This is going to hurt, but it needs to be said: fashion is a disaster in terms of its environmental impacts. And as a nation, our fast fashion addiction is getting worse – thanks to surges in online shopping due to Covid-19.
What’s more, revelations of modern slavery at clothes workshops in Leicester during the first coronavirus lockdown show that fast fashion is not only fuelling human rights abuses – but threatening UK public health too.
Our appetite for fast fashion is poisoning the environment
Even worse – loads of this incinerated clothing has never even been sold or worn. It’s retailers or manufacturers disposing of unsold stock in the most ‘cost-effective’ way possible.
Polyester clothing is pumped out, sold and quickly binned, much like single-use plastics. It takes 200 years to decompose.
Sustainable fashion designer Stella McCartney is speaking out on the shocking waste of the fashion industry: ‘Did you know that the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is burned or landfilled every second? And right now, less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing, meaning 99% of all textiles and fashion are waste… that’s about 100 billion dollars worth of materials wasted each year. It’s crazy!’
Did you know that? Not many people do. And that’s likely why it just keeps getting worse: it’s thought that if nothing changes, by 2050 fashion will take up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget.
The dangers to nature, the climate and all human life of an out-of-control fashion industry are immense.
Fast fashion is designed to be disposable
The sheer numbers are dizzying. All this oil, just for clothes? All this labour and energy expended – to end up as waste in a pile, to be buried or burned?
This isn’t the fault of individuals who just want to stay warm and look good. It’s part of our economic system that values profit over people and planet.
And this isn’t just a fashion thing – it affects most consumer products from food to furniture, electronics, cars, cosmetics and cleaning products. Producing cheaply and selling for a vast profit is what these companies do.
When we’re none the wiser, we happily pay pennies for ‘bargains’ – and unwittingly let the costs to nature, people and the planet mount to breaking point.
The antidote is more conscious fashion production – and consumption
There are better ways to design fashion – and remake its models of production and consumption.
More conscious fashion designers aim to repurpose or ‘upcycle’ old stock. One example is the attempts being made by McCartney who says her brand is ‘constantly looking at circular solutions to ensure we are using up what we already have so not to waste anything’.
Circular solutions include using fabrics made from recycled ocean plastics, or reusing offcuts of older materials to make new pieces. These solutions limit the need for new fabrics like virgin polyester, or even biodegradable fabrics like cotton, which consumes a lot of water.
The sustainable fashion designer also believes, perhaps boldly given the state of the industry, that less is definitely more: ‘I want to reduce what we produce, I don’t want to buy new fabrics, I don’t want to keep feeding this chain.’
McCartney’s new spring 2021 collection – released this week alongside her A–Z Manifesto of sustainable fashion, won’t be in danger of having overstock. ‘When these fabrics run out, you won’t be able to buy those pieces anymore meaning they are a collectors item, which I find really exciting.’
On the consumer side, buying better quality clothing less often is one solution for shoppers – but it’s not always possible for everyone. Cheap options are far more accessible to the average shopper, and there’s a lot of it out there.
But lack of access to decent, affordable clothes isn’t really the problem here. The problem is the sheer waste, overconsumption of resources and poor quality within the industry at large, and society then seeing clothes as essentially disposable.