Fashion is big business and it’s getting bigger. The industry has annual worldwide revenues of over £1 trillion and fashion consumption is predicted to rise 63 per cent between 2017 and 2030. But that expansion comes at a huge cost. Six years after the Rana Plaza disaster that cost 1,134 lives in an overcrowded garment factory in Bangladesh, fashion has still not shaken its reputation for sweat shop labour exploitation. It’s also one of the world’s most polluting industries, releasing millions of tons of microplastics into the oceans and 10 per cent of all carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Politicians seem content to look the other way. This week Missguided – a shopping site that promotes 1,000 new products every week – launched a £1 bikini, and the British government rejected plans for a 1p fashion tax proposed by the House of Commons environmental audit committee. As the pols demurred, the £1 bikini sold out in every size.
The human cost of what we wear may be well-known, but the environmental impact will come as a surprise to many. While polyester pollutes our oceans, cotton crops suck up unimaginable amounts of water.
Headlines increasingly focus on the fast fashion, but a Tortoise analysis shows that low cost brands aren’t the only villains of this story. We scraped dress material information from the online stores of three retailers to represent different price brackets: Boohoo (low-end), Zara (mid) and Louis Vuitton (high). Based on the environmental impact of the materials used, the average dress of the high-end retailer tends to perform worse than that of a low-end retailer. However, taking into account the average cost of items at each store, consumers do more damage per pound or dollar spent when they shop at low-end retailers.
Cheap man-made fabrics have changed beyond recognition what we wear and how long we wear it for. Starting in the decades of growth that followed the Second World War, plastic has gradually replaced cotton as the key material in our clothes. Today, more clothing is made out of polyester and nylon than cotton and wool.
But man-made fibres shed. Each wash cycle produces thousands of them, and they end up in the guts of the fish we eat. Fake fur is typically made from plastic, which does not biodegrade. The invisible damage of our consumption is everywhere. As much as 35 per cent of all primary source micro-plastics in the marine environment are from synthetic clothing. They’ve been sampled at the North Pole, in Antarctica, at the top of mountains and at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
Clothes donation and recycling has long been a way for the fashion-hungry to assuage their guilt. But the days of shipping cast-offs overseas are drawing to an end. A number of African countries including Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan are working to phase out imports of secondhand clothing from the US. Rwanda has been the most aggressive, imposing prohibitive import taxes on secondhand clothing to bolster its nascent textile industry.
As sustainability has become fashionable, some brands are playing catchup. But industry greenwashing is rife. Just as Boohoo trumpeted the arrival of its “For the Future” range (“made from recycled materials without compromising on the trends you love”) campaigners revealed that the range’s elastin content meant that the entire For the Future range – which in any case constitutes only 34 of the 6000 dress designs that Boohoo sells – cannot be recycled.
If the fashion industry won’t police itself, politicians should, because experience suggests this is an area where intervention might actually work. Consumers readily accepted a 5p tax on single-use plastic bags. Retailers and manufacturers, for similar reasons, should accept a 10p tax per item of single-use plastic clothing. The logic is simple. In supermarkets, the cost of the plastic bag tax is borne directly by consumers who choose to use them. The 10p fashion tax should be swallowed – at least in part – by the industry, because it is the industry that chooses methods that exploit the environment and margins that exploit its workers.
The fashion industry has had an easy ride for too long. It’s time we woke up to what we’re wearing.