Our planet is in trouble. Energy production and farming are among the most polluting industries in the world, but, asks Emily Bishton, did you know that another of the most harmful environmental impacts is hanging in your wardrobe?
We are now living in an increasingly consumerist society. Instead of producing seasonal collections, shops, both online and on the high street, are introducing new collections on a weekly basis. Prices are being lowered, quality is suffering, but who cares if you wear a dress once when it was only £5? The average lifetime of a garment in the UK is just 2.2 years and there is an estimated £30bn of unused clothing in our homes (1).
The fast fashion industry has devastating human impacts, relying on a supply chain of exploited and abused workers, but it also has a massive environmental impact too. It takes up to 20,000 litres of water just to produce 1kg of cotton and 70 million oil barrels are used each year to produce polyester (2). Three in every five garments end up in landfill, with the inks and microfibres leaching into our rivers, oceans and water systems (3).
Attitudes are changing, however, and people are looking for ways to shop more sustainably. According to Nielsen, 73% of millennials would be willing to pay more for sustainable goods4. This is something Shona Harding, of Pearls and Scarlett, a vintage and second-hand dress agency in Derby, has experienced first-hand: “We’ve definitely seen an increase in people buying preloved clothing online, which I think is driven by a conscious decision to shop differently.”
Sarah Garlick, who runs the preloved boutique Amber Room in the city, also emphasises the benefits of buying preloved clothes: “There are so many benefits to buying and selling vintage and second-hand clothes that when I think about it, it seems completely crazy that it’s not our number one way to shop and trade. It’s beneficial for the consumer, seller and our planet.
“The only thing it’s not good for is our excessive consumption problem and the big multi-national companies thriving from cheap labour and materials. A lot of people are shocked by the high quality of the preloved clothing and how much I have. I see so much positivity from customers and they return again and again, often bringing their friends.”
For Shona, buying second hand allows consumers to avoid the initial retail cost. “You get to invest in items that have longevity in terms of cut, material and overall quality. You can also find one-of-a-kind items that are really different because they are not dictated to by current trends on the high street.”
Sarah agrees that following the trend doesn’t always guarantee a great outfit: “With a little bit of imagination, any item can be made to look great. However, vintage pieces always come around into fashion and originality is a big driving force when it comes to buying preloved clothes. New brands can be discovered for more affordable prices and money can be made again and again on one item of clothing, supporting the circular economy and a more sustainable future.”
What’s stopping sustainable shopping?
So, what are the barriers to this more sustainable way of shopping? For Adrian Grandon, Senior Lecturer in Fashion, Arts, Humanities and Education at the University of Derby, our celebrity and influencer culture has a big part to play: “Social media, especially Instagram, promotes a very unsustainable lifestyle. Influencers are advertising clothes, new seasons and styles that they don’t have to pay for, so they aren’t invested in them. It would be great to see the latest celebrity endorsing the same piece of clothing they’ve been patching up for years, rather than outfits that are only seen once.”
Sam Boarer, Regional Development Manager of White Rose, a recycled fashion organisation based in Nottingham, says: “Things get worn a bit and then we think we need a new one. We’ve forgotten how to repair things. With a lot of the items we collect, there will be a very minor issue like a button that has come off. There will be a spare button in the pocket, but there’s just not that incentive to stitch it back on. We have started doing
a lot of upcycling and repairs because we are quite selective about what we allow on the shop floor.
“We also support the development of technologies that allow clothing to be broken back down, because even the clothes that we sell will be worn out and disposed of eventually. There are a few organisations that have found ways to turn clothing materials back into their original state or back into yarn. At the moment, we are trying to make sure that everything is reused, mulched down to be turned into stuffing for car seats or other items, like the business cards we use, which are made from old t-shirts.”
Where does the buck stop?
Things need to change, but where the responsibility lies is a complicated question. For Shona, it’s both big businesses and consumers that need to start thinking in a more sustainable way: “As consumers, we have choice and if we start to reject ephemeral fashion then eventually they will get the message, but big companies do need to answer for the impact they are having on the planet.
“At the moment it comes down to profits and in an era of social media, people want to buy into a certain type of lifestyle. As long as this culture exists, the markets will respond to this demand, so it will be impossible to meet the expectations of the consumer in an ethical way.”
Sam adds: “I think, unfortunately, society’s view is ‘if it doesn’t affect me, then it’s not my problem’, so it’s really easy to turn a blind eye. But we are all responsible and everything we do has an impact. Really think about what you do with your clothing and where you are shopping. What are you doing with the clothes you don’t need anymore? You could sell them or donate them to charity, which is what we would encourage as it keeps the loop closed. It also helps beyond the recycling aspect as it generates really important revenue streams for the charity itself.”
Education is the key for Adrian: “There is a lot of information out there now, and it’s available from most of the major retailers, if you are prepared to ask. It’s so important to be informed about the products we purchase; we shouldn’t expect to buy a t-shirt for less than a cup of coffee.” So, next time you dash into town for a last-minute outfit, take a moment to consider the impact your budget impulse purchase could have on the planet.
1 https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2019/feb/19/ dont-feed-monster-the-people-who-have-stopped-buying-new-clothes