Charlotte Willis finds the truth can be uncomfortable to bear
In a strange time in history where we’ve never been more aware of our wasteful tendencies, yet it’s almost cheaper to buy a new printer than it is to buy a replacement ink cartridge, it may come as no surprise that clothing has become the 21st century’s ultimate commodity.
Quite frankly, if £1 bikinis and £5 dresses are anything to go by, I fear that the world may have completely lost touch with the reality of just where our clothes come from.
Remember the good old days when fashion had four seasons per annum? Welcome to 2020, where a fashion ‘season’ lasts about 7 days.
The majority of major fashion retailers mass-produce garments at a speeding pace, with hundreds of new pieces landing on websites such as ASOS and Topshop within 24 hours.
That’s why modern fashion retailing is often referred to as fast-fashion, a term that labels clothing with a distinctive stamp of unsustainability, alongside a splash of permanent unethical dye.
Is fast-fashion ethical?
As individuals striving towards a harmonious symbiosis with the planet and fellow organisms around us, the culmination of our everyday choices ultimately dictates our personal sustainability. Our selection of clothing is not exempt from this ruling.
The fashion industry is responsible for an eye-watering amount of environmental malpractice. Toxic dyes from clothing factories run into rivers in South America, microplastics from polyester clothing slowly choke our seas as we wash our synthetic clothing at home, all while the fashion industry guzzles 700 gallons of water in order to produce one cotton T-shirt.
What’s more, cheap clothes, whose seasonality comes as quickly as it goes, and whose build quality is built to last just about as long, has instigated a throw-away culture that sees us buy 60% more clothes than we did in the year 2000, with 85% of textiles thrown away every year.
I can’t help but wonder, if the fashion industry shows such disregard for sustainable practices in the process of creating their garments, what sort of conditions do the people behind making our clothes face on a day-today basis?
And it seems the fashion industry is quite contented leaving you to wonder, because when their practices are exposed, the reality is far from picture-perfect.
Since 2016, Fashion Revolution, a charity invested in creating a u-turn on fast-fashion, has been tracking major brands in terms of their fashion transparency in five key areas: policy and commitments, governance, traceability, supplier assessment and remediation, and spotlight issues.
In essence, Fashion Revolution gives brands a report card based on their ability to satisfy social and environmental checkpoints, such as animal welfare, biodiversity, chemicals, climate, due diligence, forced labour, freedom of association, gender equality, living wages, purchasing practices, supplier disclosure, waste and recycling, and working conditions.
Fashion Revolution found that the 250 brands surveyed held an average transparency index of just 23%, with brands such as Pretty Little Thing scoring a measly 9% and the Instafamous Fashion Nova scoring just 2%.
Unfortunately, many brands fail to publish information about how they conduct their business and escape accountability by means of pleading the fifth. Not quite so haul-worthy, but tell that to the influencers.
An ethical crisis
I’m sure most of us remember 2013’s tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, a building housing the clothing factories for some of the major fast-fashion brands across the world.
This event has triggered a shockwave of investigations into the conditions and livelihoods of garment workers.
It comes as no great surprise to find out that only 2% of brands publish the percentage above the minimum wage that workers in their supply chain receive. Recently, an exposé by fashionchecker.org found that 93% of brands are not paying their garment workers a living wage.
This is different to the minimum wage in that a living wage enables workers to feed themselves and their household with a variety of foods, provide themselves with a range of healthcare essentials such as sanitary products, soap and medicine, and are able to educate themselves and their dependents. A gender-gap also presents itself within the garment industry.
According to fashionchecker.org, 80% of garment workers are women, yet these women are routinely paid less than male workers and are subject to frequent payment delays.
Worse still, employees in higher positions are able to take advantage of societal and cultural norms, which dictate that a woman is passive and less likely to challenge their management.
Consequently, women are at far higher risk of maltreatment and assault at work, including acts of verbal and physical harassment.
The hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes was started by Fashion Revolution to facilitate an increased demand for fashion transparency, calling out brands for their malpractice. To date, this hashtag has over 650 thousand posts on Instagram and has been catapulted into the spotlight again by the Covid-19 crisis.
Due to the virus shutting high-street retailers for long periods of time, garments produced overseas to be sold in the Western world were no longer required.
The result? Millions of pounds worth of clothing going to waste, with brands refusing to pay their workers for the clothing that they ordered (as of July 2020). You can petition against this by going to supportgarmentworkers.org.
While fast-fashion may seem like an unstoppable train, it is us, the consumers, who have the ability to force this industry to grind to a slower, sustainable pace.
By shopping proactively from brands who encourage transparency and whose ethical practices align with our own values, we can invest in retailers who are making positive impacts and invest in people.
We must refuse to support brands who don’t in turn support our fellow human beings, and whose production lines pollute and corrupt the world with every thread of a needle.
Perhaps it’s time we considered the impact of £5 dresses and £1 bikinis, beyond the reach of our wallets.
Charlotte Willis is a freelance journalist and health writer who has worked with Veganuary and The Vegan Society and other online vegan publications. Her fields of expertise and interest include vegan nutrition, holistic healthcare, mindfulness and fitness.
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