A passion for fashion: but at what cost?

Credit: Aurora Stewart

Holly Jennings
Views Editor

How many polar bears does it cost for your £1 bikini?

This year has drawn attention to the climate emergency we are facing, thanks to David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg, and many others who have opened the eyes of millions to the damage we are doing to the environment. 2018 saw the death of the plastic straw as hundreds traded in their potentially planet-destroying plastic for biodegradable paper. However, Forbes reported that fast fashion is currently the second biggest polluter of freshwater resources, following quickly after oil. Considering how quickly plastic straws were given the dump, surely the culprit capitalist companies of fast fashion would be next to be blacklisted? Yet, Econsultancy reported only four months ago that the fast fashion industry has grown by 21% in the last three years. Polyester is the heavyweight champion of textiles in the industry with it being cheap to buy but easy to work with. However, the material is not all it is cracked up to be, as when you go to wash your flashy new polyester threads in your washing machine, they shed fibres which migrate their way to the ocean, adding to the rising levels of plastic found in our waters.

Not only is fast fashion damaging our big blues, but it’s damaging lives as well. Companies base their production factories in countries where they can get away with paying their employees the lowest possible wage for the maximum amount of hours. According to Remake, a non-profit organisation aiming to educate consumers on ethical buying and to encourage responsible shopping, 80% of these workers are women aged between 18 – 24, earning as little as $3 per day. Alone this statistic is pretty shocking, but it gets worse when you learn that the average working day in a sweatshop lasts approximately 14 hours. Starting at age 14, a generation of women are being trapped into a life of poverty, all whilst working in hazardous fumes in a dangerous setting; enduring sexual harassment for your 50% off jeans. Fast fashion disempowers women and destroys lives, with the tragedy of the Rana Plaza fashion factory collapsing in 2013, killing over 1100 people being the paradigm of the destructive path it spawns.

So why are we still falling for it? I have been a strict vegetarian for almost two years, a militant feminist since I could speak, and the label “eco-warrior” has been thrown about a bit when describing me. I found myself wondering why had I not applied these strong principles to my shopping addiction in the same way I would any other area of my life. As someone who so actively advocates for equal pay, Fairtrade standards, and equal opportunities, I was disappointed when I considered the lack of morals I had when it came to buying my clothes.

Fast fashion companies are sharp: they know their audiences, which are primarily made up of millennials. Millennials want lots of options at a low cost, allowing them to diversify their wardrobe without throwing down wads of cash. With 70% off offers, buy three for under £5, and free next day delivery, they make it hard to resist the deals that line many consumer inboxes on a daily basis. Recently, Missguided took these deals to an extreme level by selling a black bikini for only £1. The cheap-skate student in me is thrilled at the prospect of grabbing a wardrobe essential for less than the price of a cup of coffee, but once we start following the chain of how such a garment is created, it begins to raise more questions than it answers. At such a low price point, Missguided are practically begging consumers to ditch their garment after one wear; not to mention, 85% of it is made out of polyester, which has a decomposition timestamp of 20 – 200 years. Missguided are throwing up a big middle finger to the environment with this drop.

How do you navigate through the booby traps and laser mazes of the fashion industry? Thankfully, we live in the “Age of the Internet”, which offers thousands of indexes and guides to help the average shopper like myself understand who the good guys are. Breaking the cycle is not a solo venture; as awareness of the damage fast fashion is doing to our environment and ourselves increases, there has been a growth in activism for sustainable fashion. Fashion Revolution was set up after the disaster of Rana Plaza and is a global movement that aims to transform the industry to “create a more ethical and sustainable future for fashion.” This is just one of many movements being made to change fashion’s future. You can get involved by choosing to say no to clothing with a toxic trail, donating to movements like Fashion Revolution, and by asking the question when shopping: #whomademyclothes?

After learning all this horrible information about the industry I had been buying from in ignorant bliss for years, I felt guilty looking at my wardrobe brimming with fast fashion chains. So I did what any sane person would do and decided to channel my inner Gwyneth Paltrow: when it is time to let the skeletons in my closet go (in this case it’s a series of Pretty Little Thing crop tops in various shades and colours), I have decided to engage in a conscious uncoupling with them rather than a messy break-up. When it inevitably comes to your quarterly Marie Kondo moment, think about the ways you can give your clothes a better ending than the beginning they had. Give to friends, donate to charity, start a Depop, recycle your textiles! Make Gwyneth proud.

As much as I am guilty of kicking and screaming and blaming it on The Man, change starts with us. Change starts with second hand clothing shops; change starts with responsible shopping; and change starts with empathy. In a culture of apathy where ignorance is bliss and it is easier to ignore what is going on around us rather than absorb the realities of the environmental damage being caused or the unfair working conditions of millions of lives, we need to take a step back and choose compassion. It all starts with small change, just not the kind you would use to buy your £1 bikini.