By Michelle Sanahon
Outreach Communications Manager
I’ve always been into fashion. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of money on clothes, usually on the current trend, pieces that were on sale, or just to get that temporary thrill when you buy something new. I admit that I was drawn to the advertisements and marketing that dictated what I should be wearing. Naturally I take pride in how I present myself because after all, the way we dress is a form of how we choose to express ourselves.
I was recently encouraged to rearrange my wardrobe to make more space for my partner. This experience was eye-opening as it was the first time I had stopped and seriously observed how much clothing I actually had. I found clothes tucked away in the far back corner which I forgot I even owned, and some have left me wondering what I was thinking when I purchased it.
Reflecting on this, I realised that I was supporting ‘fast fashion’ as a result of my excessive and unnecessary purchasing. Fashion Revolution Day this year prompted me to read about the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry, and I was shocked at what I discovered. Sustainable fashion (also known as eco fashion) focuses on clothing that has been designed to consider the environment and social responsibility. We often forget that the clothes we wear originated somewhere, and that the environment and people have been affected along the stages of its manufacture. Here’s a brief look into how the fashion industry impacts on the environment and the people that make our clothes.
(Image aboves: 1- Fashion Revolution Day falls on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, and challenges brands to be more transparent about how they make their clothes. 2 – Participating in this year’s Fashion Revolution Day selfie campaign)
‘Fast fashion’ is an industry with serious long-term social and environmental consequences, where companies manufacture clothes at lightning speed and sell at rock bottom prices to cater for the demand of consumers. Examples of fast fashion brands include H&M, Uniqlo, Zara and Topshop. New trends are brought into these stores every week (as opposed to every season) enticing people to shop more; their ‘old’ clothes tossed to the side ending up in landfill or donated to op shops.
Being green has become so mainstream in today’s society- more and more people are composting organic waste, buying organic produce, having shorter showers, recycling at home – but it’s quite easy to forget that the clothes we wear go through a whole process before it ends up on our backs. Have you ever stopped to wonder about the origins of your clothes, and whether there were any environmental and/or social consequences as a result of its production cycle?
Believe it or not, the fashion industry is the worst offender of polluting the environment, after oil. According to Alternative Journal’s article ‘How the fashion industry is picking up the threads after Rana Plaza‘, the industry is one of the highest users and polluters of water. An estimated 17 to 20 percent of total industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment, and around 8,000 synthetic chemicals used end up in freshwater sources. For every one tonne of textiles produced, 200 tonnes of water are polluted. That’s the equivalent of 5,640,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water pollution from the textile industry every year! On average, it takes 2,700 litres of water to make one cotton t-shirt. In addition to this, non-organic farming uses 25% of the insecticides used worldwide, making cotton production a significant pollution factor for the environment. These numbers are staggering, and we haven’t even touched on the carbon footprint of the fashion industry. It is estimated that the average t-shirt travels 35,000 kilometres!
Then of course there’s the waste factor. Tonnes of old, unwanted clothes end up in landfill each year, leaching chemicals and dyes into groundwater and further polluting freshwater.
The environment isn’t the only one suffering from the consequences of fast fashion. The industry exploits cheap labour to keep costs low, outsourcing the manufacturing to developing countries where people work in inhumane conditions for extensive hours, and earn close to nothing. Although a problem for many years, the Rana Plaza collapse in April 2013 brought this issue to the forefront. Claimed as the industry’s most tragic disaster to date, more than 1,100 garment workers were killed, and at least 2,000 injured in this devastating event. Workers pointed out cracks in the walls, and other signs that the building wasn’t structurally sound prior to the collapse in Bangladesh. Farmers and women picking cotton from fields are exposed to toxic chemicals, and child labour still exists in many countries, which paints an appalling picture of the social impact as a result of the fast fashion industry.
WHAT’S BEING DONE?
In recent years several clothing brands, non-profit groups and industry organisations have reduced their use of toxic chemicals and the volume of fresh water polluted, and have improved wages and working conditions in factories. There are many initiatives paving the way for a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry. In Australia more and more brands are becoming ECA accredited (Ethical Clothing Australia accredited), from stylish brands such as Manning Cartell and Scanlan Theodore, to school uniforms. Online stores specialising in eco fashion are popping up left right and centre – the options are endless.
THINGS I DO TO BE MORE SUSTAINABLE
There are so many things we can do to curb this issue. I no longer shop for clothes ‘just because’, and when I do shop, I always try to purchase timeless, second hand clothing – something I had issues with in the past but now embrace. There’s always that feeling of satisfaction that I helped avoid something going to landfill, and extending its purpose after its initial impact on the environment and people. Of course there will be times when there’s no option but to buy something new, and in these cases I’m happy to spend a little more on good quality items that will last longer. My shopping now involves:
Op shop / Consignment shops
It’s amazing some of the things people discard and end up in second hand stores like Savers and Vinnies. It takes time and patience trawling through the racks of old goodies, but I always end up leaving with a few pieces and feeling quite happy with my finds. Consignment shops are huge, and it’s quite easy to spend hours in there. I’ve only been to the Mill Markets in Daylesford, but I know there are many out there. (Right: Looking for second hand goods at the Mill Market).
The internet is a dream when it comes to finding second hand clothing, with websites like Ebay and Gumtree commonly known. TuShare is another that some may not know about, which lists items that are free to a good home. Social networks like Facebook and Instagram have also become a medium for selling and buying unwanted clothing. Search and join ‘buy and sell’ groups for some good deals on pre-loved clothing. My favourites are the ‘Gorman Buy and Sell’ and the ‘Obus, Elk Accessories & Nancybird Buy and Sell’ groups.
While buying second hand is a good way to go, our purses would be happier if we spent no money at all. I have 3 younger sisters, and we’ve done a lot of clothes swapping with eachother in our time. There are a few organised clothes swap events held around Australia, including some held by The Clothing Exchange (some may include an admission fee). Last year CERES held a clothes swap day for staff, and it was a lot of fun! This is something that your organisation or school can run to raise awareness about waste, and an opportunity to let somebody else give your unwanted clothes another lease on life.
If the above options fail (which I’m currently facing while searching for a wedding dress – it’s understandable that women like to hold onto these), then there’s no choice but to hit the shops. It’s been a while since I’ve purchased anything new, and it’s actually quite daunting now that I know what goes on behind the scenes of the fashion industry. I’ll definitely be spending a lot of time researching on sustainable and ethical brands to find the perfect dress. Many companies are becoming more transparent with their production line and are happy to share their sustainability policy with their customers, which will make things easier for me. I was happy to find that my favourite Australian brand ticked the boxes. Check out Gorman’s sustainability page.
We all play a crucial role in influencing the fashion industry with our spending power. By being more conscious with how and what we spend our money on, we can help create a more sustainable and fairer world. Next time you think of purchasing a piece of clothing, think about where it originated, and the impact it’s had on the environment and people at every stage of its manufacture.
For more information, check out ‘The True Cost’, a documentary (currently on Netflix) that shockingly reveals the social and environmental impacts of the fashion industry. If this article didn’t make you stop and think, this film certainly will!
How the fashion industry is picking up the threads after Rana Plaza – http://www.alternativesjournal.ca/policy-and-politics/how-fashion-industry-picking-threads-after-rana-plaza
The truth about the clothes we wear: How fashion impacts health and the environment – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/beth-greer/fashion-environment_b_3527049.html?ir=Australia
‘The True Cost’ Documentary – http://truecostmovie.com/
Infographic source: moralfibres.co.uk
Fashion Revolution image source: http://fashionrevolution.org/