One of the first things I was invited to in Australia was to watch a documentary on plastic. The most important thing I learned during my time down under was how ignorant I was - on everything from food to fashion to the environment. Even swimming in the sea, I thought the flags were there for kids - which ended up with me being hauled out of the ocean by a Bondi lifeguard holding a mermaid tail over my head that had almost drowned me in a rip.
The lessons were everywhere. In the people I met, the nature I was a part of and the work I was doing. I had come hot off the fast-fashion production line in the UK, modelling for brands like ASOS, Amazon and New Look every day to the slow, sustainable fashion of Australia. Those brands shoot up to 100 outfits on up to 24 models, every single day - including weekends. There is simply such a mass production of clothes we can’t keep a handle on it. I would model ‘jeans’ made out of fishnet tights and blazers to be worn as dresses and just ask myself - who the hell buys this stuff?
I had never really been into fashion too much as a result of this - just wearing whatever was around and cheap. Until I arrived in Australia and fell in love with the brands I worked for there - not only were their clothes incredibly beautiful, but they came with stories of production with seamstresses in Bali and the designers themselves designing and sewing from home. The story makes the end product beautiful, and the clothes I have from Australia make up my own personal treasure chest.
Back in the UK, the question is finally being asked: what is the effect of mass-overproduction of fashion on the environment?
Those wildfires, hurricanes and floods are coming a little too close to home now, with the US National Climate Assessment noting how climate change is already affecting our daily lives and will get worse unless something is done now. Fashion is the world’s second most polluting industry, after oil.
Luckily in the UK, our prime minister believes in global warming and parliament is investigating how it is possible for multi-million pound companies to be earning so much off selling clothes for under £5. The Environmental Audit Committee is investigating the social and environmental impact of disposable ‘fast fashion’ and the wider clothing industry to see what environmental improvements can be made.
What is the issue with fashion?
The fashion supply chain has a significantly damaging impact on the environment: it poisons soil, pollutes water, creates increasing levels of waste and accelerates climate change.
The raw materials used to manufacture clothes require land, soil and water and the extraction of fossil fuels. Clothing production involves processes which require water and energy and use chemical dyes, finishes and coatings – some of which are toxic. We cut down trees and use soil to produce clothes, which all produce oxygen, essentially taking away our own air.
Despite it’s clean look, cotton is one of the most water consuming and chemically sprayed crops that exists. While only 2.4 % of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, it consumes 10% of all the world’s agricultural chemicals (pesticides) and 25% of all the world’s insecticides! Organic cotton is a step in the right direction, but still is quite water and land intensive, requiring 20-50% more land to produce the same amount of cotton.
The alternatives? Oil - Polyester, Acrylic, Nylon, Spandex, and Acetate are all made from nonrenewable fossil fuels. They contain micro-fibres of plastic, which we happily coat our skins in.
The production process itself is very wasteful - the textile waste and fabric off-cuts created during the manufacturing process aren't currently recyclable in the UK, so they are sent directly to landfill every day.
Designer Phoebe English notes how, ‘stockists in the UK dictate that packaging must be clear, have visible product labels and be individually kept in clear bags. A factory will place each garment onto individual plastic hangers in individual plastic garment bags to deliver the order to the designers, who will unpack it all and re-package onto new branded hangers and into new bags in order to snd to their stockists. Once in store, products are unpackaged and redisplayed on new hangers until they are sold to customers in new bags - three series of packaging, three sets of plastic hangers and three sets of plastic bags for each garment before a customer has even bought it!’
There is another important socioeconomic factor to consider: humans. The human beings involved in churning out the constant, daily fashion updates are often working in terrible conditions known as sweatshops. The collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, a huge building housing 5 garment factories, where thousands of people worked under terrible conditions to produce some clothes sold in the UK, killed 1,134 people. Kalpona Akter, who started working as a garment producer age 12, was physically attacked by her bosses and fired when she started to form a union.
It is very expensive to produce clothes in countries such as England and Australia, so production is often out-sourced to third world countries such as India and China where people are paid a pittance to work long hours producing clothes. There are also legislative barriers in some countries that force companies to adhere to unethical practices such as the requirement to test on animals in order to sell a beauty product in China, a huge market.
Clothes that are not sold are disposed of by companies themselves in order to protect their brand. Burberry burned unsold clothes, accessories and perfume £28.6m in 2017 to protect its brand and maintain its exclusivity.
It’s strange to think about us consuming clothes but we consume them in how we receive, wear, wash and dispose of them.
When we wash our clothes, they release synthetic fibres and micro-plastics, which are less than 5mm and cannot be seen by the human eye. These micro-plastics travel down to the ocean and rivers, polluting our waters, infiltrating our drinking water, food and lungs of the animals who live there.
Worldwide we use approximately 500 billion single-use plastic bags per year - a million bags every minute. Although the EU has recently passed a bill banning single-use plastics such as plastic straws, cotton swabs and cutlery, this isn’t enough. Most of our online orders arrive in plastic wrapping that we discard without a second though. Currently, 46,000 pieces of plastic are estimate to float in every square mile of ocean. When I was in Australia, I found a dolphin one day who had been washed up on the beach with an exploded stomach. We are actively killing ocean wildlife and don’t even realise it. In 2050 it is predicted there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
I learned this week that there are different types of plastic, which is what the numbers you may see in those recyclable looking triangles mean. If we put one piece of the wrong type of plastic into a recycling bin, it will contaminate the entire load - meaning it will all be sent to landfill.
When we decide we no longer want certain clothes, we have a variety of options. I put some things on eBay that can be sold, but for the items that I bought for £10 - I would normally just throw away. My housemate Em-J saw my ‘clean out’ and advised me to give a jumper to everyone in our house, who all loved them and have already worn them far more than I did. The rest of the clothes were given to charity - a small, easy move that has slightly reduced the impact I personally have on the environment.
Ultimately this comes down to mindfulness - if we buy a t-shirt for £3, we think nothing of throwing it away. We can’t possibly imagine that it actually cannot be recycled because it is most likely made of plastic and will end up on a landfill. Many of these dumped clothes are exported to overseas markets (especially India, where Panipat is known as the world’s cast off capital) and dumped there, running their own fashion economies - the equivalent of hiding all of your mess under your bed and pretending it isn’t there.
Plastic is not biodegradable - most plastic is made from petroleum, which is processed during manufacturing so that it cannot actually be recycled back into petroleum. Instead, plastics break up into millions of smaller bits (micro-plastics) which is normally done by UV light from the sun as they float in the ocean, oxidising the plastic and funnelling it back into our water systems.
Whilst fashion is acknowledged to have terrible effects on the environment, this has become worse in recent years due to the emergence of fast fashion. According to a 2015 report from the British Fashion Council, the UK fashion industry contributed £28.1 billion to national GDP, compared with £21 billion in 2009. The globalised market for fashion manufacturing has facilitated a “fast fashion” phenomenon; cheap clothing, with quick turnover that encourages repurchasing.
Our tubes, streets and televisions are filled with advertisements for fast fashion websites - enticing you to spend more money and buy more clothes. Clothes have become more replaceable than ever and it is argued that if the industry continues at its current growth rate, by 2050 it will be using over 1/4 of the carbon budget targets (2°C average global warming limit).
On 10 December, the United Nations will release their Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, launched by Stella McCartney - asking fashion brands and people to sign up to the 16 commitments to reduce carbon emissions and work together in a collaborative effort to make a change to the way we produce and consume fashion.
In the next post I will talk about how we can all individually reduce our impact on the world’s carbon footprint, and consume consciously. I spent too much of my own life thinking ‘the problem is already there, I can’t make a difference by myself’ - but that is the whole point of using your voice. One person alone may not be noticeable, but hundreds of thousands of people together choosing not to buy unethical goods or taking a stand together can make a huge impact - just look at what happened to Dolce & Gabbana this week, who had to cancel their runway show in China after one Instagram post highlighting their racist video campaign went viral.