Can Fast Fashion ever be Sustainable?
Six years ago, 3122 people made their way into work where they made garments for shops like Primark, Walmart, Mango and Monsoon Accessorise. They worked in an eight storey building in the Savar Upazila, Dhaka District in Bangladesh. Cracks crawled through the walls across the building, leading the shops and banks on the lower floors to immediately close the morning before, but the garment workers were ordered to keep going.
They had orders to fill, you see.
You probably know what happened at 8.57am on 24th April 2013 – it’s rare to find a person that doesn’t. Within moments, that building, the Rana Plaza, collapsed to the ground killing 1,136 people, injuring 2,500 and starting the world renowned Fashion Revolution.
I’ve been part of the Fashion Revolution for around three years. I’ve written articles, ran events with Brighton Girl, collaborated with the Brighton Fashion Revolution Week for three years in a row and have sat on multiple panel events speaking from the point of view of the consumer. On the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, I ran my latest panel event with Brighton Girl looking into the most complicated question of all: Can fast fashion ever be sustainable?
I contemplate this question all the time. It’s so easy to roll your eyes, think of all the poor conditions of garment workers and awful chemicals going into the water streams and gasp out a ‘no’.
Yet, when the City Girl Network ran our first Trash Talk campaign looking into attitudes towards packaging, we found that 85% of people felt the retailer, designer and manufacturer were most responsible for its environmental impact, so perhaps the conversation needs to turn towards how fashion retailers can actually take responsibility.
Even if that conversation is full of many layers and loop holes that we need to climb through first.
This blog post does not answer the question of whether or not fast fashion can be sustainable, but it does explore the ideas discussed last night and delve into some of the complicated views from both sides.
For those who are curious, the panelists were Hermione Berendt, co-founder of Revival Collective, Jo Godden, founder of RubyMoon and Jimmy Dorrell, Head of Sustainable Business at Clarity Environmental and a consultant helping brands become more environmentally friendly.
The business model of high street fashion
The only way to truly analyse any industry is to start by understanding the business model – and the high street fashion one is simple: sell more clothes with a lower profit.
It’s really quite extraordinary how easy it is to find new clothes.
There are 3,913 dresses on Pretty Little Thing at the time of writing this blog post. Topshop adds an average of 400 new styles a week onto their website, Zara has new style deliveries twice a week and H&M has 52 micro-seasons - that’s one a week, every week.
How can the high street retailers possibly deal with the changes that are needed to create a more sustainable business when they’re releasing something new every week? There is simply no time.
The single-use, throwaway culture
Have you ever felt “off trend” shortly after getting a brand new outfit? I’m sure most of us have at some point. Magazines, advertising and the influencer culture are turning the wheels on a fashion calendar that noone can keep up with. And designers are working around the clock to make it all possible.
Hubbub say that 17% of people under the age of 35 have said that they wouldn’t wear an outfit again if they’ve seen it on Instagram. The reaction in the room to this was one of partial shock and dismay, before we delved into the reality that we all know someone who can’t bear the thought of someone wearing the same clothes as them.
But, as Hermione pointed out, when she worked at a major high street store for two and a half years, she saw practically the same designs going through year after year. So that fear people have over wearing the same clothes as everyone else is going to come to reality quite a lot.
Yet, with the power of data, giving advertisers the ability to catch consumers at their most vulnerable – on payday, post-breakup, at the start of a relationship, on their birthday (you name it, someone’s got it) – the real truth about fashion is swept under the carpet.
Now for the elephant in the room every time this discussion is brought up whether at the pub or in a formal setting like last night: ethical fashion is expensive.
Yes, it is. There’s no point beating around the bush. But as Hermione also pointed out, it doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve got charity shops, ebay and depop, after all. But when it comes to buying new, it simply isn’t realistic for a top to cost £5 and for every single person and environment involved in the supply chain to have been treated fairly.
The price of clothing has been going down since the 90s, whilst all of the cost of sales for retail have risen. In the simplest and most ethical terms, it’s completely unsustainable for shops to continue selling £15 jeans and £10 jumpers as they are now.
It’s just… we’re used to the mentality that spending less on fashion means we have more to spend on other things. And with sustainability, there’s so much that needs to be done to save the planet and so many habits we can all adopt to reduce our footprint, that it’s too easy to say “well, I’ll buy those cheap jeans but I won’t eat meat for a week, then I’m still making an impact”.
What is the true cost of a printed T-Shirt, anyway? A question I was excited for Hermione to talk about as I sat wearing Revival Collective ‘Fashion is a Feminist Issue’ T-Shirt under my new Lucy and Yak dungarees. It’s made from 100% GOTS certified organic combed jersey cotton and printed with environmentally friendly, non-toxic, water based ink.
It’s also made in India at a factory that complies with the FWF Code of Labour Practises in accordance with the International Labour Organisation’s conventions, manufactured using renewable energy from wind and solar power, and screen-printed by the Revival Collective girls in Brighton. All of this information is available on their website.
How much? £20.
Is that expensive? It’s a little less than Topshop prices.
Then there’s the other side of the debate to be considered: the competition between developing countries to export their goods encourages low wages and for corners to be cut. This means it’s a race to the bottom with environmental and income.
I imagine that “the price point problem” will be a blog post in itself one day. I love this debate.
You can’t have a discussion about price point and ethical fashion without discussing the positive impact that fast fashion has had on lower income groups. Fast fashion has allowed all segments of society, irrespective of income, to engage in fashion.
As one audience member said, followed by nods across the audience and the panel: What about the single mother with two young children on a low income? Increasing the price of new clothes could isolate them. There’s a stigma around not being able to afford things and reducing the price of clothes has enabled that stigma to be kept at bay when it comes to appearance.
Yet, the counter argument to this is that when we lower the prices of clothes, we’re also lowering the value of the people who create them. When there are so many cheaper clothing alternatives available with charity shops, depop, ebay and clothes swaps, is it fair for us to put one person in another country at risk in order to make another person in our country feel better?
It’s a debate that’s far too easy to swing backwards and forwards.
There was a division in the room over where the responsibility lies. Is it the fault of the big brands, retailers and their marketing departments that fashion is the second largest polluter in the world? Or should people stop buying so many clothes?
As most debates would go, it’s probably fair to say that it’s a bit of both.
I spoke a lot that night (and at all the other panels I’ve been on) about the vital importance of education when it comes to being more sustainable with our consumption choices.
The real battle with fashion is actually more that the language around how it’s made is exclusive. Without studying fashion, it’s really difficult to know or understand how garments are put together, so how could people possibly truly understand that what they’re wearing is harming the planet?
Then there are the conflicting views over what the best materials to use really are. Cotton has a terrible reputation for being linked to human slavery, toxic pesticides, and mass water-consumption, but boycotting cotton altogether would be detrimental to many countries who rely on it as a major income source. Many argue that the better thing to do is to only buy fairtrade, sustainable and organic cotton – an honourable solution, but how many people really know that?
Personally, I only know about it through the Ethical Consumer Magazine – a major source for most of my information these days.
One piece of information that I picked up at the panel event was around polyester, following a discussion about the H&M Conscious range which advertises its use of recycled polyester. I thought it was a good thing they were using it, but Hermione wasn’t so sure as it’s not a natural material.
Since then, I’ve done a little research of my own and have come to a conclusion (for now). Polyester releases microfibres when washed, so whilst recycled polyester is hugely beneficial compared to virgin when considering its carbon and waste footprint, unfortunately it acts the same as its virgin counterparts where microfibres are still released. So, really, it’s better to avoid polyester all together.
Information like that needs to be shared. I’m sure most of us who are trying to live a life that reduces the plastic going into the ocean wouldn’t want to buy clothes made from a material that does just that. The cardigan I’m wearing right now as I write this post is made from synthetics, which also releases microplastics from my washing machine into the waste stream – I feel pretty guilty for wearing it, now that I know. Other than never washing it again, I’m still not sure how to minimise the impact of it.
For me, the only way I envision fast fashion to start adopting ethical practices is when the people start asking for it. And when I say “people”, I’m talking entire communities. If we choose to buy a certain way, the fast fashion brands will start to follow – because business is simply a language of money, after all.
And I, for one, will continue to have these discussions, run these panel events in every City Girl Network, educate myself and speak with my money by supporting those who are doing things the right way.
If anyone would like to collaborate with me on events or campaigns, please get in touch. Thank you so much to Hermione, Jimmy and Jo for sparking so many conversations that I can’t wait to continue.