The true cost of fast fashion

The trend-driven nature of the high street fashion industry and its profound impact on the environment

By Alys Hewitt

The lack of sustainable practices ingrained in the high street fashion industry is hardly a revelation; it is a subject that has been discussed for years, from the use of exploitative, low paid labour to the constant and cyclical waste it produces. But in an age riddled with warnings and ultimatums surrounding climate change, the connection between the production and consumption processes of the fashion industry and environmental harm rings more resonant than ever.

This week the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has shed light yet again on the detrimental impact that ‘fast fashion’ – our culture of rapidly changing trends and over-consumption when it comes to clothing – has upon the environment, claiming that the fashion industry is a major source of carbon emissions. MPs involved have urged the UK’s top players in high street fashion, including Primark, M&S and Next, to pursue more environmentally-friendly processes of production.

I believe that the Committee has made the right choice in targeting corporations and holding them accountable. That is not to say that we as consumers don’t have a responsibility to shop less or at least more ethically, but shoppers are not to blame for the problem. The rampant consumerism of the fashion industry doesn’t help anyone but those at the very top. We are tricked into thinking that cheap, mass-produced clothing is of good value, forgetting the fact that it rarely lasts a substantial amount of time before we must buy something new to replace it.

Admittedly, we are buying more and more – the Environmental Audit Committee states that Britons are buying twice as many clothes as we did a decade ago – but is this because clothes aren’t built to last anymore? Fashion is also becoming an increasingly trend-driven economy, with trends moving faster and faster with the times, spurred on by the prominence of social media.

While it could be argued that high street chains are only responding to demand, the disproportionate amount of clothing that ends up in landfill suggests a widespread problem of over-production and disparities in quality. According to the Committee’s report, 235 million items of clothing were sent to landfill in 2017 alone. If both companies and consumers strived even to recycle or donate this excess of clothing, the state of affairs may be far less bleak.

There is a fear that these efforts to hold companies accountable have come too little, too late. It is obviously difficult to reverse the damage already created, and no real change will be made unless these production processes are structurally reconfigured, if corporations come clean about their errors and make tangible efforts to harm the environment less, rather than relentlessly prioritising profit both over the state of the environment and the workers employed to produce their clothing.

This pressure on companies needs to be sustained and continued, not simply forgotten about. And, as consumers, we have a duty to contribute to this pressure – perhaps by creating less demand for mass-produced clothing, through turning to more sustainable companies or buying second-hand. We are a generation that is becoming increasingly environmentally aware in many other ways, but still seem somewhat complicit in the wrongs of the high street’s biggest companies. When will we cease to buy into an industry that gives us nothing back?

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