A Fashion Reality Check

A typical Monday morning coffee-break catch-up with a good friend of mine goes something like this.

“Hey, how are you? How was your weekend?”
“Good, thanks. Yeah, it was nice. Took it easy really.” (She says this most Monday mornings.)
“What did you get up to, then?”
“I had lunch with XXX then wandered around town. Oh I bought a new top.”
“The one you’re wearing? I haven’t seen that one before.”
“Nah, this one is old. I got it last year. No, it’s a metallic top (of which she has many) from Zara (her favourite haunt).”

I appreciate this friend. She is a good person. I don’t want to judge her, but I inevitably do. I can’t believe she buys at least one new item of clothing every week. She has great style and a wardrobe of eclectic looks that somehow all manage to be very her. She looks fantastic, always. But her consumption of fast fashion is completely unsustainable. But she, like millions of other people, is blissfully unaware of the massive, spider-web spreading impacts of the fashion industry.

So, before I write any articles on material choice, the pros and cons of one fabric over the other etc, I thought I should state some very fundamental facts about garment production and its impacts.

How much?
The average American shopper buys 53 items of clothing per year – pretty much one per week. In the UK, although a little more reserved compared to shoppers across the pond, consumers purchase 33 items per year*1. And these numbers have been growing. Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled and consumers bought, on average, 60% more garments each year*2. And it’s not even that we’re becoming a population of clothes hoarders – though, even if we were that’s not a good thing, either. In fact, we are buying more stuff, for less money and discarding more of it.

Waste A Minute…
According to the UN, a rubbish lorry of textiles is burned or dumped in landfill every single second*3. That’s 86,400 lorry loads a day. The fashion industry is currently accountable for 10% of all CO2 emissions globally – more than flying and shipping combined – and if nothing changes it will “use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget” by 2050*3.

Where did it all go wrong? Well, let’s say somewhere in between the mass production of the 1950s and the moving offshore of production in the 1980s. With improvements in technology, increases in shipping speeds with a simultaneous reducing in costs, the abundance of cheap Asian labour, the mass roll-out of commercial flying, higher living standards and the rise of modern advertising the face of fashion changed.

In the 1970s, household spending on clothing was around 13% of annual income.  In 2015 it was just 3%. And don’t be fooled into thinking we buy fewer items now. The contrary is true, in fact. In the 1930s, women had just nine outfits. Today, we have at least 30*4.

Why have just seven dresses if you can now afford 14? And, of course, you need a new pair of shoes and a new jacket for each dress. And on and on it goes. Why repair that sweater, darn that sock, stich that hem when you can just go and buy a brand spanking new one with way less effort? More money has made us lazy. It’s also made us loose our appreciation for quality. We’re no longer attached to our products because we know we can just buy new ones. Because everything is cheaper, we value things less.

When I was 13 or so, I saved up all money from a regular Saturday night babysitting gig to buy a new pair of shoes. They cost almost a month’s worth of earnings, but I adored them. Treasured them. I would brush them off and keep them clean. I used my mum’s polish to maintain their shine. I had those shoes for years, until, eventually, after a couple of resolings, the left heel finally gave up the ghost.

My point is, when we invest in things we look after them. We value them for more than a jacket or a pair of jeans. They are things that make us feel good, that take us places, that are part of memories made.

On the other hand, we have little or no emotional connection to most fast fashion garments. Or at least that’s what the figures seem to represent.

According to a report in Forbes, we wear a typical high-street fashion item just five times and keep it for a mere 35 days. If we were to keep that item – and use it 50 times – for an entire year it would result in 400% less carbon emissions (per item, per year) *5.

But the extent of the fashion industry’s impact is far more wide reaching than mere CO2 emissions. 70 billion barrels of oil are used each year to make polyester*5. The fashion industry produces 20% of the world’s wastewater*3 and it’s the second biggest polluter of freshwater sources*5. Plastic microfibres from synthetic clothing account for 85% of human-made material found along our coastlines*7. More than 70 million trees are cut down each year to make rayon, viscose, modal and lyocell. Cotton farming uses 24% of the world’s insecticides, 11% of its pesticides but occupies just 3% of the world’s arable land. Oh, and it takes 20,000 litres to produce a single cotton t-shirt. That’s roughly 66 bathtubs worth.

Reading this back, I’m shocked. And this isn’t news to me. But when you put it all together in one essay of black on white it my heads falls into my hands. Whether or not you believe in human-induced climate change (though by reading this blog I presume you do), you can’t shy away from the fact that what we’re doing is just downright crazy: polluting our rivers, lakes and streams; throwing stuff away that’s virtually new; cutting down forests for clothing while on the other side of the planet planting trees for ‘forest bathing’; spending money on stuff we don’t really need or even get that much pleasure from.

So then you try and do something about it. You buy into ‘sustainable fashion’ brands. Patagonia tells you one minute about its recycled polyester t-shirts that take plastic out of landfill to one newsletter later telling you to grab some quick deals on their sale. H&M pushes its ‘conscious collection’ but renews product lines every two weeks – if that’s not fast fashion then I don’t know what is. It’s actively encouraging young people to buy new stuff. And yes, 57% of their materials are recycled or sustainably sourced (more on this later)*7. Well done H&M. But that still means that 43% aren’t and seeing as you’re the second biggest fashion retailer in the world by volume, that’s a lot of tonnes of raw materials.

A question I’d like to answer, is whether a fashion, no wait, whether any company selling physical stuff, can truly be sustainable? Swedish brand Haglöfs shares its unique and honest positioning on its website:

There is no such thing as a sustainable outdoor brand. No matter how good our intentions are, we always leave a footprint. It could be from the chemical composition of a material, the working conditions in a factory or the effect production and transport have on the climate.*8 

They then go on to kind of contradict themselves when they say that yes, actually a sustainable outdoor industry is possible. A bit weird. But I kind of get where they’re going. Right now the industry isn’t sustainable. But with massive customer education, renting, circular business thinking and so on it could be. So long as we only buy stuff we really need, rent stuff we kind of need and don’t produce things we don’t need.