Is our thirst for Fast Fashion simply continued colonial exploitation?
You may have already heard that the fashion industry is one of the worst polluters in the World. The stats are so awful it’s difficult to know where to start.
By 2014 we were buying 60% more fashion than in 2000. 85% of fashion ends up in dumps, you could fill Sydney Harbour with the waste. It’s 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions – more than shipping and airplanes combined. Fashion collections have gone from two in 2000 to five in 2011, Zara puts out 24 collections a year, H&M up to 16. And 500,000 tonnes of microfibres (= 50Bn plastic bottles), around a third of all microplastics in the oceans, end up in the oceans, in our fish and back inside you every year. Yet the UK government turned down all 17 fast fashion recommendations, as fashion now makes up a significant part of UK GDP.
The industry is fighting regulation and prefers self-regulation, offering us more chances to recycle. An industry desperate to protect corporate and executive profits seems to think trying out new ways to reduce impacts and asking customers to make better choices are the way to go.
But why are we even making fashion abroad and in such numbers?
Films like River Blue and True Cost highlight how fashion impacts most on those that make it, overwhelmingly women in global south countries and their communities. Literally in the film, the rivers run blue with that year’s must-have colour. The villages are toxic dye nightmares, and the system forces the cheapest practices and the lowest wages in tax-free Export Processing Zones hundreds of them spread across the global south.
This disaster of Fast Fashion can’t be fixed with new processes, minor regulation or campaigns as it is also a social justice issue: slave labour in the global south is servicing the global north, it is a story 500 years old.
Corporations transfer the blame to consumers by asking them to choose, while they continue to source and aggressively market environmentally and socially damaging fashion.
Global south countries shouldn’t have to make our fashion for us. These are jobs which have more than a touch of colonialism about them: people effectively have no choice of where to work, are paid below living wages, and face harsh and unregulated working conditions.
The global south shouldn’t have to receive our castoffs. Thousands of tonnes of discarded fast fashion ends up back in global south countries each year, killing local jobs and the local manufacturing sectors. Think you’re doing the right thing donating clothes to charity? Think again. Often these mega-charities cause the suffering they seek to address by harming global south economies.
Should global south countries be focused instead on using their resources to better their countries? Building better hospitals, manufacturing improved equipment for their schools, improving city and rural infrastructure? Are their countries just continuing 500 years of servicing the global north?
We need to envision a new economic model that means countries work for themselves and more countries in the global north fulfil their own needs. Any new model has to be better than the one that went before, it can’t be about sacrifice as people won’t want it, and politicians won’t be able to implement it. It can’t be more expensive as many people can’t make that choice between cheap fast fashion and ethical clothing, which is the current marketing choice given us.
Imagine cities and their high streets re-designed: Big chain shops, already disappearing, go completely. Smaller shops spring up with fashion designers working locally in these shops, designing and 3D printing or fashioning garments designed to be recycled in the same shop.
Fashion designers get to do what they want to do, not working on the floor of a major retailer but making themselves in their own space. Customers get a unique product, with the cut and design specific to them, not off the rail. Items are made to be remade, so taken back to the shop, squelched, and the material reused. Dyes and material are controlled and recycled in the same place. There’s no transportation so less trucks on the roads, less shipping required. Less materials grown and made. Costs reduced to match Fast Fashion but at a fraction of the environmental and social cost.
The shopping space becomes somewhere more creative, local and homegrown. The city or town space transforms into a now car-free, café rich, local shop social experience where people choose to be, to shop, to work, to live. City space and the right to work for yourself is reclaimed.
And in the global south a similar transformation of cities and towns can be made. Where factories once stood making clothing, where toxic dyes polluted the rivers and castoff clothes littered their dumps, they now make items to benefit the lives of local people. Where waste fashion came in by the container-load now local shops and markets are again making clothes locally.
This is systems change. It is better, it is cleaner, it is fairer. But it will mean moving from a profitable consumption resource heavy model to one that makes money from local growth, reusing what we have. And it must be done globally and soon.