Illustration by Lynley Eavis
The customer trudged up to the counter and began to dump clothes on the bench in front of me. I carefully extracted each piece and scanned it, before folding it according to a neat formula that I knew would never be replicated.
“That will be $329.95 today,” I said. And with a winning smile and round, accusing eyes, I added, “Would you like to get a beanie for an extra five dollars with any purchase or a two dollar charity bag?”
They took several of both.
I discovered these purchases were not uncommon during my time at a well-known fast fashion retailer. How could one resist a 2-for-$30 t-shirt deal, or dresses at just $10 each in the sale section? When there are so many bargains it makes perfect sense to mindlessly consume more articles of clothing. Why buy one pair of jeans when you can get two for the price of one? It is a classic and unsustainable case of quantity over quality.
Perhaps this mentality is the reason we consume, on a global scale, approximately 80 billion pieces of clothing per annum. That’s the equivalent of 11.5 pieces of clothing per person. Globally.
When I discovered this staggering statistic, I realised I too was a culprit of having nothing to wear and no room in my wardrobe. As I glanced hesitantly into the overflowing cupboard I spotted a selection of articles I had worn once or twice—and some not at all—tags still swinging, waving at my guilty conscience. At the time, it was pretty, an array of colour ready to be consumed by a craving. One not reserved for sugar. And in my defence, it may have been something I had to buy for work, or a party, or…
You can see what I am getting at.
Most of these pieces were cheaper articles of clothing, bought from places such as H&M and Cotton On. When we purchase something at a lower price, we tend to care less about how often we will wear it. This is the kind of mentality that fast fashion houses such as Topshop, H&M and Cotton On thrive on. They encourage a fast consumption no different to fast food. Rather than having a healthy quinoa salad for lunch, we are reaching for Pronto Pizza because Hey, that shit is expensive.
The reality is that we are consuming more than we ever have before and the culprit can only be low prices. Yet these cheeseburger priced tees come at more of a cost than what is leaving your wallet. And that cost is quite confronting.
Many clothes are no longer made locally, with outsourcing to developing countries reaching approximately 98 per cent. On the exterior, this means cheaper clothing is more accessible to people in developed countries. Yet on the interior it reflects workers being paid below the living wage, with companies such as H&M not aiming to pay their employees a living wage until 2018 and other companies leaving no comment. Not only are employees subject to minimal wages, but the working conditions are less than sub optimal, a fact evident in the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh on the 29 April 2013. A collapse in which more than 1000 innocent lives were lost for the sake of cheap jeans and $10 tees.
Do you feel disgusted yet?
Not only does fast fashion encourage this warped demonstration of ethical trade, it is an incredibly unsustainable approach. Our environmental footprint is not only comprised of the petrol and paper we use but our consumption of clothing too.
Currently, a large percentage of clothes are made in a cheap fabric known as polyester. Look at your t-shirt label; you know, the little one on the side seam of your garment that you often cut off. Chances are it will say ‘Polyester’ or maybe ‘Acrylic’. They are essentially big words that describe the same thing: plastic. These synthetic fibers are currently used to create many of our clothes, and like the plastic bottle floating in the ocean these fibers are also non biodegradable.
While cotton is an organic fabric, it is currently using more insecticides and pesticides than any other crop, injuring both harvesters and environment alike. It also is a plant that requires a lot of water, with one pair of jeans drinking up to 5678 liters during production. By buying three cotton tees for the price of one, we are effectively putting in place a demand that is met by a supply. And the vicious cycle and environmental destruction goes on.
That is not to say cotton is a bad fabric, we simply use too much of it. By spending a little more and buying organic cotton, farmers are able to invest this money into farming the plant in a more sustainable manner. Companies such as Gorman make reasonably priced and fashionable items out of organic cotton. Even H&M has a conscious collection, made from more environmental and ethical sources. Yet when they are producing an estimated 550 million garments a year, this collection is dwarfed by its taller sister.
Of course, the fast fashion industry aren’t the only ones to blame for environmental degradation. It can be argued that they are simply trying to meet consumer demand for more and at a lower price. This leaves the responsibility with us to make conscious decisions about where we shop, asking questions like where was this made, and buying clothes made from natural fabric.
Rather than picking up a cheap tee from a fast fashion empire, why not buy one from Country Road or Witchery? Both brands pride themselves in using natural fabrics such as modal (made from cellulose), viscose (made from leftover cellulose of cotton plant or by-product of wood pulp), and wool (which is biodegradable and by large, an Australian product). Not only do they use natural fibers, but they are recognised by Ethical Clothing Australia.
On the other hand, instead of buying any old jumper, why not head over to Wool and the Gang and order a handmade one? All of their pieces are made from either natural or recycled yarn and handmade by knitters around the world. For instance, rather than receiving a label that reads ‘Made in China’, your label may say ‘made by Emma in London’. And for those keen to embrace their inner grandma, the Gang makes knit kits, so you can make that jumper yourself.
The final options include buying second hand. Many of us have clothes that have been worn once or twice, so it makes sense to purchase that indie skirt from the Camberwell market or that cute silk top off eBay. But when that fails, its may be wise to borrow from the wardrobes of your family, friends, or housemates. Sure, complaints may arise, but at least you know you’re engaging in sustainable fashion.