by Nikita Kallu
Fashion and sustainability are two very different concepts. When we think about fashion we think trendy, addictive, sexy and constantly evolving. Whilst sustainability indicates a certain slowness, ethically and responsibility. (Vuletich)
As I write this, New York Fashion Week has just ended. Fashion week happens across the globe where top designers showcase their visions for the coming seasons. They’re full of designs that push the boundaries, striking models, expensive fabrics and high-profile socialites lining the runways. However, fashion has a whole dark side that is often ignored and thus enter haute couture’s polluting, unforgiving, cheap chic cousin: fast fashion.
What is fast fashion? Fast fashion refers to inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass market retailers in response to the latest trends. However, fast fashion is a global crisis that needs to be addressed since it drastically affecting the world in negative ways both environmentally and socially. Though I am a consumer of fast fashion, and if you’re reading this, it is likely you are too, we may not be able to become 100% sustainable overnight but educating ourselves about the atrocities is a start and making small changes can make a big difference.
Examples of your favorite retail giants capitalizing off of the fast fashion industry include H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, Primark and Fashion Nova. We are easily drawn to these stores through advertising. However, we often forget what consequences are attached to our rapid consumption of fashion from these corporations. We forget that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry on earth following oil. We blatantly ignore the environmental impacts of the production of our clothing. We want more, we want cheap and we want it now! (Chirila).
But the fact is that clothes made from polyester take up to 200 years to breakdown, it is non-biodegradable, and is estimated to use 70 million barrels of oil a year to produce it. Furthermore, each time polyester clothing is washed, it sheds 1000s of tiny microfibers of plastic than end up in the sea, eaten by fish which we eat ourselves. Sadly, 83% of the world’s water is contaminated with this plastic.
If we start at the very beginning of the garment manufacturing journey we need raw materials to convert into fabrics to produce this fashion. For an example, cotton may seem like a better choice of fabric. But approximately 7,000 liters of water is needed to produce one pair jeans. This is the amount of water a person drinks in half a decade. Cotton is a resource and energy intensive laborious fabric. It consumes 10% of all fertilizers in the world and 25% of all insecticides used in agriculture. Ironically, ⅔ of all fibers used to make our clothes are cotton based and cotton needs a vast amount of water to grow which thus places a substantial strain on our environment. In fact, in Uzbekistan the Aral sea literally dried up due to stress on water supply for use in the garment industry. (Perry).
photo credit: Independent
Cotton’s dark side has led to 250, 000 Indian cotton farmers have committing suicide in the last 15 years due to the stress of debt they accumulated through buying genetically modified cotton seeds to keep up with demand since the way organic cotton grows does not match the equilibrium at which we are consuming the plant.
The horrific, damaging impact of toxic chemicals used in cotton growing was shown in the gripping documentary, The True Cost (I would recommend this to anyone wanting an easy way to learn all about the unspoken side of the fashion industry. It is currently streaming on Netflix). The documentary brought light to how pesticides caused serious birth defects in Indian cotton farmer’s children as well as the death of a cotton farmer in the USA due to a brain tumour. (Perry).
photo credit: Good on You
Furthermore, fast fashion exists around planned obsolescence; the idea that your clothes are literally only built to last a couple washes before they shrink or tear at the seams. They are designed to fall apart. They are not slow, high quality investment pieces. Built to last just one season. This fits into how fast fashion brands on the high street are in a rapid competition to put out new collections to feed our constant raging appetite for fast fashion. Instead of 4 seasons, we see fast fashion adopt 52 seasons, constantly putting out new content weekly at extremely cheap prices because this is what we as consumers seem to want. Fast marketing means this planned obsolescence goes unnoticed as we continue to consume and purchase more and more clothing. (Chirila).
Additionally, it means we become extremely wasteful only wearing the garment about 5 times before or they collect dust never to be worn. We are over consuming due to this throw away culture an it needs to change! In the past decade the number of garments purchased per consumer has more than doubled and yet still consumers discard of them after a couple of wears.
The driving force behind fast fashion is to keep the entire production and supply chain as cheap as possible so the product can be sold to the consumer for the lowest possible price whilst business CEOs make the most profit. In fact, a CEO makes the same amount of money as 1,0000 workers in Bangladesh. Where businesses like H&M adopt a quantity over quality attitude corners are cut when it comes to the health and safety of garment workers, they are often forced to work extra hours for less than minimum wage. According to the Global Fashion Agenda it would cost only about €1.35 to double the wages of those producing t-shirts that retail for €25 each. (Landry, Kerr).
All of these shortcuts however led to the largest and worst disaster in fashion industry history Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. The factory workers complained about the unsafe working conditions and the cracks on the walls, but their boss told them to go back to work. The collapse left 2500 injured and killed 1138.
Change in this industry is slow, on the outside small victories can be seen such as this year being the first London fashion week to go fur free, however there are still currently 75 million people on earth working long hours in factories and sweatshops to produce cheap clothing where over 50% of the workers are not paid a minimum wage causing them to fall into an inescapable poverty trap. In countries like the Philippines and Bangladesh, they are systematically held in poverty so as to attract foreign investment. In addition, another major issue that many large corporations have been exposed for is child labour, examples include Nike, Adidas , Gap and H&M. Whenever we purchase clothes with lots of sequins and beading, this is often a sign that child labour was used to make the piece. (Hall)
Claims have also been made about Victoria’s Secret, a multi billionaire lingerie brand known for its beautiful designs, that it’s products have been made by children (as young as ten years old) who work long hours without pay.
What is the alternative? What can we do as consumers to change our consuming habits and avoid buying into these businesses?
One of the most important things we can do is shift our own mindsets and change the way we think about fashion. We currently consume too much. We own 4 times as much clothing in our wardrobes as our parents did. We buy more clothes and spend much less on them than we used to. We must try to break our addiction to speed and volume and try to adopt a quality over quantity attitude because there is a true cost to our cheap bargains.
As a student myself I understand it isn’t always easy to purchase clothes that have been made with ethics in mind when these alternatives are so expensive and often harder to access. Nonetheless, here are some easy methods we can all try to reject fast fashion:
- CLOTHES SWAPS: Grab a friend and both pick out a few items of clothing you already own, choose ones that are in a nice condition which you no longer wear. Swap these with your friend so that they can fall in love with the pieces as you once did and you can try out a new style with their clothes.
- THRIFTING: This has already become much more prevalent in recent years but if you’re not on the thrift shopping wave you’re really missing out. Explore vintage stores and charity shops to find the most unique hidden treasures. If personal aesthetics and styling are something you’re interested in then I’m sure you can relate to how cool it feels to be rocking clothes that no else owns because they’re vintage. Vintage clothes are sustainable because they’ve been reused or recycled by different people.
- REWORKING OLD CLOTHES: Reinvent old clothes by cropping trousers; fraying jeans; painting jackets; customizing sneakers; appliquéing t-shirts with badges; dyeing shirts etc
- LOVE THE CLOTHES YOU ALREADY OWN: Learn to sew on a button if your shirt is missing one rather than purchasing a whole new shirt
- EXPLORE AND FIND YOUR OWN NICHE STYLE RATHER THAN ALWAYS BUYING INTO TRENDS
photo credit: PhD in Parenting
Meet the Writer:
Nikita Kallu is a 19- year-old from England. She will be studying pharmacy at university this year. She enjoys painting, fashion, photography and listening to music. As an artist for Sorjo Magazine, she paints watercolor portraits that explore the emotions and experiences of people of color.
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