Let’s talk about sustainability
Sustainability, the hot topic of the moment but why is it so important?
Put simply, climate change is the biggest issue that our generation faces. Our spending (and wasting) habits are directly linked to dying eco-systems around the globe as well as soon to be irreversible changes to our seas, weather systems and climate.
I refuse to believe that consumers simple don’t care. In fact, in the last year we have all witnessed ‘The Blue Planet effect’. When David Attenborough and the BBC brought the devastating effects of plastic waste to our screens it had a profound effect. Quite literally millions of people in the UK woke up to the impact we are having and began to try and cut down on single use plastic and waste. There have been campaigns calling for supermarkets to sell their fruit and vegetables without packaging, restaurants and bars around the country have stopped using straws and there has been a huge rise in people switching to reusable water bottles and coffee cups. If anything, this proves to me that really people do care, we are just so removed from the impact we have that we are not really aware of it.
Over the last few decades there has been a tremendous shift in the way we consume our everyday items. Globalized manufacture of goods has turned the production of things we use daily into multi-billion-pound industries. We are living in a time where anything and everything is available to us pretty much immediately, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that mass scale production puts huge and unnecessary strain on natural resources and supply chains.
The problem is we are sold far more than we need in all areas of life. We are constantly bombarded with advertising designed to convince us to buy things we don’t really need. Go to any supermarket and you will see the likes of ‘buy one get one half price’ making us think, ‘well we’re better off buying more, if we’re getting more for our money’. Go into any high street fashion store and you see ‘sale now on’ or ‘20% off this week only’. We’ve all been guilty of buying that £5 t-shirt because, you know, it’s a bargain, but then it sits in our wardrobe forever, never getting worn and eventually it just gets thrown out. But if every person in the UK buys one top they don’t need every year that is roughly 66 million tops every single year. Over consumption of unnecessary goods means we end up with vast amounts of waste. Last year the UK sent more rubbish to landfill than any other country in Europe and on top of that, we throw 18 million tons of food away every year. According to Copenhagen Fashion Summit’s ‘Pulse of the industry’ report, fashion is responsible for 92 million tons of solid waste per year globally.
As I have a background in fashion, I tend to automatically consider sustainability in terms of clothing first and foremost, so indulge me and let me tell you about the hidden impact of the fashion industry.
Once upon a time there was a well-established ‘fashion system’. This consisted of designers showcasing their new collections twice a year (Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer collections), following the shows these collections would go into stores and then be bought by consumers. Simple. Tear this idea up and forget all about it because fashion consumption today looks absolutely nothing like this. Fashion has sped up like crazy, there is now practically 52 seasons a year with many clothing retailers bringing out new product every week. This is why we call it ‘fast fashion’.
Within fast fashion retailers create very cheap clothing so that consumers can get a quick fix; buying something affordable which will often only be worn once or twice. As these products are so cheap, they have little to no quality and often don’t last well, but as they cost so little we don’t value them anyway and often think nothing of disposing of these clothes after a couple of wears, only to be replaced by the next cheap item. This cycle continues and gets faster and faster, consumers want more and more newness, landfills (and charity shops) get fuller and fuller and a handful of people at the top get very, very rich.
The only way for companies to sell clothes at such cheap prices is to have manufacturing outsourced to developing countries. This is where the problems arise. The big retailers (and when I say this, I mean the high street clothing stores and online retailers alike) hold so much power over the industry they set all the standards. If, for example, a factory wanted to pay its workers a decent wage they may need to increase the price they produce each garment for. Sadly, if factories begin to charge more these big brands will then simply refuse to pay and take their business elsewhere. This forces manufacturers into a desperate position; meet the crushing prices set by the retailer or go out of business. In order to meet these prices and the ever-increasing demand of the deadline’s, factories will cut any corner they can to save money and get as many clothes produced as quickly as possible. The results of this is unregulated and unsafe conditions for millions of supply chain workers, with forced over time, disgustingly low pay and child labour all being commonplace.
The majority of workers are women, they earn little over the minimum wage (approximately £25 a month) and way under the living wage. Sexual harassment and discrimination is a part of everyday life for most of these women and they are often forced to work extremely long hours, 14-16 hours a day, 7 days a week. What we fail to comprehend in the West is just how common these issues are, these are the circumstances that most of the clothes on the high street, and in our wardrobes, will have been made under.
This same model of fast fashion creates cataphoric environmental effects alongside everything already mentioned. If you haven’t yet watched Stacey Dooley’s documentary ‘Fashions Dirty Secret’ then I urge you to do so (after finishing reading my article, of course). It lifts the lid on the many ways the fashion industry is killing our world, including footage of the Aral Sea, which is in fact no longer a sea, most of it has become a desert wasteland and this is purely down to cotton production. We often think of cotton as a nice, natural and environmentally friendly textile but the truth is it an extremely thirsty plant, taking up to 2700 litres of water to grow enough cotton to produce just one t-shirt.
Cotton is a natural material and has been produced in a sustainable way for thousands of years. Unfortunately, it is the problem of mass-scale production once again. In order to produce enough cotton to meet the demands of western consumers the industry has gone into overdrive. Entire rivers, depended on to sustain life, have been diverted to cotton fields. In order to grow cotton quickly chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used, these get into surrounding water systems and are affecting eco-systems and the health of people who live in near-by areas. In India, China and Bangladesh there is often a high incidence rate of cancer, gastric and skin issues afflicting those who live nearby to these toxic water systems.
Cotton is the most popular textile for our clothes to be made of and Polyester is number two. Polyester is made out of crude oil and it is basically plastic. This directly links back to the issues raised by David Attenborough as we are just adding to our plastic waste. When we buy a cheap polyester top, wear it once or twice and then throw it away it will take hundreds of years to break down and may never fully decompose. Instead it will break down into smaller pieces, the toxic micro plastics which leach into water systems and are already killing marine life. Studies now find that 95% of us have traces of plastic in our bodies which is a scary thought.
So what are we willing to pay for a bargain? A few pounds? Maybe even a few hundred? The welfare of workers? An ecosystem? The Earth?
It isn’t all doom and gloom though because it really doesn’t have to be this way! There are already some greats brands out there who genuinely care about the environment, about human life and they are offering us alternative ways to consume. I have written a list of some of my favourite sustainable brands at the moment here. We can also make simple changes ourselves, starting by being more conscious of what we buy and what we throw away, as well as taking it upon ourselves to learn more about the effects we are having on the world. We can choose to buy items like fruit and vegetables loose instead of pre-packed, or local, seasonal produce instead of something grown on the other side of world. We can choose to support small, independent business who in their very nature are a more sustainable alternative than their global mass-producing competitor. Mostly we can slow down, opt out of fast fashion, choose to buy less and use what we already have.
I’m not saying don’t treat yourself or buy the things you really want, of course we can do these things, it wouldn’t be realistic otherwise. But I really believe if we buy less often but buy better, shopping for good quality items where we know a little about their production process, we can be more confident about the impact of our choices and we can work together towards a more sustainable and hopeful future. This can be an exciting time, as consumers and creators we have a world of new ethical and innovative approaches to explore.