In recent years, a new industry has risen to prominence in climate and social activism: fashion. Business Insider states that the fashion industry produces over 10% of all of humanity’s carbon emissions, and the demand for clothes is ever-increasing. Encouraged by social media and influencer culture, consumers are constantly buying into new fashion micro-trends, and fast fashion brands such as Boohoo, Asos, H&M, and Missguided are able to quickly and cheaply deliver, disregarding the catastrophic impact that this drive for profit is having – both socially and environmentally.
Thousands of garments are made and sold every day- garments that are destined to be forgotten at the back of a wardrobe just weeks after dominating Instagram feeds. WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) estimates that the average lifespan for a piece of clothing in the UK falls under 2 years and 3 months, with around £140 million worth of clothing ending up in destructive landfill sites each year. With the Global Fashion Agenda predicting that fashion consumption will rise by 63% (from 62 million tons in 2017, to 102 million tons in 2030), it is easy to see why many are calling for widespread change.
This is particularly evident amongst millennials and generation Z, who increasingly desire to change consumer habits and reform the fashion industry. In fact, a 2015 Nielsen poll indicated that 73% of millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable products and a Forbes article cites ‘fast fashion backlash’ as one of the main struggles facing popular brands. Evidently, awareness about the devastating impact of fast fashion is beginning to impact consumer outlook – but how are fast fashion brands responding?
Take a look at the websites for some of the most culpable fast fashion brands, and you will see campaigns populated by sustainability buzzwords. H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’, ‘Primark Cares’, ‘Recycled’ by Pretty Little Thing and ‘Boohoo For the Future’ are just a few examples. It would be easy to see these and think that the fashion industry is indeed changing. This is where the term “greenwashing” comes in, defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as ‘behaviour or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is’.
These campaigns generally consist of only a small number of the products available from that brand, the rest of which are made using the same old unsustainable materials and methods. A sweatshirt made from recycled cotton can never be truly sustainable when the resulting profit is used to produce other cheap garments that are made from pure polyester.
Moreover, greenwashing is more than just a climate issue; it is also a human one. Look back at the examples of ‘sustainable’ collections above, and you will see words like ‘conscious’ and ‘cares’. How does this rhetoric fit with the global picture of the fashion industry, one with notoriously poor ethical and labour standards? The recent Boohoo sweatshop scandal where garment workers in Leicester were revealed to be paid as little as £3.50 an hour is not an isolated incident of exploitation. Across the fashion industry, labour standards have been called into question. According to Fashion Revolution, The Garment Worker Diaries project found that less than half of the workers in their Bangladesh sample felt safe in their factories and nearly 1 in 3 female garment workers have experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months. These statistics are staggering, and show the true extent of the appalling problems in the fashion industry: they cannot be papered over with a couple of hollow ‘recycled’ campaigns.
This is not to say that these collections are wholly negative, as they at least show that the fashion industry is beginning to respond to criticism- even if they are primarily designed to bolster their image and maintain profit. Perhaps this is the catalyst for truly ethical practices to emerge. However, at the heart of the issue is transparency. What greenwashing does is deceive consumers, suggesting that these fast fashion brands are far more ethical and conscious than they actually are. Many people will be buying from them with the best intentions, unaware that, despite the slogans, their purchase is far from sustainable. In order for real change to occur, brands must have their entire practice questioned and be held truly accountable. Sustainable rhetoric is not enough.
So, is the solution to cut out fast fashion altogether? In many ways, yes. Buying second-hand, renting or borrowing clothes, seeking out sustainable brands, and even attempting some sewing to transform items you already own are all encouraged. But even in the second-hand market, problems remain.
The gentrification of charity shops and thrift stores is something that is not widely talked about, with many climate and fashion activists only just beginning to explore the repercussions of second-hand fashion’s surging popularity. It all comes down to privilege. As charity shops have become trendy and spiked in popularity, so have the prices of the garments they sell. This means that those with little money to spend, who have historically relied on cheap, second-hand clothes, are no longer able to afford to buy from the shops that were originally designed to serve their needs.
If second-hand prices continue to rise, what options are these people left with? Fast fashion brands like Primark, where garments can be purchased for as little as £1.80?
Perhaps there is no fully sustainable way to dress yourself. It is also important to recognise that not everyone has access to the practices that may be deemed best for the environment. Like with most things, it is far better to start small and make some sustainable choices than being overwhelmed and making none at all.
Yet, it is essential to fact check the industry’s response to the ever-increasing trend to live sustainably, so that consumers’ fashion choices can be fully informed. Avoiding fast fashion where possible is an important step to take, but, ultimately, it is not enough to maintain the same consumer habits and to merely direct them towards charity shops instead of to fast fashion brands. Instead, the entire consumer mindset has to change and all brands need to commit to systemic, meaningful steps that go further than rhetoric.