In the twenty-first century, the average person has approximately 103 items of clothing in her wardrobe. This is an extraordinary number of clothes, but it is no surprise considering the popularity of walk-in wardrobes, dressing rooms, chests of drawers overflowing with clothes, and new coats for every season.
Public figures and Instagram influencers reinforce these collecting habits when they are photographed wearing something different on every outing.
The UK is considered the epicentre of “fast fashion” in Europe, with each person buying an estimated 26.7kg of clothing every year, compared to an average 15.6kg in Germany and Denmark.
When we see an item of clothing in a store on sale, we immediately think that it is a “steal” that cannot be missed. People queue at dawn to get into the sale days at Next and Harrods to stock up on bargains. We rarely think about the impact of our purchases, even though we tend to make a lot of them.
But the issue of fast fashion is now attracting more attention, not just from environmentalists, but of the very consumers who buy it. One activist in the field is Lucy Siegle, who had been scheduled to join the OWL series of talks in March, until it was cancelled by the virus outbreak.
A popular presenter for BBC’s The One Show and a columnist for The Observer, she has spoken on a range of issues related to the environment, social justice and ethical consumerism.
Her work focuses on destructiveness of consumerism in the fashion industry in the 21st century and in humanising environmental science, from climate change to consumer energy use. Her aim to bring sustainability to the fashion industry is laid out in her book To Die for: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?
Ms Siegle is very critical of large fast fashion brands pretending to be ethical and says the entire sustainable movement is in danger of being co-opted by big brands. She founded the Green Carpet Challenge to encourage mainstream fashion events and high-end designers to introduce more sustainable styles. She worked with Gucci, developing the first-ever range of certified zero-deforested leather accessories to market, which were displayed at Paris Fashion Week.
Some of the issues that Ms Siegle highlights include the surprising realisation of how damaging the fashion industry is to the environment. The fashion industry produces 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions (that is more emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined), is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply, and pollutes the oceans with micro plastics. Furthermore, 85% of all textiles go to landfill each year.
Other environmental impacts are caused by increased demand for cotton, causing many fields to become barren or contaminated with pesticides, which trickle down into water sources. Alternative materials are no better, either. Polyester fabrics are a plastic made from fossil fuels. One polyester shirt has a 5.5kg carbon footprint, compared to a 2.1kg carbon footprint for a cotton shirt.
We also need to be conscious, not only about the environmental impact of fast fashion, but about the poor working conditions of fashion industry workers, particularly in developing countries, who work long hours for low wages, and often in poor or dangerous conditions. In 2013, a poorly maintained garment building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than one thousand people.
How can consumers change their buying preferences to help reduce the destructive impact of the fashion industry?
It is not only cheaper, but better for the environment to shop at charity shops, such as Oxfam, which is a way of recycling clothes, reducing the demand for fast fashion brands which produce such a large quantity of cheaply made clothes.
Instead of buying a new shirt when a button falls off or a seam splits, we should mend our clothes, and give them a renewed life.
In addition to this, selling and swapping clothes on websites such as Depop and eBay is a popular and effective way to avoid disposing of old and unused clothes, which would otherwise end up in landfill.
I am not suggesting that you do not purchase any new clothes. But we all need to consider lifestyle changes to reduce the quantity of clothes that are bought every year.
For example, if you are in the habit of buying an item of clothing for every new occasion, make a pledge to instead wear something that you enjoyed wearing previously. Take steps to improve your carbon footprint with fashion. Every small resolution can lead to having a big impact.