UK consumers buy more clothes per person than any other European country and five times more than we did in 1980. Fashion brands are pumping a compelling message that we need the latest ‘on-trend’ items to be unique, powerful and successful and this is driving unprecedented demand on the textiles industry. Added to that, a new wave of entrants to the fashion industry are targeting teenagers and young women to accelerate fast fashion, pushing consumers to buy and dispose of clothes at an alarming rate.
In this special guest blog, Alex Crumbie from Ethical Consumer Magazine reveals the publication’s latest reports into fast fashion and gives advice on how we can help guide our young people through a complex psychological onslaught from the online fashion industry.
Cheap and dirty fashion
Our fashion industry is fundamentally broken and fast fashion has taken hold. Clothing is produced fast, consumers make fast buying decisions, delivery happens almost instantaneously, and all to often clothes are worn infrequently and discarded after only a few wears (or even after just one outing).
It’s true to say that the ethical fashion revolution is also growing and more clothing brands are getting involved with sustainable initiatives, but a new type of fast fashion is also infiltrating the mainstream market, and it’s having a hugely negative impact.
New ultra-fast fashion brands, such as Missguideed and Boohoo and Pretty little thing, are aimed at Generation Z, our teenagers and young women who are just starting to find their identity and their image. And they are being sold a harmful message.
Online fashion companies, such as brands those mentioned above, have made fast tracks into this market in recent years. These behemoths of fashion pump out cheap clothes like they’re, well, going out of fashion.
Hundreds of new pieces are added every week in a never-ending stream of mass-produced individuality, where catwalk trends can be replicated and online within a matter of days. At the time of writing, Pretty Little Thing had 1001 items classified as ‘new this week’ and Missguided 1,096. With over 500 items listed as under £5 on the Boohoo website.
Using a tribe of Instagrammers, influencers, pop stars, vloggers and bloggers, Boohoo and Missguided are creating a strong and compelling image. They drive the message that female empowerment, individuality, popularity, and confidence is accessed through the way you dress. Having watched a few fashion influencers unwrap their £500 ‘hauls’ (orders) on YouTube, it’s easy to see how the buzz of the purchase and the status of the influencer can manipulate young minds.
It’s not always clear if the influencer is being sponsored, or paid in kind and, as with many YouTubers and reality TV stars, the lines between reality and make-believe is blurred.
But it’s not just the influencers who are acting as ambassadors for fast fashion. Anyone can receive cash for driving new customers to these companies. The social network and fashion marketplace 21 Buttons was launched in 2016 as a hub for fashionistas to upload pictures of themselves wearing their shoppable outfits. Users tag each shoppable item so that viewers can click directly to the brand’s online website and purchase the outfit. The user gets a kickback of between 4-6% of the retail price on sales. This clever and effective model turns customers into the most powerful sales team – at a fraction of the price of advertising.
The premise behind this whole industry is to push cheaply made, disposable fashion that is quickly outdated, driving a continuous purchasing pattern.
The cost of fast fashion
A recent survey by Barnardo’s found that 37% of young people aged 16-24 would be too embarrassed to wear an outfit more than once if they wore it to a special occasion and 17% wouldn’t wear an outfit again if it had been on Instagram. You can’t help but think that this behaviour is correlated to the ready availability of fast, cheap fashion promoted by social media stars.
This multi-billion-pound industry shows no sign of slowing down and we’re increasingly aware of the social and environmental consequences. It fuels the carbon emissions behind the textile industry and of course, when you can buy a bikini for £1, you can bet that no-one is being paid a fair wage to make it.
Indeed, a Financial Times exposé in 2018 showed that workers in Leicester factories, which supply these brands, were being paid as little as £3.50, which is under half the legal minimum wage in the UK, for workers over the age of 24.
Meanwhile, The Ellen McArthur Foundation recently reported that the textile industry emits more greenhouse gases each year than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, that’s a staggering 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. A recent cross-parliamentary inquiry discovered that of the 1 million tonnes of textiles that the UK’s discards each year, 300,000 tonnes go in the bin. 20% of that is sent to landfill and 80% is incinerated. But the disposal of textiles is the tip of the iceberg – 70% of the carbon footprint of a garment sits in the manufacturing process.
Fighting fast fashion
Campaigners such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace are calling for the fashion industry to develop a circular economy. Instead of a linear ‘produce, use, dispose’ approach, the circular, closed-loop structure would see clothes made from durable, recyclable materials so that clothes last longer, can be repaired more easily and can be recycled into new outfits. But we can’t just rely on others to act.
It was Shakespeare who wrote the words “Oh, when she’s angry, she is keen and shrewd!” about protagonist Hermia in Midsummer Night’s Dream. We too should be angry about the influence that fast fashion is having across a whole generation of young women, and must also be shrewd in our response.
As young people, or as the mothers and fathers who shape them, we can help to mitigate the messages that are being streamed into our homes. This starts with educating our children about consumerism and prompting them to ask questions of brands and our government.
In schools, we can push for more education on consumerism:
- Organisations such as TRAID provide education packs for teachers and parents to discuss the issues behind a throwaway culture.
- We can lobby for sustainability to feature more highly in the curriculum, particularly in PSHE, Textiles, and Design and Technology subjects.
At home, we can live by example and demonstrate our commitment to slowing down fashion:
- Repair or reuse clothes wherever possible – teach children how to sew and mend clothes
- Replace items only when necessary and only buy what you need
- Shop second-hand wherever possible
- Swap clothes with friends
- Give outgrown children’s clothes away and accept those offered to you
- Give clothes that no longer fit to charity for resale or recycling
- If you need to buy new clothes, buy from ethical retailers who are committed to sustainable production – see the Ethical Consumer product guide for a full list of the fairest brands
- Start asking questions of your favourite brands and get your kids involved too – use the hashtag #whomademyclothes on social media to force brands to be more transparent about their supply chains
- Get involved at protests and support organisations who are fighting the slow fashion revolution – such as Greenpeace and Fashion Revolution
We’d love to hear how you are making an impact and driving action. Comment below to share your ideas with other readers.
Find out how your favourite brands rank on their approach to sustainable fashion in our high street product guide.