The Cost of Fashion: More Than Money

The 2020’s are proving  to be one of the most environmentally decisive decades that humanity has ever faced. The reality of climate change can no longer be ignored, and its impact is  felt across the globe, from stronger hurricanes in America, biblical rainfall in Europe, long-lasting dry spells for much of Africa and Asia and raging forest fires in Australia. Nobody is immune from these effects, but it is only a small part of the world that is responsible for the majority of the damage.

At the same time, the impact of documentaries such as 2014’s  Cowspiracy and it’s sister documentary Seaspiracy (2021) , have successfully focused the public’s attention on the environmental impact of the food industry. These documentaries are brilliant at bringing attention to the fact that our individual choices have a real impact on the environment. We can help the combined effort to reduce carbon emissions and destruction of natural resources by simply choosing different things to eat. 

The Facts – Environment 

Most people know that fashion is ‘bad’ for the environment, but how many people know the true cost of their fashion choices? The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry on the planet, second only to oil manufacturing, and accounts for 10% of all global emissions. That’s more than all planes and ship emissions combined. On average, a single European consumer will contribute 645kg of Co2 per year in their clothes purchases alone. 

Many clothes are manufactured in developing nations where clean water is often a scarce resource.  Yet manufacturing a cotton t-shirt, t takes 2,700 litres of water,  the equivalent of what one person would consume in two and half years. Much of this water will be used in the cotton-growing process, combined with fertilisers and other chemicals that reduce pests; the rest will be used to wash and dye the fabric. These chemical compounds run off the cotton fields and find their way into the drinking water and ecosystem. These developing nations lack the political power and economic resilience to put hard regulations on industries that many people depend on for their livelihoods. Even more shocking is that of all the clothes imported to Europe, only around 1% of those thrown away end up being recycled. The rest are either sent to landfill or burnt at a rate of 1 truckload per second. 

Fast Fashion – Human Cost

In the ‘70s and  ‘80s, clothing brands used to release two seasonal lines per year;  in 2021 brands are releasing lines and sublines at an average rate of just under one per week. This constant churning out of textiles and clothes means that consumers have ever more choice whilst cheap overseas production costs keep prices low. . Industrial disasters  such as the 2013 Dkaka garment factory collapse, where 1,134 lost their lives due to poor working conditions, are not uncommon, but rarely make headlines in western countries. The cheap cost of clothing is paid for by poor working conditions, cheap labour, and a reduction in the quality of clothing people buy. This lack of quality creates a feedback loop, whereby after several washes, clothing loses its shape or colour, and people are forced to buy even more. In the UK, there are laws to protect workers:maximum hours, minimum wage, a right to safe working conditions – rights that more often than not are not enjoyed by the people producing the clothes on our backs. 

A Generation Apart

Susan Squire, 43 from Lichfield who works in Higher Education  grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s before fast fashion took off. She recalls being a teenager, window shopping for clothes that she knew she wouldn’t be able to afford without some serious saving. “Levis were the thing to be seen in. But it wasn’t something that you could pop into a shop and get, especially when you lived off pocket money! I saved up for around 2 months for a pair when I was 16 and then lived in them.” 

She compares her experience to shopping to what she sees today: “You go into shops like H&M, and some of the clothes look really good for the price, but the material is second class…” “What really shocks me is how cheap everything is – clothes cost so much less now. 30 years ago a top from a high street chain was usually around $30. The same item today would cost the same or less – someone, somewhere is paying the price for that  I try to only buy things I really like and will get wear out of and I don’t mind paying more for quality, but the high street is geared towards cheap and disposable. Things aren’t made with a view to lasting more than one season and people don’t care because it’s cheap and easily replaced.  Since 1980, yearly global emissions have nearly doubled, going from 19.7billion tonnes to 36.4 billion tonnes, and 350,000 tonnes of clothing gets sent to landfill each year in the UK alone. (Source: https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions)

NHS Nurse Poppy Taylor, 26 from Bloxwich is concerned about the environmental impact of fast fashion:  “I know things are bad, I eat less meat and try to  be more conscious with my shopping choices.” However, sometimes cheap and convenient wins out: “If it’s a big night out, then I’ll go into somewhere like Topshop and find a nice black dress. It’s cheap and looks nice, so I don’t mind that I’ll only get one use out of it.  I don’t throw things away very often. I always advertise the clothes online or if they don’t sell, I donate them to charity and it goes on to have another life”. Yet 25% of clothes donated to charity in the UK get sent to landfill.  A further 40% – 50% are  exported to developing nations and their thriving second-hand clothing markets. Ghana is one such country that receives Britain’s second-hand clothes, but the poor quality of clothing not made to last means that 40% is unsellable and sent straight to landfill.

What Can You Do?

There are a number of things consumers can do to reduce the environmental impact of your fashion choices. Charity shops have peaked in recent years, with 11,000 outlets  on the highstreets of Britain. The benefits of shopping in charity shops are enormous. Discounted designer garments are often found and are usually of great quality. This means that somebody could potentially cherish a charity shop find for years to come whilst helping support charities focusing on  causes such as homelessness, poverty and domestic violence. They also break the cycle of fast fashion by taking a step away from it. Accountant Jack O’Grady, 27, Cannock, says that he can’t remember the last time he bought new clothes and yet he’s constantly told he dresses really well, “Charity shops are great because you get to choose your own style. There’s only one of each item, so you know the chances of seeing someone wearing the same shirt as you in a club are pretty low. That actually used to happen a lot when I shopped at Topman and Primark.” 

Another great way to reduce the impact clothing choices have on the environment is to upcycle and mend clothes. With so many tutorials online for free, information has never been easier to access. Whilst some people may throw clothes that have been torn into the rubbish, it’s becoming more fashionable to make them into something new and unique. Instagram page @recycle_store_prague has over 10,000 followers. They take worn and tarnished clothes and make them into something wearable again.

Other ways include buying locally made clothes or even making your own clothes – an investment in a sewing machine and some youtube videos are all you need to get started.  Commit to buying fewer clothes and to wearing them more. The phrase “Buy cheap, buy twice” comes to mind.

As  individuals, the environmental challenges we face as a planet can feel overwhelming  and the actions we take may feel like they have little consequence. But it is important to remember that every purchase you make is a vote for that company. Shop ethically, vote with your wallet where you can, and you will already be contributing to the change you want to see in the world. 

“Be the change you want to see” Ghandi

Sources:

https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissionshttps://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2019/633143/EPRS_BRI(2019)633143_EN.pdf

https://www.itv.com/news/2020-02-14/how-the-uk-s-fast-fashion-habits-are-polluting-a-country-halfway-around-the-world

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