Maliha Shoaib, BA English and World Philosophies
When pushing the restart button for the New Year, we often feel pressured to give our lives a makeover – from a new hobby, to a new diet, to new clothes to fit an improved self. Yet, if our clothes reflect our identities, shouldn’t we be as concerned with ethical fashion as we are with self-expression?
Clothes tell stories – and the stories behind fast fashion pieces neither begin nor end happily ever after. Fast fashion is an enterprise manufactured to entice us. Retailers create demand by manufacturing trends so our wardrobes become obsolete. We become fashion victims, trapped in a vicious cycle of consumption. With the anticipation of reward, inflated value of sale items, and pleasure of immediate gratification, addicted consumers turn a blind eye to unethical practices. Fashion isn’t just fast – it’s disposable. It has to keep up with the perpetual dissatisfaction of consumerist culture. With the moral pollution of the consumer comes the equal pollution of the environment and abuse of workers for cheap labour.
“We are buying more than we can wear. Modern ‘throwaway’ culture has led to £4.6 billion worth of unworn clothes in our wardrobes.”
Photo credit: Creative Commons
The West’s desire for profit in exchange for the exploitation of workers from the so-called ‘Third World’ is a familiar story. An intersectional approach is essential to understanding the true cost of fast fashion. Sweatshops operate by exploiting structural poverty, and with this inevitably comes age, gender and class discrimination. Harassment in the workplace, including workers being beaten by employers in Bangladesh and shot by police in Cambodia, demonstrates that sweatshop conditions are inhumane and degrading. Skilled workers are expected to work like machines. According to the Garment Worker Diaries report on factories in Bangladesh, the majority of workers felt unsafe in their working environment. Additionally, workers were not guaranteed a monthly salary or minimum wage. One cheap fast fashion item alone often costs more than an entire month’s salary, with most workers making £25 a month even with 60-hour working weeks and additional illegal overtime. Tragically, in most cases it would take adding less than £1 to the recommended retail price of each garment in order to secure better working conditions.
With increased demand for clothes comes a higher rate of production. In the past 20 years the number of clothing items produced has increased by 400 percent at 80 billion items per year – yet we keep these clothes for half as long as we did then. We are buying more than we can wear. Modern ‘throwaway’ culture has led to over 300,000 tonnes of clothing in landfill and £4.6 billion worth of unworn clothes in our wardrobes. Our unsustainable shopping habits have led to an overflow of cheap dyed fabric whose chemicals pollute our waters, contaminating soil and causing crop failure. The fashion industry is the world’s second biggest polluter after oil, making up 20 percent of water pollution. And the environmental effects hit harder on those in the ‘Third World’, leaving them doubly oppressed as we continue to demand more.
The reality is that unsustainability in the fashion industry surpasses the individual. It is a macro-level institutional structure in our capitalist society that can only be truly combatted when manufacturers and investors start putting the planet and its people first. However, there are some minor steps we can take using our purchasing power to diminish the harm done. We must learn to value the items we already have, mending and altering when needed instead of purchasing more goods from fast fashion retailers. Furthermore, when purchasing it is important not to give in to the pressures and marketing ploys of the fast fashion industry. Trends don’t last forever. Seek out second-hand items and ensure that the clothes we dispose of have a new home. Only 10 percent of clothes in charity shops get sold while the rest end up in landfills, so selling online or swapping with friends is favourable. We must demand transparency from an industry that thrives upon suffering. Make a fashion statement: buy less; buy sustainably. It’s totally in.