Jo Salter
Founder, Where Does It Come From?

Great news that the UK government are launching an investigation into the impacts of Fast Fashion on the environment, announced by the BBC on Friday.  There’s been a media outcry in recent months on topics such as the microfibres in our clothes, the towering plastic mountains and the colossal amount of clothing being sent to landfill. The government is planning new legislation around single use plastics following the successful introduction of the plastic bag levy, as well as a 25 year environmental plan.   It seems that the general public are becoming more environment conscious, with recent research by Compare The Market suggesting that nearly two thirds would adjust their lifestyle to make a positive difference.  This is borne out by the ethical market too, growth up by 3.2% last year against inflation of 0.64% (Ethical Consumer).

What’s the Problem with Fast Fashion?

reduce, re-use, recycle uk government fast fashion investigationThe clothing industry has undergone huge change over the last fifty or so years, from an era of couture and home made clothes, to the pret a porter world of choice, low prices and constantly changing fashions.  These expectations have ensured that fashion brands have continually sought cheaper and faster supply chains, with ethics being pushed further and further into the background until we have reached a place where fashion prices are roughly what they were 40 years ago, clothes are low quality and created from non-biodegradable fabrics and people and the planet are suffering.  The true cost of these low prices is reflected in the working conditions and pay of the garment workers, the toxins in our rivers and the air, the overuse of water and carbon and the 300,000 tonnes of clothing thrown away in the UK last year alone.  For further reading on these subjects please check out our articles on Plastic in your Clothes, Reduce Re-use and Recycle, and Fashion Revolution 5 years on.

Fast Fashion – Will this Investigation solve the Key Issues?

It’s good news that the government are focusing on fast fashion.  It is a massive industry (contributing £28 billion to the economy last year and supported 880,000 UK jobs) and tackling it’s impacts on the UK environment in terms of production and waste is a major positive.  This investigation is asking for inputs across a number of impacts from UK production to dealing with the clothing that’s been discarded.  Here are just some of the key issues that need to be considered.

1. Farmer and Garment Worker Abuses

Clothing is made from either man made fibres (polyester and others) or plant based fibres (cotton, linen, silk etc.). A large proportion contains cotton, often mixed with polyester.  The government investigation is focusing on UK garment production but as we don’t grow cotton in the UK we will be purchasing it from outside the country – usually Asia, Africa or the USA.

international women's day uk government fast fashion investigation

A lady with raw cotton for Where Does It Come From? clothing

Unfortunately the pressures of growing cotton for today’s highly commercial market has pushed well over 270,000 Indian cotton farmers to suicide since 1995.  Corporations have taken ownership of cotton meaning that farmers are persuaded/forced to buy GM seeds annually rather than being able to keep their seeds for replanting the following year.  These seeds are not only very expensive – any crop failure spells instant financial disaster – but also still require pesticides and lots of water as well as painstaking (and risk taking in terms of health) care and attention.

The situation for garment workers globally is little better.  Separation from family, long hours with low (or no) pay, child labour, dangerous working conditions and lack of employment security.  Fashion Revolution and Labour Behind the Label are two organisations that do much to publicise these abuses, and if you are in any doubt please do watch the True Cost Movie. What is ironic to me is that 80% of garment workers are women and, guess what?  80% of garment shoppers are women too.  A sad irony.  Here’s a previous article discussing Women for Women – our sisters in the garment industry.

2. Environmental Impacts of Garment Production – Traceable Supply Chain

The impact of clothing needs to be explored for it’s whole lifecycle – crops or fibre production, cloth making, dyeing and printing, tailoring, laundering and finally discarding.

Currently the price of a garment does not reflect all these stages and indeed some of them are challenging to measure, such as long term impacts of pesticides on plants, polyester production, microfibres in our washing and the recycling/waste management of old clothing.  Difficult to measure yes, but we can have a go.

One thing that will greatly help with defining the true cost of garment production is to make traceable supply chains the norm.  Currently most brands only label the garment with the country where the final step of production took place.  This does not reflect it’s whole journey. Tracking impacts such as carbon and water usage at each stage of the lifecycle would build a clearer picture of total impact.

3. Customer Culture Change

uk government fast fashion investigationThe ethical market is growing and we know that there is a growing body of young people who are looking to shop and dress according to their values.  There are two issues – firstly, it is still perceived as difficult and expensive to buy ethically produced clothing and secondly, there are many, many people who have not yet embraced the culture change.

It’s true that shopping for ethical clothes can be more tricky as most high street stores do not stock ranges of ethical clothing.  However not only is this changing but there is a growth of ethical clothing brands (such as Where Does It Come From? :-)) who create clothes with values.  Check out our articles Ethical is Easy and The Only Way is Ethics to find out more about ethical clothes shopping.

uk government fast fashion investigation pink shirt organic shirt flow om Where Does It Come From? ethical clothes that are traceable too ethical is easyInspiring consumers who have not yet embraced ethical shopping is less straightforward.  Shopping on the high street is cheap and easy, information is deliberately scarce so there’s no need to think about where your clothes have come from or who made them (let alone the negative consequences) and it has ‘always’ been this way, well for as long as most of them can remember.  Also don’t we all love a Bargain?  However most people don’t want to think of people or the environment suffering and so as information is presented to them (not preaching, that never works) then they will start shopping more consciously.  It also helps to know what the benefits are to you too – take a look at our article Five Reasons why it’s better FOR YOU to buy Ethical Clothes.

This investigation is a giant step in the right direction and we applaud the government for it’s leadership.  We now have the chance to capture diverse viewpoints on fast fashion and it’s impacts and to make an action plan going forward which will start to benefit not just our environment and our garment workers, but also ourselves as consumers and most importantly earth dwellers.