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  • Louise Kelly

Fast Fashion: Buy Less, Buy Better

Updated: Dec 19, 2019

As part of COUCH Health’s 1 million lives campaign, I am pledging to buy less, buy better and stop supporting fast fashion. Fast fashion is defined as inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. The clothing usually mimics catwalk trends but uses low quality materials and corners are cut during production.

Taking on this pledge will allow me to embrace my creativity by firstly, sewing my own clothes (from responsibly sourced fabrics) and secondly, digging a little bit deeper to find those special items of clothing that I’ll still love in years to come. I’m envisioning a unique, considered wardrobe. No more poor quality, on trend pieces from shops whose ethics I do not agree with. I can’t be sure if I’ll see a financial benefit as naturally, buying from more ethical retailers comes at a price. I’m more likely to spend less money by veering towards second-hand shops. Either way, my conscience will be clearer, and I can support brands and small businesses who strive to ensure that everyone in their organisation and supply chain gets a fair deal. This is all while minimising the environmental impact as much as possible.

Fast fashion: a growing concern

There are a wide range of issues in the world of fast fashion, from environmental to social. On the whole, fast fashion is associated with poor working conditions and pollution.

Unethical working conditions and low wages are a sad reality for those manufacturing clothes for fast fashion retailers. There have been numerous reports of child labour and verbal and physical abuse as factories strive to meet unrealistic goals. Most workers are women who may struggle to find alternative work and have no option but to put up with the conditions they work in. Health and safety regulations are often inadequate or non-existent, partly due to the practices of the fashion companies themselves as well as a lack of workplace inspectors. When negative stories about factories are exposed, companies are often quick to feign ignorance or deny their involvement. I wonder how they can be so far removed that they are able to deny all knowledge of immoral activities linked to their own organisation.

Moving on to the environmental impact – fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world. The annual footprint of a household’s newly bought clothing, along with the washing and cleaning of its clothes, is estimated to be equivalent to the:

  • Carbon emissions from driving an average modern car for 6,000 miles

  • Water needed to fill over 1,000 bathtubs (one T-shirt alone requires 2700 litres of water to make!)

  • Weight of over 100 pairs of jeans (Wrap, 2017)

It is apparent that lots of consumers don’t view their clothes as items to cherish that will last for many years. Some people have huge amounts of clothes in their wardrobe but continue to buy new outfits for every social occasion. If financial reasons are the justification for shopping at cheap, unethical stores, then why is it ok to spend money on new clothes so frequently? The mindset of many people seems to be to buy an item with the idea of wearing it once, while not thinking about the quality of the item, how long it will last or how many times they might wear it in the future. It can definitely be argued that the fast fashion industry is fuelling this notion, such as by producing a high number of collections each year. In 2000, fashion companies produced an average of two collections a year. By 2011, this increased to five (McKinsey, 2016). A 2019 EU fashion report stated that consumers increasingly see cheap clothing items as perishable goods that are 'nearly disposable'(EU, 2019).

So, what does happen to clothes once we are fed up with them? One survey found that 49% of people thought they couldn’t donate or recycle their clothes because the clothes were worn out or dirty. A further 16% said they did not have time to visit a charity shop, or could not be bothered to sort items, while 6% did not realise clothing could be recycled. Clearly, more needs to be done to educate people so less clothes end up in landfill. It is estimated £140 million worth of clothing goes into landfill each year. In 2016 alone, UK households sent 300,000 tonnes of clothing to landfill (Wrap, 2017). Many of us try and cash in by selling our unwanted clothes online, in the hope of them being reused and loved by someone else. But what is the likelihood of being able to sell something you bought from a very cheap brand? I would guess fairly low.

What is the alternative?

No one is suggesting to stop supporting the fashion industry in general, but rather to back businesses who care about their impact and have an ethical, sustainable ethos.

Let’s think about the goals in the fight against fast fashion:

  • Reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of the clothing

  • Consider buying pre-owned clothing

  • Increase the life of clothes already owned

  • Reduce laundry impacts

  • Keep clothes out of landfill

Based on these goals, there are some questions for us think about:

  • Does the brand provide detailed information on their ethical stance and how they approach sustainability?

  • What is the garment made of?

  • Can you find out where the garment was made and who by?

  • Have you explored charity and vintage shops?

  • Could you find pieces in second hand shops that you wouldn’t normally be able to afford if they were brand new?

  • Are there items in your wardrobe that could be altered or repaired to increase their life?

  • Have you considered how you wash your clothes and how often?

  • Could you donate unwanted clothes to charity or friends/family?

These are just some of the questions I will always ask myself as I continue with my pledge.

If I have to buy something brand new or fabric to make something myself, I will weigh up the pros and cons of the material. No fabric is perfect when it comes to the environmental impact, but at least I can make an informed decision. Organic fabrics are a better choice than non-organic in terms of the chemicals used to grow the fibres, but organic cotton still needs large volumes of water and the impact of dyeing it is greater compared with dyeing polyester. All plastic fabrics (such as polyester, nylon and acrylic) are non-biodegradable and when washed, they release micro-particles that end up in rivers and oceans. It’s easy to see why shopping second hand is the most environmentally friendly option.

Is it realistic to suggest that everyone can implement such a big lifestyle change? Probably not – everyone can only buy what they can afford and people like having brand new things. And unfortunately, a lot of people simply don’t care and would rather take the easy option, claiming that the problem is simply out of their hands. For many of us, buying cheap clothes is a normal, acceptable part of life. It is extremely convenient to browse fast fashion retailers both in store and online. Ethical brands have a smaller presence and often only operate online or from one boutique. Only time will tell whether the ‘buy less, buy better’ movement fully infiltrates into our lives.

I hope that with a little more research and consideration, I can completely stop supporting the fast fashion industry. Instead of buying five cheap items I think are ok, I’ll buy one high quality item that I love and will stand the test of time. By continuing to embrace second-hand shopping – whether it’s charity or vintage – I can still have fun with shopping without negative financial, environmental and social consequences. If I can also influence other people to at least consider how and where they shop, then that will be progress.

To keep up to date on my progress, as well as all of our other missions to save the world, follow our social medias:

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1. Valuing our clothes: the cost of UK fashion. Wrap, 2017

2. Style that’s sustainable: a new fast-fashion formula. McKinsey, 2016

3. Environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry. European Union, 2019

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