Time to abandon cheap fashion

Inexpensive, throwaway clothes -- hugely popular in the UK -- have been criticised in a parliamentary report. Lucy Siegle says the appetite for trendy, disposable garments is becoming an eco-disaster.

One can only speculate on the fashion footprint of the wardrobes of Lord Howie of Troon and the Earl of Northesk — both members of the science and technology committee of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords — but you’d have to suspect it is minimal.

Given each man’s age, gender and peer-group interests, their share will come in well below the average of 35 kilogrammes of textiles per person per year (mostly clothing). The country’s highest fashion-consumption rates are for women in their early thirties who read glossy magazines. Most of these purchases will be thrown away within a year; a small part will be recycled or donated to charity, and the rest will be thrown in the rubbish bin.

As last month’s waste-reduction report from the House of Lords committee noted: “[The] culture of ‘fast fashion’ encourages consumers to dispose of clothes which have only been worn a few times in favour of new, cheap garments which themselves will also go out of fashion and be discarded within a matter of months.”

Many women are inured to the obscene excesses of fast fashion. One British pound in four is now spent on “value” fashion as provided by shops such as Primark, Asda and Topshop (which has had huge success with the British model Kate Moss‘s range of clothes). From 2003 to 2007, garment prices fell by an average of 10%, and over the past five years the rate of frenzied buying has accelerated; we make room for the new by discarding some two million tonnes of the old every year.

The true weight of this addiction has only really been felt by an unfortunate few such as the Salvation Army. The charity organisation, with around 2,750 of the United Kingdom’s 9,000 clothing banks, has been faced with an ever-growing mound of shabby items to flog to consumers indifferent to “pre-worn” (used) clothing unless it happens to be vintage.

Value-fashion retailers will debate forever as to how they can sell clothes so cheaply — usually citing economies of scale — but it has been clear to recyclers for some time that a fall in fibre quality and finishing is part of the equation.

This makes the resale of last season’s paper thin, slightly shrunken sun dress a distinctly unappetising commercial proposition. Besides, there isn’t much incentive for consumers to buy used clothing when a new dress sometimes costs less than a lunchtime sandwich and coffee.

The bulk of discarded “fast fashion” is thrown into landfill. Meanwhile, the fashion industry has been particularly adept at avoiding green censure and criticism. More prosaic consumer sectors (food and drink, electronics, detergents and even car manufacturers) have been forced to own up to environmental shortcomings — either to pre-empt legislation or conform to new regulations, such as the European Union directive that means your hairdryer or washing machine can no longer be flung into landfill. But fashion appears to have charmed us all in a haze of sequins, air kisses and the seemingly boundless dynamism of fast fashion.

But when DEFRA, the UK department for the environment, began to analyse the impact of different materials in the nation’s landfills a couple of years ago, fast fashion was a factor. The nation’s penchant for “McFashion” was found to translate into more than three million tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions.

More significant to millions of fashion-lovers than the opinions of a House of Lords committee or DEFRA will be the opinion of the style press. And even those who formerly and gleefully proclaimed Primark the new Prada are now suggesting that fast fashion has had its day. Apparently it is now all about “investment dressing” — buying one piece and loving it for a long time — as “fashionistas” tighten their tiny little belts. “Gucci or gas?” asks the September issue of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, advising fashion-lovers who are feeling the credit crunch to survive on “one big-ticket item, something in between or a little bit of both”.

There’s some validity in this argument, as anything that cuts down the rapid turnover begins to reverse the fact that – according to Matilda Lee of The Ecologist magazine — just 2% of the average clothing budget goes on services that repair or lengthen the lifespan of our garments and accessories.

However, to be truly sustainable, the fashion parameters will have to be widened. If fashion is about ingenuity and innovation, this is a good time for the industry to draw on these qualities and return to measuring fashion in terms of something other than quantity. There has been a shift already.

Phil Patterson, once textiles manager at the British-based international retailer Marks & Spencer, has set up to allow consumers to assess their wardrobe in terms of environmental damage units (EDUs), with the goal that they’ll be more fibre-discerning in future. The London College of Fashion recently launched its Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CFS), and there has been a renaissance of thrift-fashion ideas from reworking existing pieces to sewing classes, kit fashion, clothes swaps, and clothes and accessory libraries.

There would appear to be some ethical motivation for change too. In the aftermath of a recent exposé of child labour used in manufacturing a clothing line for Primark, an ICM research poll commissioned by the UK fashion industry magazine Drapers found that 42% of people who shop at Primark were less likely or a lot less likely to shop at the retailer because of what they had heard.

In reality, any demise of super-cheap, super-fast fashion probably comes down to market economics. Labour costs have increased 50% in the past four years across provinces in south-eastern China, the sewing room of the world. Meanwhile, fast fashion is heavily dependent on cheap fibres – namely, polyester and cotton, which together account for more than 80% of all fibre production worldwide.

Both fibres are dogged by sustainability issues. As petroleum production declines, polyester prices are soaring, while cotton’s insatiable need for water (and agrichemicals) — coupled with the fact that two-thirds of the crop is still rain-grown in areas where rainfall has declined – means that there’s not enough to go around. Add to this a new, hungry consumer in the form of the so-called Chuppie (the Chinese yuppie), who has developed an appetite for fast fashion herself –meaning that Chinese producers are less eager to export.

Exports will almost certainly get slower. In order to keep up with the trend for two new lines a week, brought to the UK’s shopping streets by the Spanish fashion giant Zara, competitors are increasingly reliant on air freight, and that is becoming hugely expensive.

Shipping a standard container from Shanghai to America’s east coast costs $8,000 today, as opposed to just $3,000 a few months ago. Container ships are slowing down to cut fuel costs. If fashion stays fast, it will need to become more localised, which will increase cost. So it can be slow and cheap, or fast and expensive. It is the combination of cheap and fast that is unsustainable.

In any case, we shouldn’t overly mourn the passing of cheap fast fashion. We may be short on cheap fibre and oil, but one thing we have an abundance of in the United Kingdom is creativity. The demise of fast fashion could be as revolutionary as the mini skirt, the Ugg boot and model Agyness Deyn all rolled into one.


Lucy Siegle is the Observer’s Ethical Living columnist and visiting professor at the London College of Fashion.  

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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