Problems with—and solutions to—our shopping addiction
How much clothing do you own? The average person today buys 60 percent more items of clothing than they did 15 years ago, and yet families are spending less on clothing overall. Our society’s obsession with fast, cheap, disposable clothing is harming people and the planet. Here’s how we fight back.
In the 1980s and 90s, a new production strategy appeared on the fashion scene that made acquiring trendy, inexpensive fashion a reality for the mainstream: fast fashion. Sure, these clothes fit with current trends, but they don’t last long, ensuring the consumer buys more.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, approximately half of all fast fashion produced is discarded in less than one year.
“There used to be four seasons in the fashion industry: fall, winter, spring, and summer,” explains Candice Batista, Canadian environmental journalist and creator of The Eco Hub (theecohub.ca).
“Now fast-fashion companies deliver new styles 52 to 104 times a year. There’s no way all of that can be purchased at full price! It’s too much, so it triggers sales constantly. It’s a linear cycle of extraction, production, consumption, and discarding.”
Clothes aren’t just clothes: as consumers, we need to shift our focus to see the resources and labour that went into them.
“With a cotton T-shirt, think of the water, fertilizers, and pesticides used to grow the cotton,” says Batista. “Then the cotton is picked by a person (usually a child or woman working in deplorable conditions). Then it’s shipped somewhere (using fossil fuels) and made into fabric.
“Then it’s shipped again and made into the garment. Then it’s shipped again to the store. And we come along and think, ‘Whoa, these T-shirts are $5! I’m going to buy one of each colour!’ And we hardly ever wear them and eventually discard them.”
Many of us remember the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, in which 1,134 people were killed and thousands were injured when a Bangladesh garment factory collapsed. It’s one horrendous example of the working conditions of those in the fashion industry around the world, but it’s hardly the only one.
“Fashion is one of the most labour-intensive industries, and 80 percent of the workers are women who work in the global south, who do not make anywhere near their local living wage,” says Batista. Sadly, but not surprisingly, child labour is an ongoing issue at all stages of the supply chain. Workers are also subjected to chemical exposure, such as pesticides and dyes, putting their health at risk.
“This is about proactively supporting Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other people of colour,” explains Batista. “Most garment industry workers are BIPOC women and children. The planet is a small place—we are all connected. We have to understand the ripple effects of everything, and all of our decisions.”
Water Consider this statistic: it takes approximately 2,700 litres of water to make a single cotton T-shirt, which is enough for a person to stay hydrated for two and a half years.
Petrochemicals About 98 million tonnes of nonrenewable resources (such as petrochemicals) are used to make clothing every year. “Synthetic clothing is fossil fuels,” explains Batista. “Fossil fuels go into the clothes and then fossil fuels transport the clothes. Fashion is a huge driver of climate change.”
Dyes Then there’s textile dyes, many of which are toxic. According to the United Nations, the fashion industry produces 20 percent of the world’s wastewater, colouring and contaminating the local waterways.
Microplastic And let’s not forget microplastic: the tiny bits of plastic that are shed from synthetic clothing (such as polyester, acrylic, and nylon), mostly in the laundry. According to a 2018 study, 30 billion particles of microplastic enter waterways every year from Metro Vancouver alone (and that’s after 1.8 trillion plastic particles are filtered out by water treatment centres). This plastic ends up in our waterways, making its way up the food chain to us: in the seafood we eat and the water we drink.
When it comes to end-of-life garments, it’s another sad story. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports that a garbage truck’s worth of clothing is discarded every second: either sent to landfills or burned.
Investigative journalism has uncovered fast-fashion dirty secrets: company after company has been found guilty of dumping or destroying unsold stock, as well as products customers have returned. A 2019 investigation by Corporate Knights sustainable business magazine, for example, found that it’s cheaper for businesses to toss returns rather than check to see if they can be resold.
What about clothing that’s donated? Although it might feel good to donate our unwanted clothes, we need to be careful: there’s simply too much supply and not enough demand. Only about 20 to 25 percent of donated clothing is resold or reused locally, according to Metro Vancouver, a consortium of municipalities in southwestern BC.
And those recycling programs by big fast-fashion companies? Number-crunching critics have bad news for us. According to a Guardian article, for example, H&M’s recycling program can produce more clothes in 48 hours than they can feasibly recycle in 12 years. Given the rate at which massive companies produce clothing, their recycling programs and sustainability efforts can be considered greenwashing.
“They’re enticing you to shop more by giving you a gift card to buy more when you come in to recycle your old clothes!” laughs Batista. “It’s such greenwashing. Plus, these items are not being recycled into new clothing—that’s very rare.”
As consumers, we can fight back against the steady stream of cheaply made goods. Consider these strategies.
It’s imperative that we go through resources at a much, much slower rate. Look for second-hand clothing options when you need something, allowing more resources to be saved.
When you do buy a new item, look for items that are made well, with quality fabric and stitching. See if there’s a warranty or if the item can be repaired in the future.
This can mean a myriad of things, such as
Learn the laundry codes on clothing labels and follow them; deal with stains immediately.
Either do it yourself (look up “visible mending”) or take them to a pro (a smart choice for bags and shoes).
Pass your clothes on to others (maybe host a clothing swap!); save them for crafts or mending projects; use them as rags; donate responsibly; or research textile recycling programs near you.
“It comes down to being a mindful human,” says Batista. “Mindfulness is such a buzzword, but really it’s about understanding your impact, and not doing things that harm others. If you sew, you know how much goes into making something: the intricacy, the detail, the labour, and the love. It’s very powerful.”
Admittedly, shopping is trickier these days due to COVID-19. However, rather than online shopping fast-fashion websites (and returning products that may end up being trashed), try the following options.
With so many people working at home in 2020, our fashion purchases have changed considerably. Two huge surges in popularity? Loungewear and wireless bras, to no one’s surprise! Oh, and don’t forget cloth masks in every possible colour and style.