In 2017, demand for meat-free food increased by 987% according to The Vegan Society and this year the world woke up to the devastating effect of plastic on ocean life, with a single-use plastic ban approved by European Parliament. Clearly environmentalism is on the rise and the next big issue set to be tackled could be what’s in our wardrobes.
While clothes were once seen as a long-term investment, the consumerist society we live in now has created a culture of “fast fashion” – where we buy cheap garments for short-term use before replacing them with the next trending item that’s marketed at us. The result? A disastrous impact on our environment that, as it stands, shows no sign of easing up.
According to Greenpeace, the average person buys 60% more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago. Because of this mindset amongst shoppers, the fashion industry is thriving. Clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014 and while in 2002 clothing sales amounted to $ 1 trillion dollars, that’s projected to rise to $2.1 trillion by 2025, according to the environmental charity.
“I definitely think people's connection with and appetite for fashion has changed quite dramatically in the last five years or so,” said stylist Sophie Brewster.
“I started my career as a personal shopper over 10 years ago, and the only way you could get your trend fix would be through fashion magazines or trying to emulate what your favourite celebrities were wearing. It could be months before the high street could recreate catwalk looks, but now with many fast fashion retailers launching 100 + new lines every week, more mini trends are emerging meaning there is constantly something new and exciting to buy into.
“I also believe there is a massive link between our insatiable appetite for newness and social media influencers posting daily outfit looks which can be purchased with one click through apps like Instagram,” Sophie added.
“Fast fashion and the vicious cycle that has been set in motion by it cannot be ignored any more. First of all, cheap clothing made it unnecessary to make do and mend. Next, we lost our respect for clothing and the necessary knowledge to maintain them. Now we have lost all our inhibitions about even greater numbers of new clothing and using them for even shorter periods of time,” said Kirsten Brodde, global project lead of Greenpeace International’s Detox My Fashion campaign.
What some shoppers might not know is that fashion has a huge impact on the environment in many ways, primarily in the form of vast water consumption, toxins produced and waste created that goes into landfill.
“People don’t realise how damaging textiles are when you throw them in the bin, it’s reckoned to be the most damaging product after aluminium in the household waste stream because of the toxins that leak off the product. Natural fibres take hundreds of years to decompose and synthetic ones like polyester are designed not to decompose at all,” said Michael Lomotey, Business Manager for Clothes Aid.
Stats compiled by Clothes Aid show that 300,000 tonnes of clothing go to UK landfill every year and the global average water footprint for 1 kilogram of cotton - equivalent to the weight of one man’s shirt and a pair of jeans - is 10,000 to 20,000 litres, depending on where it is grown.
“Looking into the future and talking about planet boundaries, it is clear that consumerism is killing our planet. It's heating up the climate, using too much fossil energy, destroying habitats, landscapes and people’s livelihoods. It is not only nature that is paying the price for it, but the millions of people working in exploitative conditions,” Greenpeace’s Kirsten said.
“We do see a countermovement on the horizon that is driven by smaller and medium-size eco fair fashion companies that changed their everyday practices, and people that are fed up with throwaway fashion looking for an alternative,” Kirsten added.
The activist also believes in the power of technology to “connect us with lots of tutorials, knowledge and experiences that can be shared widely” and Greenpeace has tapped into this with its Make Something campaign which is encouraging people to make rather than shop this December.
The message is clear: fast fashion is harming the environment on a global level, but what can we do to make our own individual wardrobes and shopping habits more ethical and sustainable?
First, it’s important to note that shoppers can be sustainable without compromising their style.
According to Eco-Age, a specialist sustainability consultancy founded by Livia Firth:
“Sustainability within fashion is about pairing ethics with aesthetics. In the past, terms such as ‘eco fashion’ and ‘green’ were traditionally associated with hemp sacks, but in 2018 it is clear to see that this is not the case. There is an ever-increasing variety of sustainable textiles and fibres available to brands, as well as socially impactful manufacturing options, meaning designers can create pieces where ethics and aesthetics co-exist. High profile individuals such as Emma Watson and the Duchess of Sussex have helped champion the sustainable fashion industry by showing that fashion can be stylish, luxurious and accessible.”
Livia founded the Green Carpet Challenge, where celebrities champion ethical fashion while attending high profile events. One of her favourite GCC looks was Emma Watson’s Calvin Klein dress at the 2016 Met Gala, which was made from recycled plastic bottles.