Yes, that title is an Eminem reference and I still listen to many of his noughties rap hits on the regular. I also still love chocolate milk and wearing slippers with animal faces on them, but these guilty pleasures are relatively harmless. Something much worse (that I have been guilty of for a long time) is being a rather careless consumer. I buy cheap things, use them up, decide I don’t like them, throw them away, buy more cheap things, and so on and so forth. This was obviously something I had to address once I decided that I would like to lead a more sustainable life.
Fast fashion was a concept that I was relatively unfamiliar with until about a year ago. It describes a constant and rapid rotation of apparel through clothing retailers worldwide, as they attempt to stay ahead of the latest fashion trends. It is a system which is seeing an abundance of cheaply made clothes become readily available to consumers, and it has encouraged us to buy more stuff, more often.
What’s it got to do with me?
As the consumers, we are most certainly a part of this system. Ever since I started my first after-school job and started earning a bit of my own disposable income, I would have spent countless dollars in fast fashion outlets – And why wouldn’t I? The clothes are cheap, they wear out within a few months so I can replace them with new ones, and I get to fit into the crowd by dressing the same as every other person! Perfect!
Cheap, easily accessible fashion is everywhere. In New Zealand, the big names in fast fashion like Glassons, Just Jeans, Valley Girl, Forever New, etc. would be prevalent in a significant proportion of wardrobes. A report from Baptist World Aid showed some of these retailers to be amongst the least ethical in terms of policies and transparency.
But, I’m not really hurting anyone by choosing to spend my own money on a $10 shirt, right? Well, actually, I am hurting people, and I’m hurting the environment, too. If you would like to become privy to some of the information that made me change my mind about supporting fast fashion outlets, please read on!
What are the important things to know?
One of the most important things I did when I started researching this topic was watching a documentary named The True Cost, which was released earlier in 2015. If you are at all curious about the current state of the fashion industry and the ethical and environmental consequences of it, I urge you to hunt this documentary down and give it a watch (it’s on Netflix). It goes into great detail about each stage of fast fashion, from the cotton fields to the sweatshop to the store you buy it from. I’m bringing it up now because I will refer to it a lot throughout the rest of this post.
Fast fashion became a thing because the focus of the industry moved primarily to increasing profit margins. In order for the people at the top of the chain to get more cash into their pockets, costs have to be cut elsewhere in the chain. The manufacturing of the clothes is moved offshore to countries with lower economies, and the pressure is put on the owners of the factories to keep costs down. This will minimise the cost passed on to the consumer, while at the same time maximising profit for the fashion brand. Not only does this mean that the people making the clothes often don’t get adequate wages, it also means that they are working in unsafe environments, as health and safety is too much of an expense.
It is estimated that there are between 60-75 million people employed in the garment industry worldwide, three quarters of whom are women. In many countries such as Bangladesh, one of the biggest exporters of clothing in the world, health and safety policies are underdeveloped and often not abided by. The most obvious example of this was the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013. Prior to the building collapse, the workers in Rana Plaza had made complaints to the building management about the state of the factory, including the appearance of massive cracks in the walls and floors. To have the building fixed would have meant spending a lot of money while interrupting production, so nothing was done. As a result, 1,129 people lost their lives in what is now the worst tragedy in the history of clothing manufacturing. Some of the biggest names in fashion retailing were caught up in the fallout, and it reignited a lot of debate surrounding the issue of ethical clothing.
Environmentally speaking, fast fashion is a big offender. Firstly there is a problem with what happens with the clothes once we are done with them. Huge amounts end up in landfill. We donate a lot of stuff to goodwill, but not all of that ends up where it is supposed to go, and it also has a negative impact on local industry in the places it does end up (see debate surrounding the Haiti Pepe Trade). It causes huge pollution issues for the local environments, and chemicals used in various stages of the manufacturing process cause serious health concerns for local populations (The True Cost covers all of this stuff. Seriously, watch it. Please).
What could we be doing instead?
There are plenty of alternatives to consider. Our guest blogger from last month, Naomi van den Broek, wrote this excellent piece explaining these so I won’t repeat them all here.
I totally acknowledge that buying fair trade isn’t affordable for everyone. It certainly isn’t affordable for me, but the other alternatives like thrifting have become my preferred methods for keeping my fast fashion consumption limited. If I had my way I would buy everything from Kowtow clothing because it is simply beautiful but also good. I still have a few items in my wardrobe from the likes of The Warehouse and Glassons that still have some life in them and I will continue to wear for now, but once they have worn through I really hope to have a totally fast fashion free closet! I’m also really into the idea of the capsule wardrobe, which is another method for limiting how much clothing we buy/accumulate.
Something super positive and cool that I think we can all get behind is the social enterprises that are surfacing in response to unethical fashion. One that has really piqued my interest is Wellington-based Muka Kids. Still in its early stages, this programme doesn’t only encourage the “regooding” of kids clothing and promote ethical brands, but it also aims to provide financial assistance to female farmers in India. How awesome is that? Muka Kids is run by Jessica Berentson-Shaw, a very inspirational lady who is clearly putting a lot of time and research into developing something that will really make a difference. We like that! Jessica very recently launched the Muka Kids Shop on Facebook where people have already started selling their pre-loved ethical kids clothing. We will be following the progress of Muka Kids very closely and will bring updates to Use Good Stuff as we catch them!
Sum it up
Fast fashion is a product of the capitalist system, and it’s a system which we all buy into with every dollar we spend. It has become so easy for us to focus on the super duper deals we get as a result that we have become ignorant of the people behind the clothes. It’s a very bleak thing to say, but it is true that we benefit from the people at the bottom of the chain who are being exploited, harmed and in some cases killed. It broke my heart watching Shima Akhter, a Bangladeshi garment factory worker, tearfully describe in the documentary what her reality was, and the impact that tragedies like Rana Plaza had on her. It made me feel so terrible and upset to hear her talk about the physical violence that she had experienced at the hands of her employers that I just wanted to stop watching it. But we have to watch these things and we have to be educated about these things because we have a responsibility to acknowledge these people and what they suffer through. More than that, we have to change our behaviour and think a bit more about what kind of businesses we are choosing to support. Once we stop being complacent about the current system and start demanding a better one, we might actually start seeing change. We aren’t allowed to just turn the information off because it makes us feel uncomfortable.
There is just so much information out there, I really encourage you to get amongst it. Give all of this stuff a Google, do some research and make up your own minds. There is an interview in The True Cost with sustainable fashion designer Orsola de Castro, where she says that our clothing is “fundamentally a part of what we wish to communicate about ourselves”. So, keeping that in mind, what do your clothes really say about you, and are you happy with the message?
Header image from Cool Hunting/HANGDSGN.