Fighting fast fashion: my toxic relationship with buying clothes
Written by Anna Matthews
Design by Collette Akers
By definition, Fast Fashion is a term describing clothing designs which move quickly from the catwalk to mainstream stores. Yet, in recent years, it has transitioned into a turn of phrase which demonises the damaging and unsustainable practises of many well-known fashion corporations.
We live in a world in which modern-day consumer culture has conditioned us to see our clothes as disposable; the norm for many is to buy an outfit for one event and never wear it again. However, as more is being revealed of the catastrophic impact on the environment and the dire working conditions for the employees of many fast fashion companies, it’s time to think how we can step away from this toxic mind-set to forge a more sustainable future.
The first time I truly questioned how these companies could have any genuine ethical groundings was when I received a marketing email in 2019 from Missguided advertising their ‘best-selling £1, one size fits all bikini.’ It really struck a chord as I started to imagine all of these identical pieces being churned out for less than £1 per item.
The bikini in question actually went on to make headlines as fast fashion critics labelled it as the epitome of throwaway fashion culture.
Now, I’m in no way trying to be high and mighty with my views on the industry and, in the past, I’ve been guilty of feeding into it just as much as the next person. It was only recently I made a commitment to never again purchase clothes directly from some of the key offenders, such as Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing and Missguided. But, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t succumbed to the lure of these cheap and easy products in the past.
The seemingly never-ending 50% off sales (NastyGal, I’m looking at you) and the constant ads for free next day delivery are not only unavoidable, but are tempting and effective. As a consumer, it’s difficult to pass up what are perceived to be good deals. But I, like so many others, have a wardrobe full of clothing items I bought only to end up wearing once, or sometimes not at all – because who cares if they only cost less than a fiver anyway?
Well, to start with, the planet cares. The environmental impacts of this throwaway culture are catastrophic; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has calculated that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions annually, placing it as the third most environmentally destructive industry on the planet, after fuel and agriculture.
Many of us may attempt to reassure ourselves that we don’t contribute to the issue too much, as we end up sending many of the items we order from these brands back as soon as we’ve tried them on, allowing them to be repackaged and resold. However, in 2019 the BBC reported that, rather than being sold on, a vast number of returned items end up in landfill.
According to Oxfam, the clothes sent to landfill every year in the UK alone weigh as much as the Empire State Building. The numbers are scary and, if we don’t radically reprogram our thoughts away from a dependence on fast fashion culture in favour of a far more sustainable way of life, the situation is only destined to deteriorate.
Another devastating problem, which is recently coming more and more to light, is the unacceptable treatment of many of the employees within the industry, particularly those involved in the production of the clothes themselves.
In many of the manufacturing countries such as Bangladesh, China and India, companies forgo workers the opportunities to basic human rights, such as fair wages and satisfactory health and safety conditions. A 2011 investigation carried out by War on Want, for example, found that in Bangladesh, a garment factory worker can expect to earn just £25 a month, and 80% of these workers work 14 hours a day.
Let’s not forget that, only last month, a Boohoo factory in Leicester was investigated over concerns of human trafficking and modern slavery following a report in The Sunday Times that stated workers at the factory could expect to be paid no more than £3.50 an hour.
Our insatiable desire for a continuous stream of new clothes is supporting the unacceptable practices of many fast-fashion companies who deny their workers basic human rights in favour of generating profit.
All is not lost, though. As the world wakes up to the devastating impact of fast fashion, a swiftly growing number of alternatives are becoming available.
Sites, such as Depop and Vinted, allow users to buy, sell and exchange second-hand, unwanted items. Not only are these apps an excellent tool for getting rid of old clothes whilst preventing them from going straight to landfill, but they’re also great for finding a bargain on both high street and designer items.
Another concept which has grown in popularity, particularly during lockdown as people have explored their creative sides, is upcycling; in the last few months alone, I’ve noticed a multitude of small businesses being advertised which turn old jeans into bags, unwanted tops into scrunchies, and so on. Such innovation is admirable and should be supported as an excellent method of veering away from an unsustainable throwaway culture.
To rival the key offenders in the world of fast fashion, sustainable clothing brands are cropping up everywhere, promising clothes and methods which are not only more environmentally friendly, but guarantee ethical employment practices, too.
As well as new businesses with sustainability at their core, many existing companies are exploring alternatives to fast fashion; just this month, high-end department store chain Selfridges have announced they are planning an initiative to offer a clothing rental service to do their bit in the bid to promote sustainable shopping habits.
So, although we now live in a fast-paced world in which we are accustomed to being able to receive cheap products within hours, with so many viable alternatives available, making ethical and eco-friendly fashion choices has never been easier.