Opinion

Tackling fast fashion must be our next global battle

Fast fashion is back on the rise as shops re-open in the UK. With huge environmental and social costs, the pandemic has amplified inequalities in the industry.

Fast Fashion

Human tragedy. Eight years on, memories of the more than 1,100 workers who were killed in the Rana Plaza collapse are still fresh. Image: Photo by MONIRUL ALAM/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

For many, it’s been up there with the first cold pint sipped in a sunny beer garden, or the first fully vaccinated hug. The first stroll around a non-essential store – with clothes, not pasta and loo roll, in our arms. Yet after the struggle of the pandemic, fast fashion is a battle that we still need to fight. 

Although it’s true that many of us have used the past year as a prompt to cut back on our fashion habit – a March 2021 Barclaycard survey revealed that 71 per cent of people say they’re spending more mindfully – the sweatpants life was only going to last so long. Through the gloom of an abstemious winter lockdown, we craved a return to normality. And normality, for millions of fashion-lovers, means shopping.

But while we crack the ‘nature is healing’ jokes beneath photos of our Primark haul, the truth is becoming harder to ignore.

Fashion is one of the planet’s most polluting industries, with a carbon footprint of 2.1 billion tonnes – more than aviation and shipping combined. From the vast chunks of land destroyed by intensive fibre farming to the huge volumes of textile waste ending up in landfill (some 350,000 tonnes each year in the UK alone), clothes pose an environmental threat at virtually every point in their production.

Then there’s the human cost of all those bargain outfits. It’s been eight years since the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed 1,134 Bangladeshi garment workers, and yet fashion supply chains remain knotty and unstable; the ‘race to the bottom’ for bargain prices trapping vulnerable people (overwhelmingly young women) in perilous conditions and systemic poverty. Of the world’s 70 million garment workers, it’s estimated that less than two per cent earn a living wage.

The pandemic only served to amplify this inequality. Some $40bn was withheld by global fashion brands who cancelled orders as the world shut down last spring, leaving millions of garment workers destitute. A year later, despite tireless lobbying by campaign group Remake, many still refuse to pay what they owe.     

And still, we shop. Lockdown may have temporarily liberated us from structured waistbands and workplace dress codes, but it wasn’t enough to slam the brakes on the fast fashion juggernaut for good. Even while high street veterans like Debenhams and Arcadia collapsed, younger and speedier brands like ASOS and Boohoo posted record profits, bolstered by our craving for a cheap online pick-me-up.

Let’s be clear: rocketing fast fashion sales are not a symptom of a healthy economy, but a sick one

Can you blame us, though? “We’ve been conditioned to associate shopping and acquiring things with happiness,” says Dr Dion Terrelonge, AKA @thefashionpsychologist_, a chartered psychologist and stylist who consults on the link between our wardrobes and our mental wellbeing.

The urge to shop it better, she explains, is a potent mix of the social, the biological and the habitual. “Shopping triggers the brain’s reward centre,” she said. “Hunting down a bargain releases a little bit of dopamine, the feel-good hormone, into your body.” But, she adds, it’s not necessarily new clothes we’re craving. “It’s normality. Life before lockdown. We are creatures of habit… we gravitate back towards the norm.”

So as our diaries begin filling up again, it’s no surprise if our shopping baskets are too. Not to mention how we manage conflicting messages from a government that claims to be committed to tackling climate change, while urging us to get back out there and spend.

Let’s be clear: rocketing fast fashion sales are not a symptom of a healthy economy, but a sick one. An economy that is chewing up the planet we stand on to make a quick buck, resting on the assumption that we’re too hungry for a trend fix to question how the clothes came to be so cheap.

In 2019 I gave up buying new clothes for a year. Cue countless morning meltdowns, a sartorial identity crisis, an ‘ASOS withdrawal’ twitch in my scrolling finger – and, eventually, a book: How To Break Up With Fast Fashion, in which I try to help other shopaholics escape their toxic relationship and embrace slower, more sustainable ways of dressing.

The most sustainable garment is the one already in your wardrobe

I know from experience that however good our intentions, the link between style and self-worth runs deep – so how do we celebrate the return of our social lives, without running back to Zara?

Dr Terrelonge believes we can slow down the “behaviour-response paradigm” by replacing our old habits with new ones. “If you shop when you’re stressed, it could be identifying the cause of the stress and tackling that,” she says. “Delay the gratification. Give yourself to the end of the week and see if you still really want the item, or if the desire has dissipated.”

If it hasn’t, we can seek out more sustainable ways to satisfy the craving. Like hitting up eBay, Depop and charity shops for secondhand alternatives. Fashion rental continues to grow in scope and popularity too, with peer-to-peer platforms like By Rotation, HURR and Nuw offering a chance to raid other people’s (highly stylish) wardrobes instead of buying an outfit you might wear only once. And if we do choose to buy new, we can do it as informed citizens rather than mindless consumers, by asking brands a simple question: #WhoMadeMyClothes?    

Finally, we can follow the golden rule: the most sustainable garment is the one already in your wardrobe. With the average item of clothing worn just seven times, extending the lifespan of a piece of clothing by just nine months can reduce its carbon footprint by 20-30 per cent.

We might never be able to get back the time we’ve lost, but we can make ‘this old thing’ the hottest label of the season.

How to Break Up with Fast Fashion by Lauren Bravo is out now (Headline Home, £9.99) @laurenbravo

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