Every day, most of us dress ourselves in items churned out by one of the world’s most polluting industries. This was the conclusion of the recent documentary Fashion’s Dirty Secrets (which aired on BBC One on the 8th October 2018). The topic, fast fashion’s devastating environmental impact, has brought the overall sustainability of fashion into the foreground of conversation. However, this conversation often stops short of recognising the human impact that this sector has. The combination of both environmental and human consequences surrounding fast fashion are rarely discussed under the same ‘ethical fashion umbrella’. At the York Anti-Trafficking Society, our members are passionate about preventing modern slavery and we are therefore challenging ourselves to take the following steps in reducing our ethical footprints, starting with sustainability in fashion.
- Reduce consumption (full stop!) or at least slow down your shopping.
We belong to a culture of consumerism, especially as students! Everything is telling us to use our uni discounts and special ‘one day only’ sales encourage us to spend our student loan. We need to stop giving into this and falling for this marketing trick, ultimately the store loses no money in offering minimal 10% discounts. Not only will this help your bank account, it will also be a significant step towards sustainable living. Clothes used to be an investment, saving to buy something that will last longer, and repairing items that were imperfect. We need to re-evaluate the way we view shopping and stop viewing it as a leisure activity. When this change occurs, the industry will have to change with us.
- Learn what our clothes are made of
A lot of us in the UK have no/little awareness of different materials used in our clothes (asides from reading the odd label to see if you can tumble-dry it). Synthetic fabrics dominate the fashion industry (60% fabrics contain polyester and that proportion is set to rise). These synthetic fabrics are made of plastic and when these low quality clothes are washed, micro plastics are shed from them, which wash out into water sources, and eventually oceans, which ultimately causes huge damage to ecosystems.
Acrylic, polyester and nylon are not biodegradable, meaning your split-second impulse purchase may continue to impact the Earth for generations to come. Synthetic materials are a by-product of the oil industry which makes it a cheap resource but therefore is used majorly by fast fashion. Cotton is biodegradable but uses vast amounts of water and it’s harvesting often involves slave labour, alternatives such as hemp, linen and other plant-based products are the least polluting materials.
Whilst switching to these materials may not be a straightforward process, and we are in no way suggesting that you throw out any clothes that ‘fall foul’ of these sustainability goals. However, awareness of their benefits may assist you in making an informed decision when alternatives are available. Only a tiny proportion of clothes can be recycled as they can only be recycled if they are 100% one material rather than a blend.
- Recognise who made our clothes
Fast fashion has terrible impacts on vulnerable people, with workers in developing nations often paid next to nothing in unsafe conditions. Modern slavery is rife within these industries because companies’ employment practises are poorly regulated. 250 million children aged between 5 and 14 are trapped working in sweatshops in developing countries, this humbling statistic is driven by consumerism. People are developing an awareness in their consumption of food that they have yet to exhibit in their consumption of clothes. Be a conscious consumer, and if the reality bothers you, consider step 5.
- Buy Second Hand where Possible
We, as students, need to de-stigmatise the charity shop and reclaim grandma florals – well not that necessarily – but we should learn to appreciate the individuality of clothes. How can we claim that clothes reflect our personality when we are all wearing the same £8 Primark T-shirt?
Our access to second hand clothes is more extensive than ever with access to charity shops as well as online companies like ebayand depop. Thrift shopping is a huge recycling mechanism for consumers; we need to shift our mind-set in the UK (and as students) around second-hand shopping. It’s an amazing way to expand your wardrobe and it doesn’t necessitate further production or pollution.
- Campaign for better legislation
The current fashion legislation effectively allows companies to get away with doing next to nothing. York Anti-Trafficking Society did a project last year on Clause 54 (which is a very basic piece of legislation regarding supply chains), which found that in many cases this very small clause isn’t being complied with, years after the legislation came into effect. We encourage you to campaign for more choice of materials, to have full supply chain transparency and for clothing companies to be held responsible for the damage that has been caused to the environment in the name of fashion.
If there is one thing to take away from this article, it is the awareness that the consumers’ voice is a powerful one, particularly the student demographic. If all students woke up one day and didn’t purchase anything it would have a huge impact on the market and corporations would have to engage.
Ultimately, we won’t demonise you for buying new clothes from a fast fashion store, we’ve all done it before and most of us probably will again, what we ask is that when you purchase new garments there should be a conscious connection between your clothes and how they came about being in a high street shop. Check your labels and be conscious consumers, remind yourself before that impulse buy of the process it took to get to those clothes to their current state.
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About the Authors: Grace Davis, Ethan Page and Eden Owen Jones are currently in their third years of Social Policy and Social and Political Science degrees, respectively. They are all committee members at the York Anti-Trafficking Society which campaign to raise awareness about modern slavery both in the UK and the world.