Fast fashion – a necessary evil?

Katie Taylor asks whether greater awareness can change our shopping habits.

The damaging effects of the fashion industry on the environment are well-documented. The industry has been estimated to produce 8-10% of global CO2 emissions, but there are wider effects too: water pollution and overuse, oceanic microplastic pollution, the use of petrochemicals in textile production, and textile waste. Besides this are the human costs: risks to textile and garment workers from harmful chemicals, the arduous working conditions and pitiful pay. Fashion brands are now producing almost twice the amount of clothing, as compared to 20 years ago and current consumption leads to over 92 million tonnes of waste textiles being thrown away each year. 

Are the impacts of our shopping habits either not acknowledged or simply not known about? We are living in a culture that encourages fast fashion but there are signs of a growing awareness of the need for an alternative, sustainable approach. The fashion industry with its “environmentally polluting supply chain operations” will need to change substantially. But is slow fashion really a viable alternative? 

Slow fashion, using recycled or ethically sourced materials, taking account of environmental impacts along the supply chain, aims to produce long lasting, good quality clothing.  Another aspect is the reuse of clothes and textiles already in circulation using creative repairing, altering and upcycling. It is estimated that without significant change the industry will grow by 81% by 2030, putting an unprecedented strain on already devastated planetary resources.” The promotion of fashion trends and unethically-produced items are clearly at the root of the problem; so why are we investing in an industry that is destroying our environment? 

Attempts by organisations, such as Extinction Rebellion Fashion or sustainable fashion brands, to change attitudes and create an alternative culture of wearing secondhand, shared or upcycled clothing remain outside the mainstream. There’s also a degree of elitism when discussing issues related to sustainable fashion as not everyone has the option to expand into more expensive ethical options.  For individuals on lower incomes, buying habits cannot always reflect personal ethics. Many have no choice and must buy what they can afford.  Vintage and second-hand clothing becoming trendy has also led to prices getting higher and higher. Despite arguments made for cheap alternatives such as shopping second hand, this is ultimately a naive and unrealistic hope. The gap between those who can afford to be sustainable and those who cannot is widening and it has been pointed out how concern for lower paid workers can quickly turn to snobbery towards the same group and their shopping habits.

Some large brands are making claims that they are improving their track record on sustainability;  the H&M group report they are working “to develop a fairer, more transparent and traceable supply chain” with an increased use of recycled materials (up to 17.9%) and a reduction in plastic packaging. No real change will occur unless it starts from the top but are changes such as those at H&M going far enough? Fashion journalist Molly Greeves writes how it is the multi-million-pound corporations that should be shamed into changing their ethics, rather than shaming and alienating those who cannot afford to make changes. The elitism of the slow fashion movement risks driving people away.

A greater awareness of the destructive effects of fast fashion is clearly needed. For myself, I admit it wasn’t something I had thought much about before researching it as part of my degree. I’ve bought a lot of fast fashion in the past, more for the cost rather than trying to stay trendy. Now with a heightened awareness of the ethical dilemmas around fast fashion, I am thinking about trying to make adjustments. I’ll be looking at eco-ranges and only buying what is needed, searching for things that are timeless and can become a staple in my wardrobe. I hope you’ll consider it too.

Katie Taylor is completing a degree in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics at the University of Gloucestershire. In her spare time, she likes painting and drawing, and is always up for an adventure!

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