I’ve always hated clothes shopping. As a kid, it really stressed me out and I’d kick up an enormous fuss about it. Whenever I outgrew my clothes, my poor mum had to put up with my incessant whining as she dragged me round the shops.
As I got older, something began to niggle at me whenever I visited clothes shops. I had a feeling there was something wrong with the way we shopped, though I wasn’t sure what it was. I’d heard about sweatshops in developing countries, and that was likely in the back of my mind. At any rate, I always preferred to make do with worn or ill-fitting clothes than buy new ones. Besides, I found that new clothes tended to be poor quality, falling apart after a few washes.
In my late teens, I discovered the sheer number of second-hand clothes available in charity shops. For the first time, I began to enjoy clothes shopping. It was as if an invisible burden of guilt had been lifted; it felt good to make use of clothes others had discarded. I decided to buy all my clothes second-hand.
I remember tagging along on shopping trips with my friends, watching them rifle excitedly through the ‘£5 and under’ rack. I never bought anything, but it’s odd that we never questioned how those clothes could possibly be so cheap. Our disconnection meant we didn’t really consider where they came from. All the same, I winced when anyone gushed about how much they loved Primark.
It wasn’t until I saw the documentary ‘The True Cost’ (highly recommended) that I discovered the truth about cheap clothes. I was disturbed to learn about the exploitation of grossly underpaid garment workers in developing countries, most of whom are female.
I also discovered that thousands of workers have died due to rickety garment factories collapsing, and that some mothers have no choice but to leave their children with relatives while they work in factories in the city. As Western retailers demand cheaper and cheaper clothes, more costs are cut and the safety and wellbeing of workers becomes less and less of a priority. One worker in the documentary describes the clothes as ‘made by our blood’.
Then there’s the environmental impact. In the West, we treat cheap fashion as disposable. For many of us, shopping is a hobby and we buy far more than we need. Inevitably, many of these clothes are discarded when they fall apart or we tire of them. Some are never worn at all. As a result, we’re generating vast amounts of textile waste.
Many clothes are made of cotton, which uses vast amounts of water, pesticides and insecticides. This may also have negative impacts on human health, both for workers and for those who wear the clothes.
Leather too causes massive environmental destruction, since raising livestock requires large quantities of feed, water, fossil fuels and land, whilst the tanning process uses toxic chemicals which harm workers’ health and pollute waterways. Tannery workers and those who live near tanneries are at greater risk of diseases like cancer than the general population. Then there’s the animal suffering involved in leather production.
So what can we do? Buying second hand is good, though perhaps not completely sustainable. Charity shops currently receive far more clothes than they can sell. Another option is to buy good quality Fairtrade clothes which will last a long time, and choose those made of organic cotton. Of course, this must be coupled with only buying what we really need. Making old fabric into something new is another possibility, for those with the required skills and equipment.
Were you aware of the issues with fast fashion? Can you think of any other potential solutions? Let me know below.