Consumerism within the fashion industry and how we can become more sustainable consumers.
The unaware shopper with a credit card: a fatal combo often seen wandering aimlessly along George Street, dabbling with the chain stores, purchasing $20 t-shirts. The act of shopping requires no real reflection on what you are actually buying or where it came from.
Consumer culture is so prominent in society today. Entering into my third year of fashion design at Otago Polytechnic I am becoming increasingly aware of the impact fast-fashion has on the environment and the huge increase in the consumption of clothing and textiles. Alongside these concerns are issues around unfair wages and unethical production processes.
Our motivations for buying clothes are deeply rooted in our culture, our need for self-expression and to be on trend. The modern fashion industry is changing rapidly. Big corporations are producing massive amounts of clothing for dirt-cheap prices, for consumers who expect more for less. This mass production produces a lack of differentiation, increased boredom with your ‘same same’ clothing, leading to increased consumption. Cheap prices mean we can buy more, so we do. Creating a culture of fast paced supply and demand is an unsustainable, addictive pattern.
Much of fast-fashion is made using methods that are destructive to the environment. A great deal of the clothing we consume ends up back in the developing countries it was made: filling up their landfills after just one season of wear. We have lost sight of the true cost of what we are buying. Low prices mean unethical practices throughout the production process. We are too used to getting cheap, poorly made, mass-produced fashion. We need to flip our snow globe upside down and sift through the flakes of sustainability to see our clothing not as a commodity to be thrown away after a week’s wear, but as something long-lasting to be cherished.
Fair trade means that a worker in a developing country is earning enough to support their basic needs and have money left over. Unfortunately, it can take a tragedy like the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh to draw serious attention to fair trade issues. The collapse was the result of unsafe building standards for garment constructors. On the morning of 24 April 2013, staff refused to enter the factory because they could see cracks in the building’s walls. They were beaten, forced into the building, and threatened with no pay for the month. The workers entered. At 8:45am, the electricity went out. The building then pancaked to the ground, killing 1,137 people.
This horrific event is a glimpse into what occurs behind that $15 price tag. Developing countries account for over 60 percent of clothing exports worldwide and there are approximately 57 million people who work within the global apparel industry. A large percentage of those workers are children, severely underpaid or even in slave labour. Many work in environments that are harmful to their health. People are made to work 14-hour days for less than $10 a week. When it comes to addressing issues of sustainability, the solution is to not put people out of jobs, but to restructure their jobs into a sustainable model.
Another huge issue in the fashion industry is the production of textiles. The production of cotton, a natural fibre, accounts for a whopping 10 percent of the world’s pesticide use. Pesticides are used in order to eliminate the growth of living organisms within the product. Around one million agricultural workers worldwide are hospitalised each year for acute pesticide poisoning. Symptoms of pesticide poisoning include: vomiting, tremors, headaches, lack of coordination, difficultly breathing, loss of consciousness, seizures and death. It’s not only the products we are spraying onto the fibres before production that are a problem; it’s the entire production process. Putting aside labour issues, the process uses huge amounts of resources, energy, waste, and harmful chemicals, causing water, air, and soil pollution.
To start becoming more sustainable we need to have a long-term outlook that encourages responsible consumption. Go op shopping, buy your third cousin’s grandma’s sweater, and give your used clothes to charity. Look out for sustainable natural fibres like organic cotton, wool, hemp, flax, linen, tencel, lyocell, and sea cell. Organic growing techniques limit the negative impact on the environment; they benefit farming communities, as they are more sustainable and don’t destroy the health of the people or the soil. Don’t throw away something that can be fixed: learn to mend your own clothes. Support sustainable brands; support your local designers and the New Zealand economy. Say no to the big corporations, chain stores, mass production and cheap clothing. Invest in high quality pieces you love and will last the distance. The prices may be slightly higher but ultimately the benefits far outweigh the cost to the earth and to ourselves.
Purchase things for quality not quantity. Choosing to spend your money on sustainably made things is a vote for planet. Be actively engaged with what you are wearing. Fashion can influence a healthy and sustainable future if you are interested in making it so.
I asked a few fellow students from my class about their thoughts on sustainability and how they are applying it to their lives. Here’s what they had to say:
What do you do personally to be a more sustainable consumer?
Lillian: I’ve stopped buying things for the sake of buying, instead, I choose my purchases carefully and invest in things I will have for a long time. I try to support local New Zealand businesses and choose to buy locally instead of internationally.
Ella: I am more aware of what I buy and where I buy it. I want to purchase things that I know are good for the environment and made in a sustainable way.
As a fashion student are you interested in sustainability in the fashion industry? If so, how do you incorporate it into your own practice?
Phoebe: I always design and make clothes with the intention that they are timeless and high quality. I don’t make anything seasonal so the wearer/consumer can utilise the garment as much as possible. I try to use natural fabrics and am looking more into fair trade and organic fabrics.
How would you advise others to participate in sustainable consumption in the fashion industry?
Lillian: Be aware of what you are buying. No one wants to be enabling people to employ seven-year-olds being paid $2 a day to make 100 of the same tees that every other bitch has. Consider getting things fixed rather than replaced. If you have a hole in the bottom of your boots, get it resoled, don’t replace that shit. It prevents waste and it supports small companies, which are run by talented people. Consider whether you need or want what you’re buying. Avoid impulse buying: think about it for a night before buying. Also, don’t follow trends ‘cause you will look average in a month. Think of timeless clothing that will last, knowing what you like allows you to not have to keep replacing.
If you’re interested in getting involved and finding out more then the documentary The True Cost and the book Earth Pledge White Papers Set: FutureFashion White Papers both offer excellent analysis of current state of the fashion industry and sustainable fashion.
Also, the co-act pop-up shop in the middle of the year, set up by Otago Polytechnic and Massey University students, sells sustainably made clothing, artworks, zines, accessories and more.