Chic & cheerful (but not so great for the environment)

Celebrities have helped 'fast fashion' to flourish. But critics say the business exploits workers overseas and is damaging the planet. Geoffrey Lean reports

Sunday 28 January 2007 01:00

"Fast fashion" - exemplified by the booming Primark chain of stores - is accelerating damage to the environment, top greens and opposition politicians have told The Independent on Sunday.

Tony Blair's chief environmental adviser has joined the heads of Friends of the Earth and the Green Party to condemn increasing sales of cheap, "disposable" clothing. The shadow Environment Secretary is to write to the company's management to demand an explanation of their policies.

They worry that the new rapid turnover of clothes increases environmental harm at every stage from growing cotton, through burning energy to make and transport them, to disposing of them in landfill waste dumps.

"Value fashion", as the firm prefers to call it, has been hot ever since Vogue featured a £12 Primark military jacket in 2005. The bargain hunters' haunt was declared the "new Prada", and fashionistas fell over each other to shop there. They found T-shirts at £2, pyjama sets at £5, trouser suits at about £15 and women's tops at less than £5.

"Primark makes me feel complete and at one with myself", sighed the Evening Standard's Rebecca Tyrrel last summer. "I am far more at home here than ever I was in a W11 boutique being coerced into spending £280 on a kaftan." The Observer's Polly Vernon said: "Everyone wants a bit of Primark."

Singer Alesha said: "I love Primark." Coleen McLoughlin buys its pyjamas . Five News weathergirl Lara Lewington shops there. And Big Brother's Jo O'Meara is said to be another fan.

If this seems less than a superstellar constellation of celebrity customers, maybe it's only a matter of time. For Victoria Beckham and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson go to the rival Matalan, while Katie Melua and Amanda Holden shop at TK Maxx.

Primark has flourished on the back of the buzz. Last year its profits soared by 18 per cent and it increased its floorspace by 40 per cent, largely by buying the Littlewoods chain.

A Cambridge University study, published by its Institute for Manufacturing, reported that clothing purchases have increased by a third over the past five years, largely because of the growth of fast fashion: on average each Briton now buys 50 items a year. As a result, it says, "waste volumes are high and growing". It concludes: "There is a clear environmental disadvantage to the increased flow of goods associated with fast fashion."

The report's author, Julian Allwood, said yesterday that the clothes were also less likely to be suitable for second-hand sales or to be taken up by charity shops as they lasted less long. He argues for a new trend of "durable fashion" where people are "more emotionally attached" to their clothes. He even suggests that shoppers might meet the desire for a changing wardrobe by hiring clothes rather than buying them.

Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth cited fast fashion's "colossal impact on the environment, from the demand for land to the use of pesticides in growing cotton and other fibres for clothing".

Siân Berry, of the Green Party, said: "We are not against fashion in itself. But cheap clothes, not designed to last, are a rip-off for the consumer and the planet."

Campaigning Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Baker agreed; "If something is very cheap it comes at a price, and the price is damage to the environment and an unnecessary use of finite resources. Primark is a prime example of wasteful consumption."

The Conservative environment spokesman, Peter Ainsworth, is to write to Primark "for an explanation of their policies". He said: "Their clothing may be cheap, but it is not cheerful for the planet."

The protests come as Primark plans to open a flagship 100,000 sq ft store in Oxford Street, its first in central London.

The Prime Minister's chief environmental adviser and chairman of the official Sustainable Development Commission, Sir Jonathon Porritt, said fast fashion was "the opposite of sustainability". He added: "It is a big deal. It's an inappropriate statement of affluence." It contrasted with the move by other big companies, including Marks & Spencer, to make their operations more environmentally friendly.

War on Want alleges that Primark and some other sellers of cheap clothing "are only able to sell at rock-bottom prices in the UK because women workers in Bangladesh are being exploited". But Geoff Lancaster, the head of external affairs at Primark's parent company, Associated British Foods, said the company observed "a stringent code of conduct" and was independently audited wherever it operated, including in Bangladesh.

He denied that Primark's clothes were not durable, but declined to answer the environmentalists' charges in detail. He said: "We are in the business of value fashion. I would dispute that that was a bad thing for the environment. Offering customers good value is a good thing."

The real price of 'fast fashion'

The Primark dress worn by Noel Gallagher's girlfriend, Sara Macdonald, at the 'Q' awards is cheap - but there are hidden costs:

Dress: Gold, sequinned mini dress with three-quarter length sleeves from Primark.

Cost: £10 - but is now selling on eBay for £30.

Made from: Polyester covered in sequins. Dry clean only.

Environmental impact: Making polyester burns energy and emits pollution, but clothes made of it can be washed at lower temperatures than cotton.

Making it greener: Could be made from recycled plastic bottles. In a process that takes around 12 weeks, a polyester fleece can be made from 11 two-litre bottles.

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