I’ve always thought of myself as someone who cares about the environment. I’ve recycled for as long as I can remember, I’m on my way to having a plastic-free kitchen and I always try to take public transport instead of driving. But until last year, I was guilty of unknowingly contributing to one million tonnes of waste a year, more carbon emissions than the shipping and aviation industries combined, and microplastics ending up in the ocean — just by buying new clothes.
A cross-party report has found that people today buy and discard clothes faster than ever, and it means we get rid of more than one million tonnes of clothes a year, with £140 million (Dh670.71 million) worth going to landfill every year. The implications of this are so bad that there have been recent claims that the fashion industry can be listed alongside the oil industry as one of the five most polluting industries in the world.
MPs are desperately trying to change this and have announced a number of recommendations, from tax incentives for companies that offer repair services for clothes, to adding a 1 pence tax on every clothing item sold in the UK to help pay for better clothing collection and recycling. They are simple recommendations but they could have a huge impact on sustainable fashion and our environment. Few of us would notice a single penny added to a purchase — yet it could raise millions to improve recycling.
The problem is that these measures aren’t enough. Raising taxes will not suddenly reduce the 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide produced each year by the clothing industry, let alone the water shortage caused by the 10-20,000 litres of water used in the production of a shirt and a pair of jeans. It has to be a conscious and deliberate change made by clothing brands, and consumers who are addicted to “fast fashion”.
On an average, Britons buy 26.7kg of fashion items each year, compared with 16.7kg in Germany, 14.5kg in Italy and 12.6kg in Sweden. It has become part of Britain’s culture, especially for people like me who grew up with shops such as Primark, where we could buy an entire outfit for under £20.
It’s no wonder that teens and university students now save up to buy new wardrobe-fulls for less money than it costs to buy an M&S jumper. Why would they pay £50 for one dress when they could buy five tops on websites such as Missguided and Boohoo (both sites that the MPs’ report cited for failing to prioritise sustainability)?
These clothes will fall apart quickly. The government has suggested teaching children to sew at school to counter this, but the issue isn’t that they don’t know how to — it’s that they don’t want to. The idea isn’t to buy an item of clothing for life, it’s to get another hit of instant gratification. With social media, outfits are remembered for ever, and you only have to look at tabloid headlines to see how much we judge women for rewearing clothes.
High street brands are also to blame. While they used to just update stock for every season, a number of chains now release a new range every fortnight, or even week. Zara was found to restock its clothes twice a week. When shoppers see a new range on display in their favourite shops, it creates a fear of missing out and temptation to buy more. After all, if paisley is everywhere, and the H&M shirt is only £19.99, then why not treat yourself and update your February wardrobe?
For many of us, this thought process is unconscious, and it’s hard to break. When I realised the environmental impact of fast fashion towards the end of 2017, I vowed to not buy a single item of clothing throughout 2018. It was harder than I expected. Even though I have a wardrobe full of wearable clothes, I felt the pressure to come up with new outfits for events and weddings — especially if I’d already posted one on Instagram.
New trends were the hardest. Last October, I was so desperate to get involved in the leopard-print obsession that I almost broke my commitment. And last month, when I allowed myself to buy clothes again, all the leopard-print clothes were on sale — out of fashion. If I’d bought the shirt I craved just three months earlier, it would now be at the back of my wardrobe, destined for a charity shop or a landfill site.
Consumer attitudes need to shift. But the change needs to be led by brands that are constantly producing fast fashion and persuading shoppers to buy it. There needs to be more government pressure on fast fashion brands, and rigorous checks, to ensure they have no choice but to slow down their production. Only then will the term “fast fashion” begin to hold the same associations as “plastic bags” — and consumption will gradually decrease, with sustainable alternatives quickly becoming the more fashionable choice.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Radhika Sanghani is a journalist and author.