Fashion is the Earth’s silent killer. There’s climate change, fracking, overconsumption and severe wastage that puts a strain on our planet’s ecosystem, pushing its ability to recuperate to the maximum. Yet, it’s our demand for low-cost fast-fashion that is working away in the background, thought of as a modern-day convenience, never for its destructive effects on both people and planet.
The main impact it has on the planet comes from waste; both in production and what happens to all the clothes once they’re made. It’s hard to believe, but fast-fashion is the second ‘dirtiest’ industry behind oil in terms of environmental impact. There are 7.7 billioin people on the planet, with around 36% living in extreme poverty. These people are the workers in these factories, not the buyers of their goods. For reference, fast-fashion produces around 80 billion items of clothing annually. These clothes will be going almost exclusively to developed countries.
One of these, the UK, discards on average £30 billion of clothes per year - 95% of which could be recycled or upcycled. Then there’s the production side. It takes around 2720 litres of water to make a t-shirt, enough water to drink for three years. A pair of jeans is a heftier 200 gallons, enough to supply us with an average of 285 showers, not shy of a year in cleanliness. The water that is wasted isn't innocuous and clean either. Between 17% and 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile treatment processes. It’s not just the sheer quantity of water wasted that is a concern, but what’s in it.
Oceans and oceanic life are one of nature’s most varied, vast and important players in how we as people have evolved and continue to understand our planet. Unfortunately, the wasted water most often ends up in there, negatively impacting the flora and fauna around it. Polyester, alongside cotton, is one of the most commonly used materials in fast fashion - mainly for its affordability. Discarded polyester, however, sheds up to 1900 plastic microfibres into water and sinks to the sea floor, to be ingested by feeders like mussels, clams and other small fish - making its way up the food chain, eventually back to us.
Even before that, and back on land, the fibres that are grown as part of clothing production requires maintenance, usually through chemicals. For this, both pesticide and insecticides are used, accounting for 18% and 25% of worldwide usage respectively. Beyond our own health, we must also consider that of those producing the garments we wear. Conditions are often horrific in these factories, with wages akin to slave labour. Beyond that, they’re often unsafe. Fires or accidents can be lethal - with deaths a common occurance. Sexual assault on workers is also prevalent.
High street brands are certainly beginning to see the error of their ways, with ‘sweat shops’ being re-branded as something slightly more humane. It remains to be seen if this is much more than lip-service and marketing, an effort to stay in-keeping with the zeitgeist, to be ‘woke’ rather than to truly wake up. More ‘conscious’ lines of clothing are emerging, coaxing conscienctious customers into opting for them, rather than the vast alternative.
The ‘alternative’ is the problem. It’s still a small selection in these shops, barely 5% in most high street stores. Many brands espouse a ‘slow fashion’ approach to production, but they aren't the problem, either, it's the swathe that eschew this for profit. Shifting to these brands does help, but their high prices and relative rarity - as opposed to popping into your local high street chains - mean that the whole process is happening at a rate barely mitigating any of the damage being done. Fashion’s impact is at an all-time high, with projections continuing the same trajectory.
Who is responsible for the destruction? And where does responsibility lie to change it? Fast-fashion hinges on the speed of its output, meaning that safety and environmental concerns are put on the back-burner in the quest to stock shelves with the latest styles derived from celebrity outfits and catwalk looks. It is our rapacious desire to stand out from the crowd - ironically buying goods from where so many others do too - that fuels these company’s willingness to supply at any cost.
A huge change in perspective, one that is (too) slowly starting to take place, is necessitated for any notable differences to occur. Marketing and the proliferation of style pages and celebrity endorsements on social media have tricked people, en masse, into thinking that what they own defines them, that what they bought last month is out of fashion and that they’re sleeping on the latest style to replace it. For companies to maintain their large profit margins, they must sell an idea that we are willing to buy into.
One way of putting a halt to this is creating a wardrobe of timeless items, ones that have transcended ‘fashion’ and are made in a sustainable way, placing quality as their premium attribute. Speaking through the wallet is the best way to be heard by big business. It is, literally, speaking in their language. Such ways of altering perspective, particularly considering how cheap these goods are, is an uphill struggle for consumers and therefore, should become an issue tackled by government bodies in the same way as pollution and climate change are.
Imposing restrictions on production, or on the standard of production for important goods, would force brand’s to make ethical choices, despite possible damage to profits. In this hard-to-imagine scenario, companies would be forced to adapt, less they lose access into key markets.
A secondary measure of education should be imposed, arming consumers with the knowledge to make the correct choices. Not everything produced using natural fibres is more sustainable than synthetic, likewise, organic goods can put just as much strain on ecosystems as synthetics. It’s a complex web of fabrics and production means and methods. Making it clear which is best and pointing people in that direction is a clear way to provoke the desired change.
Estimations of the damage already done is grim, but the projections are even more stark. The important question - when and where does it end? - is unavoidable. As with food, whose production and consumption has seen drastic changes over the last decade, from labelling to proliferation of knowledge online, fashion now must come next. It’s telling that our interests first fall to what is going into our bodies, often completely ignoring what's happening around them. Quinoa or avacado, anyone?
It’s a growing global concern, impacting people in all corners and one that will take a unified and concerted effort. So, when and where does it end? If companies and our governments can’t answer that, then it’s up to us. Armed with basic knowledge of what we’re wearing and where it comes from, the demand for more ethical products will eventually begin to influence the supply. Sometimes we must choose not first to talk with our mouths, but with how we act in the marketplace.
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