The real price of your clothes

The majority of our clothes undergo a morally and environmentally unethical lifespan, right from their production, until we decide we don’t want them anymore. The lifecycle of clothes goes unquestioned, and operates suspiciously under the radar. When we’re shopping, why is that that we never stop to question where our clothes have come from and where they will be in 20 years? Is the silence surrounding this topic being used to cover up serious ethical breaches, both environmental and moral?

Fashion has become increasingly fast, from the pace of production overseas until it reaches our stores in Britain. Even the amount of time we wear our clothes for has got shorter, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the average number of times a piece of clothing is worn decreased by 36% between 2000 and 2015. Fast fashion emphasises replicating trends from catwalks, a rapid rate of production, and low quality materials in order to quickly bring inexpensive styles to the public. Unfortunately, harmful impacts on the environment, human well-being, and our expenditure, have been the result of fast fashion. The low cost and poor quality of fast fashion garments and the short amount of time they are in season for, ultimately mean that it is not long until they are thrown away, where they will end up in landfill. Clothing has almost become ‘disposable’, an example that sparked outrage last year was Missguided’s £1 bikini. This product highlighted the nature of fast fashion – selling poor quality, cheap, and short lived products, destined for landfill.

The quick pace of turnover of the micro-seasons of fashion make the industry particularly problematic. In the mid twentieth century, the fashion industry ran on four seasons a year; winter, summer, spring and autumn. Today, a micro-season in fashion lasts approximately one week, until the next collection enters the stores. From 2000 to 2015, when the average amount of times we wore a particular item decreased by 36%, clothing production doubled. The global fashion industry is now producing 150 billion items of clothing each year, far in excess of the demands of our global population, and this over consumption is only expected to rise.

Perhaps the saying out of sight out of mind could describe our ignorance surrounding clothing production. The majority of our clothes are made in poor and rural countries, such as Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Workers in these countries are exploited for their hard labour, sometimes only earning 40p per hour, in factories with shocking working conditions. In such countries, human rights are disregarded and therefore owners can get away with mistreating their staff. It is in these countries that garments are produced for the brands at the forefront of fashion in the UK. In May 2018, Global Labour Justice released reports that suggested the workers making clothes for H&M and Gap were repeatedly sexually abused and harassed. Also, the sports retailer Nike has been accused of using sweatshops to produce goods in South Korea, China and Taiwan, sometimes using children to make their products. Right at the beginning of the lifecycle of our clothes, the production stage, immoral and unethical behaviour is commonplace.  

It’s been six years since the Rana Plaza tragedy in April 2013, when an eight-storey garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed killing 1,134 people. Since this tragedy, there has been greater emphasis on monitoring and investigating the conditions of clothing production factories overseas. The disaster sparked the #WhoMadeMyClothes campaign in 2014, organised by Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers as part of their non-profit global movement, Fashion Revolution. Their movement is the biggest advancement in demanding transparency and information about the origins of our clothes.  In 2016, Fashion Revolution launched its Fashion Transparency Index, which publishes supplier lists to identify any human rights and environmental issues in their supply chains. That year, the index looked at forty leading global fashion brands and saw that just 12.5% were publishing the names and addresses of their first-tier factories.

However, mistreatment of factory workers is not just a problem faced in faraway developing countries, as sweatshops still exist in the UK, with conditions just as bad as those in the developing world. A sweatshop is a clothing factory where manual workers are employed on very low wages for long hours and under poor conditions. In Leicester, a city which is responsible for a third of the UK’s fashion manufacturing, many workers face inhumane and illegal working conditions. The sweatshops in Leicester have been the subject of ongoing investigations into unsafe conditions, blocked fire exits, and £3 per hour wages for the past three years since the Ethical Trading Initiative commissioned a report on clothing manufacturing in the area. £3 per hour is an average wage, although the report identified people who were being paid as little as £1 per hour. The extent of the crisis has led the chief executives of ASOS and New Look to speak out, describing the factories in Leicester as “a ticking time bomb” and a blatant abuse of labour rights. It is common that the workers being exploited are women from different countries who speak little English, living in the UK on a six month visa and desperate for work. Their lack of English language means that few are able to speak out against their treatment.

Aside from the poor treatment of its workers, the fashion industry is also accountable for serious environmental misconduct. The global fashion industry emits 1.7 billion tons of CO2 per year, more than the amount produced by international flights and shipping, and accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions. The transportation of clothing from its overseas manufacturers to stores in Britain and the USA contribute to increasing carbon emissions. Furthermore, at the end of our clothes’ lives, 60% of garments will end up in landfill.  The environmental impacts of the fashion industry are well known to retailers, as only about 55% of brands publish their annual carbon footprint, and only 19.5% disclose their carbon emissions within the supply chain. In accordance with the international goal of remaining under two-degrees of global warming, the fashion industry would need to cut emissions by 80% by 2050

About 60% of synthetic fabrics (polyester, nylon and acrylic) are made from unsustainable fossil fuels and 85% of that material will end up in landfills. While these plastic-based fibres do not require agricultural land and use little water in production and processing, they are not biodegradable and rely on the petrochemical industries for their raw material, meaning they are dependent on fossil fuels. For example, polyester is made from fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases and also shed microfibers that add plastic pollution in the ocean. Products made with denim have a lasting impact on the environment as the stretchy elastane material in many jeans is made using synthetic materials derived from plastic, which reduces recyclability and increases the environmental impact further.

Although cotton is a natural fibre that can biodegrade when it is thrown out, it is also very environmentally demanding. Cotton is very water intensive to cultivate and process as it is grown in dry environments, needing around 10,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans, the equivalent of 10 years’ worth of drinking water for one person. For a T-shirt, 3,000 gallons of water is needed. Cotton farming also uses high levels of pesticides and toxic chemicals that seep into the earth and water supplies. Cotton production amounts for one sixth of all pesticides used globally, damaging farms and local communities with harmful chemicals. Figures from the World Health Organisation show that in developing countries 20,000 individuals die of cancer and suffer miscarriages as a result of chemicals sprayed on conventional cotton.

The impact of online shopping on carbon footprint have been debated. Some research has suggested that online shopping can have a lower carbon footprint than travelling to shops in the city centres to buy products especially if consumers live far away. However the rise of online shopping has accentuated the fast fashion movement as shopping has never been so easy. Also, online retailers such as Boohoo, Missguided and Pretty Little Thing are some of the worst players in fast fashion, selling cheap, poor quality and immediately on trend garments. Online shopping has changed consumer behaviour as customers buy more than they need, have it delivered to their door and then return a large proportion of their purchases after trying them on. Returning items doubles the emissions from transporting goods.

So, what now?

Opposing fast fashion, the counter movement, ‘slow fashion’ is the way towards raising ethical standards in the fashion industry. Slow fashion favours mindful manufacturing, fair labour rights, natural materials, and long lasting garments. It encourages us to buy fewer clothes at a higher quality and get the most out of their wear. Most importantly, the movement values fair treatment of people and the planet.

Many people involved in the slow fashion movement are looking to use more environmentally friendly materials in clothes production. Some companies are looking to use waste from wood, fruit and other natural materials to create their textiles instead of synthetic materials. Others are attempting alternative ways of dyeing their fabrics or searching for materials that biodegrade more easily once thrown away.

Hopefully, you should now be curious about what you can do to minimise the abuses of the fashion industry on workers and the environment.

  • Start by learning to appreciate the clothes that you already have, rather than what you could have.
  • Swap clothes with friends, this is a great way to recycle your clothes and get something in return, increasing the diversity of your wardrobe.
  • Learn to embrace small blemishes on clothes or get them fixed, instead of using it as an excuse to buy more.
  • Reduce your online shopping, the temptation to have a browse is often too hard to resist, but think of the carbon footprint of your shopping.
  • Consider how often you need wash your clothes. Cutting down on washing can help to further reduce the carbon footprint of your wardrobe, while also helping to lower water use and the number of microfibers shed in the washing machine.
  • Use sites like Depop to pass your clothes on to their next home and earn money! How you dispose of the clothes at the end of their useful life is important. Throwing them away so they end up in landfill or being incinerated simply leads to more emissions.
  • Give unwanted clothes to charity shops.
  • Renting clothes for special occasions.  Buying clothes to never wear again is environmentally damaging. See article by Marie Claire : ‘The best places to rent your clothes online’
  • Shop sustainable brands. See article by Elle: ‘36 Sustainable Clothing Brands That Are Anything But Boring’

All photos are sourced from Fashion Revolution’s Instagram @fash_rev. First photo showing the Rana Plaza disaster.


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