If we are to see any major changes towards a sustainable future, our cultural attitudes surrounding the fashion that we consume and dispose of needs to change.
Today, there is a growing awareness about the lifestyle factors that are linked to pollution and climate change. These include the consumption of animal products and the usage of plastics. However, there remains another factor that needs attention that is vital in ensuring a truly sustainable future: the fashion industry and our ferocious appetite for constant clothing consumption.
The environmental costs of clothing production are immense. Devasting amounts of water is needed to grow cotton, the pesticides used to speed up the rate of growth are harmful to the land and to human health and factories belch out toxic chemicals from clothing dyes. The global activism movement focusing on sustainable fashion, Fashion Revolution, has reported that the fashion industry is responsible for 20 per cent of global water pollution. This makes rivers, lakes and seas in countries of production extremely harmful to the surrounding inhabitants and ecosystems.
Furthermore, many of the world’s clothes are made by an overwhelmingly female workforce, who are forced to work in dangerous, life-threatening conditions. Fast fashion companies continue to exploit these employees, paying them as little as possible in order to keep the most profit when the clothing is sold.
In recent years, there has been a growing trend towards buying second-hand clothing, rather than always turning to the high street. Big names in the fashion industry have also been raising the issue of sustainable and ethical clothing, such as Stella McCartney and Oxfam who held a second-hand show at the most recent London Fashion Week.
Despite this growing public interest in sustainable fashion, the continuous and regular consumption of new clothes remains the Western cultural norm.
Fashion brands are able to accelerate their harmful production as they are catering to a demand for the newest, trendiest products at the lowest price. Fashion advertising, celebrity culture and social media all feed into this materialist ideal that encourages consumers to show their social status through the clothes they wear, with no regard to where these items may have come from or how they were made. The extraordinarily cheap price and disposable quality of these fast fashion garments make it all too easy for consumers to wear them a couple of times, then replace them with next season’s trend after a few weeks without batting an eyelid.
In a panel discussion at the 2014 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Livia Firth summed up the downfalls of this cultural phenomenon on the consumer end: “Is it really democratic to buy a t-shirt for $5, a pair of jeans for $20? Or are they [fast fashion brands] taking us for a ride? Because they are making us believe that we are rich and wealthy because we can buy a lot, but in fact, they’re making us poorer, and the only person who is becoming richer is the owner of the fast fashion brand.”
Textile disposal is another major environmental concern in the lifecycle of these garments. This is a problem that is widely hidden and therefore unconsidered by the consumer when purchasing new clothing. Items that are thrown away or are returned to an online retailer often end up in landfill, releasing toxic chemicals during the long decomposing process. Even more shockingly, up to 90 per cent of charity shop donations are sent to developing countries where most items go unwanted and, due to their cheap price, create unbeatable competition for the businesses of local garment makers.
Although there is no simple solution to the damage caused by the fashion industry, changes in consumer habits have the power to make a difference. By switching the demand towards second hand or sustainably and ethically made clothing, pressure can be applied to fast fashion brands to improve their production methods. Online marketplaces now exist for buying and selling good quality second-hand clothing, such as Depop and Edinburgh based start-up One Cherry. Furthermore, by buying from charity shops as the first port of call, the amount of textile waste being sent from these shops to the landfill or to developing countries can be reduced. By choosing good quality sustainable made clothing that is meant to last, or by mending and upcycling the clothes that we already own, we can prolong the lifespan of clothing, preventing it from becoming waste.
Throughout history, our cultural attitudes towards fashion govern the way in which our clothes and accessories are made, sold and disposed of. Consumers must recognise fashion decisions, not as an inconsequential part of our modern lifestyles that changes with every season, but as an environmental and human responsibility that could greatly affect the future of our planet.
Image: Creative Commons via pxhere