsule collection, host a social with a social conscience! Just because you no longer want that old sweater or dress, doesn’t mean one of your friends won’t love their “new” item. Get a group of pals over and get swapping, and keep perfectly good clothing out of landfill.
5. Buy (or Rent!) Secondhand
For consumers, secondhand clothes shopping is a sustainable alternative to buying new “sustainable” clothing as it uses no additional resources beyond transportation. UK charity Oxfam says it saves clothing weighing the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower every year from landfill. Unearth unique one-off pieces or sold-out items at jumble sales, charity shops, and resale sites. According to eBay’s Head of Preloved, Emma Grant people are starting to make the connection. “People are truly beginning to realise that simply by buying second-hand and extending the life-span of a piece of clothing, they can make a huge difference to the environment.”
The second-hand economy was valued at $24 billion as of 2018, and is projected to grow to nearly 1.5 times the size of the fast fashion market within the next 10 years, according to thredUp data. Platforms like Depop, Vestiaire Collective, The RealReal, thredUp, and Tradesy are all giving thrifting an eco makeover with help from celebrities like Megan Thee Stallion and Jameela Jamil. Super-sustainable, shopping secondhand plays a significant role in changing perceptions about fast fashion and builds on the TikTok upcycling and reusing trends.
A totally new way to wear “new” clothes. Renting an outfit means you have the freedom to try out new brands and styles, and change up your wardrobe as often as you like, but without worrying about the planet or the price-tag. Generally operating on a monthly subscription basis, the options are increasing. My Wardrobe HQ offers stock from brands like Christopher Kane to people’s personal collections, whilst Cocoon has emerged as the premium bag rental service, with shoulder-worthy offerings from the likes of Bottega Veneta and Gucci.
6. Make Do and Mend
You may not know how to sew on that missing button, stitch up that hole or replace that zipper, but you do know how to go online and find out. Part of the escalation of the fast fashion industry is down to the dying art of sewing and mending skills. However, YouTube is awash with “how-to” videos and TikTok’s #handmade has more than 2 billion views and counting. With the shops shut during lockdown, consumers have filled their time with DIY fashion.
“I think it’s cool taking textiles and giving them new life, because there are so many unused textiles out there already,” Andrew Burgess, a 20-year-old TikTok user with more than 200,000 followers (@wandythemaker) known for his “thrift flips” told the Financial Times. He’s turned quilts into hoodies, a Nascar blanket into a pair of pants.
7. Buy-Back and Recycling Schemes
Recent sustainability initiatives in the fashion industry help keep old clothes out of landfills. The latest are buy-back schemes that encourage consumers to properly dispose of their old garments, often letting them become new ones. Adidas’ Infinite Play programme will buy back your old gear, repair it and give it a new life with someone else. Patagonia seeks to keep clothes “in action” for longer with their Worn Wear scheme, swapping used clothing for retail credits. High-end brands such as Christopher Raeburn, Balenciaga, and Reformation are also “upcycling” their old clothes into new collections using less water, chemicals, and landfill. Another brand at the forefront of recycling initiatives is Swedish clothing giant H&M. It collected around 16,000 tons of discarded clothing in 2016 and it has pledged to use all recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030, setting an annual collection target of 25,000 tons of disposed clothes.