Fast And We Should Be Furious
In a recent turn of events, the government has finally begun to address the environmental and social effects of the UK’s fashion industry and question it's sustainability. As it stands, the industry contributes £28bn to the national economy per annum. While its benefits are obvious, given the current climate - one of an overt global warming crisis - the government has decided to assess, and encourage a reduction of, the environmental footprint from this sector.
The term ‘fast fashion’ is most likely familiar to most 20 to 30 something year olds, as either the preachers or the audience of conscientious advice. To those unfamiliar, fast fashion initially described clothes supplied by retailers which are based on the trends showcased at the biannual Fashion Week. The turnover of the designs in stores is rapid to keep up with constantly emerging trends, and clothing is produced en masse, supposedly at affordable prices, to provide an alternative to the excesses of designer brands. However the term has evolved to denote the negative consequences of an industry naturally exploitative in its supply of low-cost clothing while still demanding a high volume of profit. Fast fashion now means sweatshops and low wages, mountains of two month-old garments in landfills and the harsh realities of child labour.
Therefore the Environmental Audit Committee is asking Britain’s top ten retailers a series of questions surrounding the payment of the living wage to garment workers, the use of child labour in supply chains, the waste process of unsold stock and the steps being taken to reduce the risk of microplastics contaminating the ocean. The responses will then be used to inform the Committee’s recommendations to Government on how to solve these pressing issues. The companies the Environmental Audit Committee has written to are: Marks and Spencer Group, Primark Stores, Next Retail, Arcadia Group, Asda, Tk Maxx and HomeSense, Tesco, JD Sports Fashion, Debenhams, Sports Direct International.
According to the Textiles Recycling Association, the excess consumption of clothing in the UK compares the worst to other European countries, at 26.7kg for each individual person - for a population of over 65 million. Meanwhile the consumption rate per person is 16.7kg, 14.5kg, and 12.6kg in Germany, Italy and Sweden respectively. In 2015, the global fashion industry produced 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 - that’s more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Worse still is the fact that while a high proportion of clothing is wasted within the UK, more of it is produced outside of the UK, and of Europe. Thus, the demand for clothing in the UK drives the production of almost three times more emissions outside of the UK than it drives domestically, meaning the consequences of high level CO2 production - such as headaches, difficulty in breathing due to air pollution, and acid rain - are felt by populations forced to endure the effects of a condition they did not create. Countries such as China, India and Pakistan, which now supply most of the cotton for UK clothes, are more likely to suffer severe water stress and scarcity as clothing production uses a large volume of water and can result in extensive water pollution.
Further to the environmental impacts of air and water pollution, fast fashion fuels a culture which breeds materialism and a self-centredness which allows for easy disregard of the social consequences felt in places often less than visible to the UK population. Sweatshops are not a new concept, but as the focus on British-made garments has sharpened the Government has decided to pay more attention to the supply chain and the harsh working conditions, now within the UK, that characterise a sector which thrives on persistent, individualistic consumption.
Recent years have seen a more prevalent emergence of conscience, no longer exclusive to so-called ‘hippies’ and more widespread among a younger generation that has been raised and educated with a strong awareness of the effects of human behaviour on a global scale, in both a physical, and a human sense. Like with most things, the popularity of ‘consciousness’ around clothing and their ethical sourcing can be measured by the prevalence of these ideas on social media. The rising popularity of blogs such as Ecocult, The Curious Button and Anuschka Rees, whose primary aim is to promote ethical fashion choices as well as a downsizing of wardrobes in order to reduce waste, indicate the existence of an audience that is regularly consuming this online content. Moreover, there is an increasing number of youtube channels such as Professor Pincushion and Threads providing free tutorials on creating one’s own clothes. The ease at which much of this content is accessible, alongside the popularity of minimalism would suggest that fast fashion is in fact a negative and selfish choice people partake in despite the abundance of alternatives on offer to them.
Yet, ethical fashion remains an option that usually only the middle classes can afford to take. To begin with, the creation of clothing demands the devotion of time and effort, which is often not in abundance to, for example, working parents of three, who already struggle to meet all their bill payments without the added pressures of making clothes, instead of buying those which are readily accessible. Furthermore, the basis of a capsule wardrobe is to own few pieces, and for this to be sustainable those particular items of clothing must be of a high quality, usually with a price tag which makes them unattainable to ordinary working people. While ethical options exist from brands such as American Apparel, Veja and H&M Conscious the issue of pricing remains the same.
Understandably, there is a significant increase in the price of ethical fashion in comparison to brands which utilise cheap labour and pay workers below subsistence wages, however, in order to become a feasible option to the majority of people, brands must make it easier to make decisions which have a beneficial impact on all parts of the supply chain - the environment, the garment workers and the consumer.
The deadline for replies to the Environmental Audit Committee’s request was October 12 2018, and the Committee may then choose to invite some of the biggest retailers into Parliament for further questioning. Hearings for the inquiry are due to take place in November.
Image via Luiz Paulo Oliveira Paula