Fast fashion is killing the planet, but hope lies with designer trends of recycling, upcycling and following sustainable practices, writes Sigourney Cantelo.
It’s a sobering image: China’s Pearl River runs a murky indigo blue from the fabric dyes that are thoughtlessly expunged into it by neighbouring denim factories.
Meanwhile, workers and nearby residents suffer from breathing issues, infertility and cancers caused by a toxic cocktail of chemicals leaching into the local air and water – impacts graphically captured in River Blue, a documentary that examines the devastating effects of the fashion industry on the world’s waterways and the people that live and work alongside them.
But fashion manufacturing is only one part of the problem. Our environment also suffers from the other end of a garment’s life cycle, with 80 per cent of all discarded clothing globally ending up in landfill. Some fabrics like polyester, a form of plastic, take more than 200 years to break down, emitting methane – a noxious gas more potent than carbon – into the atmosphere as they deteriorate.
How fast fashion is destroying us
There’s no denying that our appetite for new products is killing the planet. Studies have found that most women only wear a fifth of their wardrobe 80 per cent of the time, and that some pieces are only worn seven times before being tossed.
But only about 15 per cent of the items we donate to charity are resold within Australia – the rest are sold as industrial rags, dispatched to landfill or sent overseas to developing nations. In a bid to meet our quenchless thirst, throwaway fashion brands compete to offer more for less.
“Global garment production has tripled in 20 years,” points out Clare Press, author of Wardrobe Crisis: How We Went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion.
“We’re overproducing and under-consuming clothes and – even through COVID – fast fashion is booming, especially online,” she says, citing a new generation of super cheap e-tailers like Fashion Nova and Boohoo.
“[They] churn out $15 party dresses that make H&M and Zara look like luxury. These online companies share next-to-nothing about how they make their clothes and reports of garment worker exploitation abound.”
Australian consumers are among the worst offenders when it comes to fast fashion. According to annual production forecasts from PCI Fibres, we are the world’s second-largest consumers of textiles after North America, buying an average of 27 kilograms of new clothing and textiles each year –twice the global average.
What is being done about it?
But thankfully a slow shift is happening, as social awareness, coupled with corporate responsibility, forces change.
“I do think that in late-stage capitalist economies like Australia’s we’re ‘stuffocated’ – there’s only so much fashion we can fit in our wardrobes,” says Press, who also hosts the sustainable fashion podcast Wardrobe Crisis.
“There is a move towards experience over the acquisition of things – people spending their money on travel, for example, rather than stuff.”
Designer heavyweights are also weighing in. While Stella McCartney was championing vegan leather and faux fur long before it was de riguer, Prada recently launched Re-Nylon, a range of bags and accessories made from discarded fabrics, recycled ocean plastics and fishing nets. And Gucci’s Off the Grid line employs recycled, organic, bio-based and sustainably sourced materials.
Other brands, like Bally, offset the damage. As part of their sustainability roadmap they have pledged to sponsor clean-ups of the base camps of Mount Everest. Meanwhile, Burberry is aiming to be carbon neutral in operational energy use by 2022 and to make all its plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.
How you can make a difference
Try to buy less and wear your existing wardrobe until its end. When you do invest, choose quality, timeless items that you will continue to wear and are made with a conscience (see below favourites).
When you tire of a certain style, consider selling it on eBay or Depop or listing it on an online rental service like Air Robe or Rent the Runway.
- Acne Studios: Launched their Sustainable Line Repurposed in 2020 that uses discarded fabrics and offcuts.
- Re/Done: Repurposed second-hand Levi’s jeans into new styles, with vintage character but modern fit.
- Ganni: Every collection includes pieces made from certified recycled polyester and a recycled cotton and polyester blend.
- KITX by Kit Willow: Uses natural and non-toxic dyes and designs that will stand the test of time.
- VEJA: On-trend trainers made from raw materials sourced from organic farming and ecological agriculture, without chemicals or polluting processes.
- Mother of Pearl: This Parlour X favourite is a sustainable and ethical luxury womenswear and accessories brand.
- Ginger & Smart: This Australian brand “consciously source raw materials that consider the environment and push towards circularity,” says creative director Genevieve Smart.
- Arnsdorf: Beautiful and timeless pieces designed and made in Melbourne from ethical and sustainable fabrications.
- Outland Denim: Uses organic cotton, which is proven to use 91 per cent less blue water than conventional cotton.
- A.BCH: A circular fashion label that won last year’s Australian Fashion Laureate prize for Sustainable Innovation.