As the global fashion industry comes under increasing scrutiny for its carbon footprint and contributions to social and ethnic injustice, is it time to give high-street fashion the boot?
Increasingly these days, I discover I am not the only person – and notably, not the only woman, since most fashion advertising specifically targets us – who is beginning to the see the connections between the fashion industry and the environmental catastrophe we are facing, and to feel a kind of moral nausea about the whole idea of shopping.
I find myself in a very strange place, having seemingly morphed overnight from someone who used to love to shop, whose eyes glittered magpie-like on the latest shiny, bling-y thingy, into someone who now finds the whole concept of shopping completely uninteresting – even to the point of being physically repugnant. How did this happen?
This sensation inevitably flares up after glimpsing shop window after shop window in shopping centre after shopping centre, all boasting the invariable pre-, mid- and post-season sales racks, with heaving ‘fashion’ items piling up like so many Ghosts of Christmas Must-Haves Past. Following hard is that sinking feeling that comes with knowing that eventually, most of this once-coveted mass is only going to end up swelling landfills in much poorer countries that are already overburdened with the task of cleaning up the West’s discarded seas of plastics.
Therefore, if I/we are ever going to have any hope of getting away from this mindlessly devastating consumerism, we will have to start by asking hard questions that will make us more conscious about what we buy, where (and how) it comes to us (eg the supply chain), what we value and give our attention to, and – more pressingly – why.
Fashion vs. food: how cotton threatens life
My personal queries about the fashion industry began after I watched bubbly investigative reporter (and latterly Strictly Come Dancing star) Stacey Dooley’s BBC production, Stacey Dooley Investigates: Are your clothes wrecking the planet?. Here, Dooley reveals the direct cause-and-effect links between the fashion industry and environmental disaster, showing, for example, how cotton-growing in the Caucasus region had caused the Aral Sea (originally the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake) to shrink to a mere tenth of its original size, bringing devastation to the land, health, lives and livelihoods of its communities.
Sadly, after decades of growing cotton for export, this huge and once-abundant lake had almost entirely dried up, leaving the surrounding communities stranded without any fish for food or income from fishing. And with less fresh water to drink, the people were forced to drink the heavily chemical- and pesticide-laden water from the dried-up lake, resulting in multiple cases of cancer and lung disease.
While I had always considered cotton to be a more sensible, Earth-friendly, natural, breathable and ‘sustainable’ fabric, cotton is actually about as far from sustainable as it gets. It is not at all a ‘nice’ fabric – at least not to anyone who has to grow or produce it.
Cotton – which grows naturally in warm climates in the US, Brazil, Asia (including China, Uzbekistan, Pakistan) and Turkey – is in fact a very thirsty plant. It requires 20,000 litres (5,283 gallons) of water just to produce one kilogram (2.20 pounds) of cotton. According to a Refinery 29 report, “it takes 2,720 litres of water (as much as you’d drink over a three-year period) to make one T-shirt, and 10,000 litres of water went into making your favourite pair of jeans.” That is an awful lot of water, especially considering many countries around the world are already contending with problems caused by severe drought, water shortages, pollution and erratic rainfall. Cotton farming is also responsible for 24% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides, despite using only 3% of the world’s arable land.
Fashion may be fun – but we cannot drink clothes or eat shoes!
But cotton production is not the only factor in environmental damage. The article quoted above also points a glaring fistful of stats at the fashion industry in general: “A 2017 report revealed that, in 2015 alone, the fashion industry consumed 79 billion cubic metres (nearly 20.9 trillion liquid gallons) of water – enough to fill 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools. That figure is expected to increase by 50% by 2030.” Considering how much water goes into producing a single garment, the environmental footprint of a simple pair of jeans and T-shirt becomes truly unsustainable. In addition, the fashion and textiles industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, and is second to oil as the world’s greatest air polluter.
Therefore, if we care at all about the future of life on our sorely abused planet, we must seriously evaluate the true costs of the clothes we wear – and stop buying anything we don’t actually need. Our planet simply cannot endure much more abuse in the service of our dedicated following of fashion, which typically results in acres of landfill once consumers have tired of their insta-fashion garments and discarded them. The average consumer today buys 60% more fashion items than in 2000, but discard half of these garments. Such blind consumer behaviour is ultimately suicidal: if we destroy our drinking water, air, soil and other resources in the process of creating and following fashion, we are lost. Fashion may be fun, but we cannot drink clothes or eat shoes!
Fashion and slavery: a fundamental evil
Along with the environmental destruction wreaked by excessive cotton-growing as cited in the Aral Sea example, a recent visit to the Charleston Museum highlighted how this seemingly pure, natural fabric is also deeply intertwined with the grave social injustices inflicted during America’s shameful history of slavery. Just as today’s fast-fashion brands rely on the nimble fingers of children in sweat shops to keep consumers queuing to buy their brands, so the colonial South relied on the dirty business of slavery to build its empires of water-hungry cotton, indigo (a plant that produced a sought-after blue dye) and rice.
During the height of the transatlantic cotton and textiles maritime trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, the US became the third-largest producer of cotton after China and India. This was thanks entirely to the unscrupulous US slave traders who purchased and enslaved billions of Africans, and then sold them to plantation owners. The owners then forced their slaves to work in the blistering heat, digging and planting their cotton fields, harvesting their crops, then spinning, weaving and tailoring their fabrics into the fashionable garments craved in ‘polite’ society parlours on both sides of the Atlantic.
The enslaved who were captured and dragged from the wetlands-rich west coast of Africa – an area steeped in centuries-old cotton- and rice-growing knowledge – brought with them the exact skills and experience needed to turn the plantation owners’ swamps into profitable land. But instead of being recognised and rewarded for their skills, they were brutally manacled to the holds of ships bound for major US slave ports such as Boston and Charleston, where they had to endure horrifically cramped, inhumane conditions for 2–3 months, with few surviving the notoriously dangerous ‘Middle Passage’ across the Atlantic (typically one in six perished per voyage). Throughout the journey, and continuing into their lives as slaves, they were frequently sexually and physically abused. Those that survived were ripped from their families on arrival at port, and then bartered for according to their age, sex, strength and skills.
Once the buyers claimed their purchases as ‘legally owned’ property, the slaves were then subjected to all manner of base cruelty and oppression, without any basic human rights or dignities – it was illegal for them to learn to read or write, as their owners greatly feared an uprising if the enslaved had too much knowledge. Yet without the knowledge, skills, expertise and back-breaking labour – often in malaria-infested swamps – of the enslaved, none of the South’s opulent mansions, exquisite silk and lace garments, and graceful antebellum plantations would ever have existed.
A comparison with today’s slave workers
While we may retrospectively deplore this treatment of slaves as barbaric, is today’s society really any different? Especially when high-street fashion moguls such as “unacceptable face of capitalism” Sir Philip Green of British fast-fashion retail giant Arcadia Group (owner of Top Shop/Top Man, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Evans, Wallis, and the controversially now-defunct British Home Stores) have built their fortunes on the backs (literally, in some cases) of the presently ca. 260 million under-15-year-old children employed in slave labour in impoverished areas of countries such as India, Nepal, Turkey, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and Colombia?
Although cotton is not, strictly speaking, a ‘fast fashion’ fabric (which usually refers to synthetic materials like polyester or poly-cotton blends) because of the amount of time (and growing conditions — including the vast reserves of water required) it takes to produce it, pure cotton still accounts for 39% of all fibres worn today, and 58% of all non-synthetic fibres worn by people around the world.
Sadly, the treatment of slaves in the cotton fields of the South foreshadows today’s global fashion industry and its reliance on cheap labour, which specifically exploits the most vulnerable peoples in poorer regions of the world – women and children. The working conditions, threats to health, and lack of basic human rights such as education and a living wage – not omitting frequent evidence of physical and sexual abuse – female and child workers endure are a near-exact parallel to the damning situations African slaves faced.
Above, clockwise from left: Disgraced Arcadia chief Sir Philip Green; children work cotton fields in Uzbekistan; African woman sifting cotton buds; a cotton gin (Source: Wikipedia)
Because of their size and agility fashion chains cynically exploit under-15-year-old children, who are forced into the hard labour of cross-pollinating the cotton plants, harvesting the crops, and then put in further long hours working in cotton mills. There they spin, weave and dye the fabrics subsequently mass-produced as the clothes we buy from high-street chain stores. The children are paid a pittance for their labours, and frequently threatened with expulsion from school by their governments if they do not work the cotton fields during the summer months. Children also rarely benefit from their wages, as these go straight to their parents. Many become ill and malnourished; most have very little freedom to play and enjoy a normal, healthy childhood.
Women in supply chains also suffer gross injustices. A 2018 article in the Guardian cites two reports by Global Labour Justice highlighting 540 incidences of gender-based sexual and physical abuse in fast-fashion favourites Gap and H&M’s supply-chain factories across Asia (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, India, Indonesia) over five months. The report also found the female workers were often forced to put in excessive hours of unpaid overtime and work at an incredible pace due to underbid contracts.
From 2017–2018 in India alone, female workers using cotton gins in 4,000 mills processed 37.7 million bales of cotton – that’s a whopping 8,550.2kg (18,850 lbs – based on a standard bale at 500 lbs / 226.8kg). The cotton was then mass-produced for high-street consumption in the fast-fashion chain stores, where it is sold for competitive prices far above the production costs and pay rates for this extensive labour.
How fashion enslaves us all
While we may lay the blame for such harsh conditions and exploitation on the profit-hungry high-street retail bosses like Sir Philip Green, they are not the only ones who are culpable – such onerous supply chains exist purely to accommodate consumer demand. And if it is was not for our seemingly endless lust for new things, to be in step with the latest fashions, such a toxic, abusive and oppressive system would not flourish.
Let’s be clear: the demand side of the fashion supply-chain cycle is NOT driven by the need to clothe an exponentially growing global population. Yes, human beings do need clothing, however the fashion engine is driven purely by human greed, further accelerated by fashion marketing and advertising, and the scores of celebrities and models who endorse (whether wittingly or un) such environmentally and human-destructive brands. The sole purpose of fashion advertising campaigns is to make us feel we are missing out if we are not seen or snapped wearing the latest fashions. It is no surprise that one of the most popular social media channels carries the prefix ‘Insta’ = instant (fast) fashion.
One of the definitions of fashion (according to Collins Dictionary’s American usage) is “the way in which something is made or done; manner” – except that we are more often not actually the creators or choosers of what we make, do or wear, and the style in which we do or wear it; we are in fact the followers. The leaders are whatever the Vogue or In Style or all the other fashion mag editors and bloggers tell us we must have or do in order to be on-trend, to fit in, to look cool, to be popular, desired or successful. When we feel a compulsion to buy something merely to fit in, we are no longer our own masters, but slaves (as Grace Jones put it, ‘Slaves to the Rhythm’ – but in the case of fast fashion, the seasonal changes are what dictate its rhythms).
It is one thing to follow fashion, to be interested in trends or ways to subtly adapt our style of dress and appearance to be in vogue, and yet another to be completely enslaved by it. That compulsive, all-consuming ‘need’ to be the first to own or wear a garment – that fiercely competitive streak behind the queues of ‘Black Friday’ shoppers lining up outside stores and shopping malls every year after the US holiday of Thanksgiving (an irony in itself) – is symptomatic of a deeply dysfunctional, blindly self-centred insecurity. We won’t be happy until we get that item we believe is essential to our success, status, fashionability or desirability, and we demand to have it now.
And sadly, it is our selfish, ego-driven demands that are feeding the cycles of oppression and abuse in the supply chain; our need to have it now that puts workers under constant pressure to deliver faster and cheaper goods. That is the other reason it is called ‘fast fashion’ – because of the pressure required to deliver it, borne by the workers.
Fashion and capitalism: challenging our beliefs
The capitalist economy underpinning our most obsessive consumerist behaviour is founded on the belief that the purpose of life is to create and perpetuate wealth, and to be able to demonstrate the outward trappings of success – always being one up on the mythical Joneses. It is an inherently toxic and destructive ecosystem purpose-made to accommodate a survival-of-the-fittest, law-of-the-jungle mentality that relies on the cruelty of consumption to remain at the top of the food chain. Yet the same system that so violently oppresses and enslaves female and child garment workers also keeps us slaving away at our desks, neglecting our families and abusing our health, just so we will be able to purchase our much-craved items, stay in fashion, and be recognised and admired by others. Instead, we should ask:
So why do we do this to ourselves, to our only home, and to others who share our planet with us? Can we not simply choose to be content with what we have – or better yet, learn to share?
With all the evidence stacked against fashion, we need to evaluate our part in the cycle of greed that drives environmental devastation, socioeconomic deprivation, injustice and oppression, and ask ourselves why we are so easily manipulated into supporting something so obviously unethical. If we care about making a different and better world – both for ourselves and our children or those we will bequeath it to, we must step away from the cycle, refuse to get on it. We must somehow say no to fashion’s siren call, to the desire to jump on the latest bandwagon to feel included.
We must start making some very tough choices. It requires a deep and radical rethink about what we actually need, a reappraisal of why, some research about the supply chain of the particular garments and brands we most like, and quite a lot of discipline and discernment to eschew the worst offenders and find viable alternatives. We must start making some very tough choices. It requires a deep and radical rethink about what we actually need, a reappraisal of why, some research about the supply chain of the particular garments and brands we most like, and quite a lot of discipline and discernment to eschew the worst offenders and find viable alternatives.
Other bloggers have published their own remedies for avoiding the above issues, including guides to the top brands to avoid; both Attitude Organic and the guide above on US chains, from Vanessa Adams, as well as several others, name H&M, Zara and Gap as the three worst offenders.
Other companies that figure high on everyone’s list of worst offenders include: Amazon, Primark, Mango, Uniqlo, Target, ASOS, Top Man/Top Shop, Forever 21, Monsoon, Matalan, Benetton, Wet Seal, C&A, American Apparel, Pretty Little Thing, Esprit, Dorothy Perkins, TK Maxx, Urban Outfitters, Nike, New Look, Esprit, River Island, Missguided, Sports Direct, Adidas, Boohoo, George, Pull&Bear, Victoria’s Secret, J Brand, Massimo Dutti, Armani Exchange, Peacocks, Charlotte Russe, Next, M&S, Old Navy, Express, Muji, Louis Vuitton… the list goes on.
So how to look good without harming anyone/anything?
First, while de-cluttering is certainly good for our souls as well as our overstuffed closets and drawers/living spaces, the problem with discarding clothes is that unless we know for certain they will be properly recycled to those who need and will wear them, we may simply be adding to the already serious problems of landfill (57% of discarded garments go to landfill; only 10% are actually recycled and 8% reused. The remaining 25% are incinerated). In Hong Kong alone, 253 tons (2013 figures) of textiles and discarded clothing are sent to landfill each day, with 15 million tons of textile waste (of which 12.8 tons were discarded) recorded in the same year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Remember: true ‘fashion’ is as much about how you wear
your clothes as what you wear
Therefore, we should: 1) hang on to our garments for longer – and concentrate on taking better care of them so they will last longer. That means employing the ‘Make do and mend’ strategies used by our ancestors in wartime.
Second, if hanging onto items is important for all the reasons above, then surely that also requires us to 2) be much more choosy about what we buy. Along with consciously investing in more sustainably and ethically produced garments (see here for suggestions of European-based brands, and here for US/UK brands), we should be careful that we only buy clothes that are made from durable, natural fabrics, fit well and not too snugly to accommodate weight fluctuations, suit us and are something we enjoy wearing.
If you are unsure what suits you, ask a friend to help you sort through your wardrobe, and consult an online version of the original book such as Colour Me Beautiful to help you work out your colours. That will help you to determine and to 3) stick with a colour palette that suits you, with a few seasonal adaptations.
If you find you have unsuitable colours in your wardrobe, consider 4) hosting a swap or ‘swish’ party with similarly fashion- and waste-conscious friends so that you can swap or recycle your unwanted garments. Alternatively, if you and a friend both like a certain style or colour, and wear similar sizes, you could try sharing items of clothing to get the maximum amount of wear from them.
Along with making do and mending, swapping or sharing with friends, you can also ty to 4) recycle items from your own wardrobe – sometimes clothes you haven’t worn for a while can give you a ‘new’ look, particularly if you try pairing them with different items or accessories, or wear them in a new way – this is actually what fashion magazines should help us all to do. After all, true ‘fashion’ is as much about how you wear something as what you wear. Channel your inner Audrey Hepburn – that insouciant scarf around the hat, turned-up shirt collar, or multi-stranded jewellery always looks fresh, feminine and stylish no matter what decade it was first worn, so any look modelled on her style is likely to have a reliably classic nous.
Last but not least, try to 5) buy ‘new’ clothes from vintage, consignment or charity shops as a first port of call. If you live in or near an expensive area, you should always look there first as charity shops in these areas are more likely to hold high-quality, better-lasting goods that should also stay in style and in good shape for much longer.
And as we sign off on January’s resolutions, let’s all aim to make this year the year we finally and fully divest from fast fashion in all of our purchasing decisions.