Rethinking the value of clothes
by The Dyás Admin·
How we have to unlearn our views that clothes are a cheap commodity
Do you remember those queues in front of Primark after the first lockdown? Those images got plastered all over news sites and newspapers, showing people pushing and shoving to get their hands on cheap garments as if the pandemic had destroyed their whole wardrobes. Buy two for one, spend £50 and get £10 off, here’s another sale with garments marked down by up to 75%! We scoop clothes into our arms and try to make it to the tills under their weight. Will it fit? Will it last? Will it stand the tests of trends and time? - Who cares? It was cheap...
Fast fashion is all around us, from the high street to the shopping centres, to online sites that bombard your inbox with discount offers or minimum orders to entice you to open your wallet and lose all self-control. Influencers on social media are flaunting their latest hauls from H&M, Asos, or River Island, and reeling us in (pun intended) to click their links and shop their looks.
Fast fashion has grown more and more since the end of the 20th century and is accelerating at speed, growing with every season. It’s affordable, it’s cheap, and it feels nice to buy new things. But what’s the impact on the planet?
The reality of fast fashion
With Spring/Summer fashion weeks about to start, we will be bombarded with marketing, with images about the latest trends, with the latest must-haves and with messages on how we should look and what we need for our wardrobes. While designer clothes are a dream for most people on regular incomes, the fast fashion industry replicates those trends on the cheap to lure us into shops and online stores. However, with every purchase, we support a system that is broken, unsustainable and unfair.
Fast fashion negatively impacts the environment, in more ways than one:
- It uses 93 billion cubic metres of water, the amount needed to supply 5 million people with drinking water. Fast fashion is also responsible for 20% of industrial water pollution.
- Many garments are made from synthetic fibres which use fossil fuels, some of the same which are used to make plastic bottles. Even when recycled, these microplastics can still come off while being worn and pollute the environment.
- Although cotton is more environmentally friendly to use, it needs a lot of pesticides and insecticides which can ruin the balance of entire ecosystems.
- Fast fashion contributes to 10% of all carbon emissions but trends continue, it will be 50% by 2030.
- Most fast fashion ends up in a landfill. A recent report by the BBC found that even those countries importing discarded clothes for resale end up dumping “more than half of the 60,000 tonnes of clothes imported each year [...] in illegal desert landfills” where they pose a permanent health risk to nearby people and animals (BBC, 2022).
However, the environmental impact of fast fashion on the planet, nature and humans is not the only thing to worry about. Fast fashion is a huge contributor to slave labour and many of the slave-like working practices that continue to be used to exploit workers around the world. Most fashion factories pay so little that workers cannot make a living wage, yet they are nonetheless forced to work long hours in often unsafe conditions.
Nevertheless, seductive marketing and cheap prices lure consumers into a false sense of security. Devaluing garments and clothing also aids the proliferation of a throw-away-mentality towards clothes that either no longer fit, are damaged or are no longer wanted, which further drives the fast fashion business model and worsens the industry’s environmental and social impact.
What is sustainable fashion?
Sustainable fashion isn’t cheap, let’s get that one out there from the start. That said, there certainly is truth in the statement. “buy cheap, buy twice (or three or four or five times…)”
Sustainability in the fashion industry encompasses all the following elements:
- The way fabric is sourced and used (minimal or no waste)
- The way it is produced - high quality that is made to last
- The way production is managed. Are the materials harmful? Is the process having a negative impact? If so, they can't be used to produce sustainable fashion
- The wages workers are paid, and the conditions they work under are fair, transparent and sustainable for them, their livelihoods and their families.
Mass production and sustainable fashion don’t match up. Fast trends and flimsy garments that rip and can’t be repaired are not the sorts of things that are worthwhile to produce if you’re going to put all the effort in. So, if sustainability is to gain momentum, our expectations and our thinking have to change drastically towards appreciating quality over quantity.
How our thinking has to change…
Change is never comfortable. It isn’t meant to be. That’s why so many people stay set in their ways. But without change, there can’t be development and there can’t be growth for the better. We need to come face to face with uncomfortable conversations and ask ourselves some blunt questions:
Would I buy fast fashion if a member of my family or my best friend was working in the factories that make those clothes? Would I still buy those clothes if I could see those mountains of clothes discarded in a desert? Would I think it’s a good idea to stock up on more jumpers, jeans and dresses if I witnessed the sheer quantity of water that is wasted in the production process?
Once the answer to all those is “No”, then we’re ready to tackle our modern addiction to buying new and buying now.
The following questions can help when you feel pulled into fast fashion marketing:
- What is wrong with those clothes I already own?
- Do I really need the new coat, jacket or shirt?
- Will I wear it and am I prepared to repair it if it breaks?
- Will I commit to buying second hand first before heading out to buy new?
Many forces pull people towards fast fashion. The modern world’s fast-paced way of life, our capitalist and consumer society and the habit of simply discarding what is broken or no longer wanted are all features that operate in a hard to break vicious circle. The rise of social media and quick online shopping makes it harder to shop more thoughtfully and less selfishly - and the trends and must-haves that surround us and blind us to the reality of the damage being done to the environment and people can be exciting. But if we are to take on fast fashion we must recognise that while it does have its benefits (it’s affordable, it’s cheap), it may quite literally cost us the earth.
Words by Carola Kolbeck