Hands up if you like to treat yourself to a brand-new wardrobe every time one season comes to an end and another begins? You’re not alone. In the UK, the fashion industry is worth more than £32 billion, and a hug percentage of that comes from fast fashion – in other words, cheaply and quickly made garments that are available at low prices, making it possible for consumers to replace regularly – and often, after very little use.
Arriving on the fashion scene back in the 70s, Primark began to go mainstream in the early 2000s, paving the way for a flurry of different stores – first bricks and mortar, then online – offering up high fashion attire at low prices. Online stores in particular have been able to offer particularly appealing prices, thanks to lack of overheads when compared with physical stores.
So, how and why is this type of fashion offered to the masses so cheaply? And why should we care?
Firstly, cheap high-fashion clothing is, more often than not, made by workers who are paid a paltry sum for their time and effort – and while the processes that are used to dye and print fabrics may be time efficient, they come at a cost.
With increasing pressure on companies to reduce the cost and the time it takes to get a product from design to shop floor, environmental corners are often cut. Textile dying is the second largest polluter of clean water globally and in fast fashion, cheaper toxic chemicals are used that make their way into our streams and rivers – and ultimately, our Ocean.
Why is this a problem? Because hazardous chemicals are bio-accumulative, meaning they build up inside organisms faster than they can excrete or metabolise them. They are also carcinogenic and can disrupt animal hormones, proving detrimental to their health.
Cheap materials such as polyester are often chosen in fast fashion production, but when this material is washed in a machine, it sheds microfibres containing plastics, further contributing to the ever-increasing amount of plastic waste in our Ocean. These microfibres are so tiny that they are easily and unwittingly ingested by marine life such as fish, turtles and whales, accumulating in their stomachs and filling their stomachs. They are also eaten by tiny creatures such as plankton, which are in turn eaten by larger animals – so even those that manage to avoid ingesting the microfibres directly themselves will eventually do so anyway as it makes its way up the food chain.
In some instances, this has been known to cause starvation in these animals, which can eventually lead to fatalities. Add to the fact that we, as humans, often consume fish and shellfish that have ingested these microplastics, it can also pose a danger to our health – which, when you think about it, is a high price to pay for a new t-shirt.
So, what can you do to minimise your contribution to these issues without foregoing your style?
Firstly, avoid buying new items cheaply each season, and instead be prepared to invest in high quality pieces that will last. Look to create a capsule wardrobe, featuring key garments that are versatile and can be worn in a variety of combinations. Usually, this means plain pieces in monochrome or neutral tones.
To go one step further, start looking further into the brands you buy from and investigate their eco-credentials. Looking for recycled materials or those that use natural dyes is a good start, but it’s important to get a better understanding of the supply chain, from start to finish, to make a truly informed decision.
And finally, be prepared to ‘make do and mend’. Often, we are too quick to discard of garments just because they have lost a button or have developed a small hole, when a quick repair job could have it looking as good as new again in no time. Much of the clothing donated to clothing banks sadly makes its way into landfill, so mending or finding another use for your items is a great way to minimise waste. Be sure to donate good quality clothing you no longer want directly to charities so that you know for certain they will be going to a good home.
Try to shop directly in stores, and take your own reusable bag, to avoid unnecessary plastic pollution. A few small changes to your shopping habits will make all the difference to the environment and our Ocean, minimising human impact and giving them both a better chance to thrive.