Is Fast Fashion Wearing Out The World?

The ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon championed by the Goliaths of the high street has led to the democratisation of seasonal style; the latest looks debuted on international runways are now being turned around, en masse and lightning fast, so that keeping your wardrobe up to date and bang on trend has never been more affordable. Globalisation has never looked so good. But what you may not be aware of, are the terrible costs that come with looking fashionable on the cheap.

British journalist Lucy Siegle specialises in ethical living and environmental journalism, and investigated the ethical, social and environmental consequences of the fast fashion movement and how its disposal nature has triggered a global epidemic of waste in her book To Die for: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?. It is an eye-opening read that has the power to permanently alter your perceptions and the way in which you consume fashion.

Ahead of Lucy Siegle’s Sydney Opera House speaking engagement for the All About Women festival, she answered some of our questions about the environmental ramifications of fast fashion, global ignorance of the most damning long term consequences, the human impacts – including the deadly working conditions of Bangladesh garment factories, and how we can individually impact sustainable change.

What came first for you: journalism or environmentalism?
I was a baby ecologist because my grandad was into environmental stuff in the 1970s and used to teach me a lot. He was very worried about resource use, but optimistic about the future when we developed energy sources other than fossil fuels (he worked in the oil business actually). He would be mystified by the fact we’re still not weaned off the black stuff! But professionally I would say I learned how to be a journalist/feature writer first, working on the magazine section of a broadsheet (the Observer from 1999). In my spare time I wrote little books trying to make green living trendy – which I never managed to achieve! Somehow the two converged.

How did you initially become aware of the ethical/environmental ramifications of ‘fast fashion’? Working for Marie Claire magazine I interviewed a singer in the UK and I remember her telling me how fashion brands used to throw out or burn their samples to preserve their intellectual property. She’d found a brand, House of Jazz, in Hackney that gave away all its sample shoes to homeless people. They didn’t care that they were this cool brand, they thought that was the right thing to do. I thought that was so cool, that I started to look for fashion brands with different, positive stories who were trying to correct issues in the supply chain. At the same time I started to look at the rise of fast fashion and using my own wardrobe as a sort of barometer I started looking at the true cost of fashion and just how many clothes we all had. It was an eye opener.

When you initially became interested in the topic, what details shocked you the most, and what remain the most concerning consequences? Follow the money, follow the pollution, follow the hands behind the clothes. That’s what you do in this type of writing.

In fashion each direction takes you to a place of shock and awe! Some of the richest people in the world have made their money in clothing/apparel. I think that’s significant. What I am noticing now is how some of the brands are attracting highly significant movers and shakers to work for them as chairs or lobbyists/PR. They are the type of well-connected, very clever people with government contacts that you used to find in the energy industry.

The resources used and pollution create by the processes of making fabric I found to be extraordinary. Over the past few years, there has been some progress here but the numbers are still extraordinary… But the thing that I will never get away from is how much fast fashion in particular had managed to distance the consumer from the hands that made the garment. It is one of globalisation’s greatest victories and I think the campaigning and activists managed to reinstate the garment worker at the 11th hour.

There’s so much more as well such as the transformation of personal style (not all fast fashion has been negative), but how this has sacrificed quality and also individual national fashion histories. The UK was once a fashion warrior. We were big producers and a lot of people were defined by the apparel trade. It went and so did a lot of national pride.

It struck me that we (by which I mean people in general) would barely register what happens to their clothes once they’ve been thrown out – like the fact that more than a million tonnes of clothing are ending up in landfill each year. Why do you think we do have such low awareness about the consequences of fast fashion? Is it the ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ affect that plays a part in preventing widespread awareness about the environmental, social and ethical costs of fast fashion? In my book, To Die For I tell the tale of a consumer from a value fast fashion brand who wanders out of the store with several large paper bags full of clothes on to Oxford Street (one of London’s main shopping streets). A bag breaks from the handles and the clothes – brand new – tumble on to the street. She walks on and leaves them. This is a parable for me: if you make clothes like trash the consumer will treat them as trash.

Part of what I do is try to make these connections again so that, as you say, we might have awareness of junking clothes long before they reach the end of their lifespan. The resources – human and environmental – that go into them should make them precious. We don’t know the producer (sometimes we don’t care, sometimes they are hidden), they don’t know us. I find it striking that in haute couture the number of hours to make a garment is one of the selling points; i.e. ‘it took 120 hours to bead the skirt in the atelier’. In fast fashion it is assumed (wrongly) that beading, applique and sequining is not done by hand because those labour hours are not reflected anywhere.

I can’t put this any better than the poet and essayist, Wendell Berry (why would I try?). He says, ‘The global economy institutionalises a global ignorance, in which producers and consumer cannot know or care about one another, and in which the histories of all products will be lost. In such a circumstance, the degradation of products and places, producers and consumers is inevitable.’ Now, that’s a warning we should heed!

Outside of the environmental impacts, how does this effect different people – from the designer and brand, to the consumer, and to the people working for manufacturers? This is partly answered by Wendell (above) but I think the degradation applies to all people involved in the supply chain. If the pace of fashion is too fast it puts incredible pressure on designers. One of the things I find quite heartbreaking is when you read of a young designer who is the toast of fashion week, a New Gen star and then gets picked up by a major brand. Instead of cheering for them, I’m inclined to think ‘poor thing. how much pressure are they going to be under?’ The speed is effecting high end as well as low (we usually focus on the latter) where we have ridiculous resort, pre fall, yacht collections and all kinds of interim inventories of extra product that nobody needs. Who needs special clothes for getting on and off a yacht please? The traditional fashion calendar represented at fashion weeks around the world, spring/summer autumn/winter has as much to do with today’s fashion industry as Gregorian plainsong does with the music industry.

There’s 101 processes to making an average garment. Only 4-6 will be carried out in fast fashion by the predominantly young, low paid women in countries such as Bangladesh working in the Ready Made Garment industry. These are the people shouldering all the risk and this is where the dangers are legion. Rana Plaza is the most horrific example of this.

What can we do to stop this issue from getting worse? How can we help cut down on the waste – particularly for those people who can’t afford to shop 100% ethical? Nobody should have to shop 100% ethical, and I’m not sure that’s even possible. But they should have an understanding of where and how their clothes are made so that they can decide whether to patronise a retailer or not. From a savvy consumer point of view they also deserve to know a little bit about the supply chain so that they can make better choices about quality and price. We mustn’t forget that often they’re being duped – especially on price.

If you feel your fashion habit is out of control and perhaps are dissatisfied with your wardrobe – I found I had a lot of clothes but not much to wear – it’s time to take control. Do a wardrobe inventory. How many pairs of jeans do you really have? I had 19. How many do you wear? What can be customised, changed, altered, donated? What needs mending? Make your wardrobe work harder. Strategise, bring in a budget (with a lower limit), buy fewer pieces of better quality. And if you want a real understanding and a chance of perspective, make something yourself. It reconnects you to seams and buttons and the work that goes into a garment.

This must be a Corporate Social Responsibility issue for the fashion industry’s big companies. Do you see a growing trend of fashion brands that advocate ethical production of garments? Yes I think it is. I see a growing trend of fashion brands messaging about CSR and developing their own systems. The systems exist, they don’t need to pay flashy consultants to reinvent the wheel. They need to be open, talk to workers and unions around the world, engage with the reality of garment workers in places such as Cambodia and Bangladesh and share information between brands. Brands working together with commitment and being open to change could revolutionise this industry.

Who in the fashion industry is leading the charge toward environmental, ethical and socially responsible fashion? The top spot remains up for grabs.

Learn more about the topic when Lucy Siegle speaks at the All About Women festival, 30 March 2014 at the Sydney Opera House. Purchase tickets now.

Photo by Bryan Bedder for Getty Images