Fast fashion: the slow goodbye

My name is Ailsa, and I used to be what you might call a shopaholic. I estimate that I bought on average two or three new items of clothing a month (maybe that sounds like a lot and maybe it doesn’t, but for me I definitely didn’t need that much). I expertly transformed every want into a need and didn’t think twice about the material or the origin of the clothes. Things changed slightly when I watched The True Cost (a must-see documentary on Netflix outlining the human and environmental impact of the textile industry) and I pledged never again to buy an item made in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, or Myanmar, where workers have few if any rights and earn around $1/day making hundreds of clothes, each one of which will be sold for anything from $2-$50. Instead, I felt comfortable buying clothes made in China or Europe, where labour laws are secure and workers are far less easily exploited.

Under the environmental guidance of my admirable big sis I went a step further. We researched brands that had been judged environmentally responsible, where we would feel comfortable buying products. The stricter the grading we found, the fewer options were available to us. I tried second hand online shops but when 2 of the 3 items I ordered didn’t fit I gave up on that option too, deciding that having to rid myself of items that didn’t fit, and giving my money to people clearing space in their closets in order to buy more fast fashion, wasn’t the best solution either.

So finally, in desperate search of a couple of new tops (a basic, a top for work, and a cute top for spring), I parted with a substantial amount of my hard earned euros in the name of sustainable fashion and purchased from People Tree, and honestly, I couldn’t be happier with my purchases. They are 100% organic and fair trade cotton, and their workers are treated like you and I would expect to be treated (as everyone should be). The price was slightly more than Topshop, and a lot more than H&M, but the company doesn’t expect you to purchase more than once a season and the nature of ‘slow’ fashion means that altogether you are likely to spend less over the course of a year, as you’re buying far fewer items.

Very happy in my ethical clothing (also due to the pizza and Aperol being consumed)

If you’re considering altering your buying habits a little to align with a more eco-friendly world, here are some nuggets of information I think are important to know:

The nature of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is the extremely quick turn-around from design to on-the-shelf (sometimes as fast as 3 weeks), and refers to shops whose business model capitalises on having new items every week, so every time you pass the window you see something different and get that “I must keep up!” sensation, encouraging you to part with your pennies on the regular. This encourages the exploitation of workers who must work gruelling hours in often deplorable conditions to keep up with demand and avoid losing their jobs.

What is it like to work with no rights?

Woman have no maternity leave, families have no childcare assistance, there are no pensions or sick leave, few salary raises, absolutely no job security, or guarantee of personal safety. Would you do it? A common argument is to say that if these people didn’t do this job they wouldn’t have any other opportunities and by avoiding them we are risking their jobs and the country’s economy, but I don’t accept that. It’s not helping anyone to trap people in terrible conditions because it’s the only option. Big retailers need those workers, and if enough consumers in Western countries take a stand and boycott these companies, they will be obliged, in order to maintain their revenue, to ensure that their subcontracted factories guarantee proper working standards for their employees. Think of it as a purchasing strike- your money is a vote, how else will they know you don’t think it’s acceptable?

Why the material matters

If clothes contain polyester (i.e plastic fibres) these fibres will be released into the water systems when they are washed, ending up in drinking water or fishes’ bellies. Non-organic cotton is often mass-produced and has become one of the most damaging productions in the world due to the amount of pesticides and chemicals used in order to create enough to keep up with the world’s shopping habit. These pesticides have been strongly linked to cancers and birth defects in those who work in the industry, and the hectares upon hectares of cotton fields needed for the production destroy, well, hectares upon hectares of natural land and thereby animal habitats.

Beware of Greenwashing

Greenwashing is something I find particularly frustrating. It refers to companies who market themselves as eco-friendly, perhaps based on a certain collection they sell, a style they project to the consumer, or eco initiatives which, although better than nothing, ultimately encourage people to purchase more. Examples include ASOS Africa, a small fair trade range in the vast Fast Fashion catalogue that is ASOS.com, or their Eco Edit, which frankly baffles me as it includes brands that cannot possibly claim to be eco friendly and ethical when they use plastic fibres in their products and don’t track their production processes (this is where exploitation happens, as brands can remove themselves from the responsibility when accidents happen, claiming ignorance). Another example is H&M’s recycling initiative, which offers vouchers in return for clothing, but ultimately encourages the consumer to buy more from a company whose business model is based entirely on fast fashion and cheaply made disposable clothing.

Now, no one is perfect, and I’m not saying I will never buy from a company like H&M or Topshop again, but I will first at least try to find a suitable alternative which aligns better with my values. It can be hard, and frustrating, particularly because it often feels like being eco-friendly isn’t always purse-friendly, but it is possible to just do a little research and find a brand whose ethics more or less line up with your own. Maybe for you that means supporting local shops, or avoiding synthetic fabrics where possible, or it means that you simply buy less but buy well. I wouldn’t ever tell anyone not to buy from this or that shop, but I would encourage you to make considered and informed purchases, so that you know where your money is going and what type of action you are supporting, however indirectly, by spending your money.

People Tree: Proof that eco clothing doesn’t mean dressing in a sack made of hemp!

Useful resources for informing yourself:

  • The app ‘Good On You’ which rates clothing companies on labour policies, environmental policies, and use of animal products.
  • Documentaries such as The True Cost, River Blue (about the damaging dye run-offs from the denim industry), and From Sex Worker to Seamstress (available on YouTube), in which we see that working in the illegal sex industry in Cambodia is a more attractive career option for women than working in a garment factory. Let’s just let that sink in for a moment.

2 thoughts on “Fast fashion: the slow goodbye

Add yours

  1. I am curious, when you learned about ASOS Africa, where was the connection with Fair Trade? I completely agree with you, there doesn’t seem to be anything fair trade about it (after quickly glancing at the site).

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    1. I saw it on several articles about affordable ethical fashion, such as in Vogue and The Guardian newspaper! It’s true though that on their website the ethics of it aren’t clear… and one 25-piece fair trade line in the catalogue that is ASOS isn’t really enough in my opinion!

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