We need to thread carefully


Last year, my colleague Kevin travelled to Bangladesh to examine the theory of a ‘just wage’ and find out about the true cost of clothes production, and came away with this disconcerting message from activists who want you to think about it when you buy clothes produced cheaply to be sold at tiny prices: “You are wearing our blood”.

Poor working conditions, low pay, job instability and very long working hours characterise the typical garment worker in Bangladesh who has probably made an item of clothing you are currently wearing. In addition to inhumane working conditions, the environmental consequences of this industry are also visible. Rivers polluted by waste water from textile factories not only have public health impacts but also reduce agricultural yield.

With rights come responsibilities

Clothing is a fundamental human need. But fashion is also a cultural, personal and political statement. What we wear reflects who we are, what our values are and where we come from. Keeping up with the latest trends has a serious environmental, social and economic impact.

‘Fast fashion’ is inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. It is a term that many people are familiar with but most of us are not familiar with the full impact of the entire life cycle of an item. We experience our clothes only when we look for them in shops or online, when we wear them and when we eventually lose interest in them and either donate them or put them in the bin. What happens before and after this short window of time is invisible to us and consequently difficult to comprehend and consider when purchasing our clothes.

Out of sight, out of mind

Every item of clothing, from the cheapest t-shirt to the most expensive gown or suit takes an incredible amount of resources to produce. Natural materials such as cotton, flax (linen) and hemp, as well as animal-based textiles like wool and leather require land, water, fertilisers and (usually) pesticides and herbicides to produce. Artificial textiles such as polyester rely on fossil fuels for their production. Processing these raw materials into fabric to make clothes requires even more resources. It takes fossil-fuel based energy to run the factories, chemicals to transform animal hides into leather, dyes to colour clothes and tonnes of water is used throughout the entire process.

Human labour is needed to create and sew the newly made materials into the items of clothing we buy in the shop. Throughout the process, huge amounts of emissions are produced transporting raw and finished materials from source to their destination. Many of these clothes don’t even reach customers’ hands. Warehouses full of clothes that people have worked hard to produce are incinerated to keep prices artificially buoyed.

When we purchase clothes everything of what has gone into making these clothes are usually condensed into three words – Made in China/Bangladesh/Vietnam – with only the price and branding to give an idea of the desperate conditions in which they were produced.

When we finish with our clothes we try to give unwanted items to friends and family with much ending up in charity shops, bring banks or general waste bins. While donating clothes is of course a good thing and an important part of a circular economy, the sheer volume of clothes being produced and donated makes even this process largely unsustainable. Mountains donated to charity shops and bring banks which remain unsold are primarily diverted to places such as Kenya. As in Bangladesh, the failures of this industry are to be found everywhere. Tons of unwanted clothes are having a negative impact on indigenous textile industries.[1] Stalls with western-style clothes proliferate throughout towns and cities with more traditional clothing becoming a rarer sight. The amount of clothes being imported into countries bears no resemblance to the actual demand on the ground and so unwanted clothes mingle with other rubbish and are burned to try and dispose of our waste.

New industries trying to utilise this incredible excess are springing up. While impressive, these are directing the responsibility of treating the symptoms of this bloated industry to those bearing the brunt of the impacts. Rather than regulating to treat the cause and stem the proliferation of cheap clothes production, we are simply sending the problem overseas.

Where do solutions lie?

There is no silver bullet for this complex problem but we can all play our part in mending this broken system by refusing to be part of it. Shopping less and better – in charity shops, secondhand shops and from ethical brands, keeping clothes for longer and sharing clothes all help in some small way.

But on its own, this will never be enough. For some people fast, cheap, fashion means affordable clothing for their growing children. Not everyone has time to source second-hand clothes or money to buy clothing from more expensive ‘sustainable’ brands.  The availability and low cost of fast fashion appears like a good thing, which makes keeping up with trends and having new clothes accessible to everyone, not just the wealthy.

But instead of levelling the playing field, fast fashion is actually increasing inequality. An industry that exploits people and destroys the environment in countries like Bangladesh, for the sake of cheap clothing here is fundamentally broken. Without the clothing industry being regulated so that it is legally bound to decent working standards, fair pay and acceptable environmental conditions we alone have little power to change this system. Actively encouraging degrowth in this industry is also something we need to consider. Why should we continue to produce clothes we simply do not need?

At a recent workshop on climate change I facilitated, the subject of fast fashion came up and it was one of the topics that hit a particular nerve. It is uncomfortable to talk about the negative consequences of something we actively participate in and for which there are no easy solutions. But instead of resigning ourselves to the fact of this injustice, and to supporting it, we need to have these uncomfortable conversations. We must take a hard look at our own choices and make better ones, and we must urgently demand regulation so that this industry stops bleeding people and planet dry.

[1] The clothes industry is not the only one negatively impacted by excesses. The exportation of discount-priced milk powder from EU countries into some African countries is causing indigenous dairy industries to struggle. Our policies of ‘feeding the world’ affect the food sovereignty of others.