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Yes, fast fashion is bad – but consumers can’t solely take the blame for the industry’s shortfalls

Initiatives like Second Hand September are much-needed, but the transformation of the clothing industry can’t happen without the cooperation of brands

Harriet Hall
Tuesday 03 September 2019 18:47 BST
Tan France explains why he doesn't criticise fast fashion

It has become very fashionable, of late, to proclaim that you hate fast fashion.

Slamming the industry has become the latest virtue-signalling badge to wear on the tube, shout from your Twitter account and announce to all your friends.

And for good reason. In the past week, a study conducted by Oxfam has revealed that two tonnes of clothing is purchased every minute in the UK. The emissions from the new clothes bought by people in the UK over the course of a month were found to be greater than those from flying a plane around the world 900 times. The study also found that 53 per cent of British adults were not aware of the damaging effects of fast fashion. The latter is almost unbelievable.

As a result, Oxfam has launched Second Hand September, an initiative to encourage people to reject the craving for new clothes and turn other people’s unwanted garms into your new wardrobe obsession.

I didn’t buy a single new piece of clothing in August – it wasn’t difficult (and that’s coming from a fashion obsessive). We need to change the mentality of fashion. Style is about how you present your clothes, how you rework them to express individuality. It is about buying special items that last a lifetime and curating outfits. It doesn’t always have to mean new.

But shopping for second-hand clothing can be even more exciting than the release of endorphins that unwrapping tissue paper, tearing off labels or cutting into cardboard boxes brings. The joy of rifling through a vintage store and finding something only you are likely to own appeals far more than turning up to a wedding to find that you’re one of three women in that Whistles must-have. The increasing popularity of resale sites like Depop demonstrates this.

I’ve always donated my old clothes to charity – I find it hard to believe that around 300,000 tonnes of clothing ends up in household bins every year, with 20 per cent of it going to landfill. It feels completely absurd that people would throw things like this away, when other people can delight in them. Last year, it was revealed that Burberry had been burning £28.6m worth of clothes that had been unsold – something the brand says it is no longer doing.

Sartorial elitists may say we should only buy from respectable brands with Parisian ateliers and hand-stitching – but it’s much harder to actually interrogate brands about their supply chains, question manufacturing methods and demand change.

Yet while it’s easy for us to turn our nose up at £2 T-shirts and flimsy fabrics that fall apart after one wear, we’d do well to remember that fast fashion democratised trends. It made them available to a mass market at affordable prices in a way it wasn’t before. And it isn’t new. Designers as early as the 1920s were finding ways of creating garments that people could easily copy – whether that be to make them at home with cut-out patterns in more affordable fabrics, or to buy them from department stores. It feels all too easy to dismiss the high street in such discussions.

Extinction Rebellion is aiming to have London Fashion Week cancelled. But the answer isn’t as simple as a blanket boycott. The fashion industry is worth £32bn to the British economy, it provides jobs for almost as many people as the financial sector and – vitally – it is one of the most female-dominated industries in the world; an industry that gave women previously unthinkable autonomy and independence.

Recent trends for alternatives such as fake leather and faux fur are also confusing to consumers. Do we choose the ethical or the environmental? Because they aren’t one and the same. Dr Martens has seen a 70 per cent revenue increase since introducing its vegan leather, but often faux leather is made from ground oil. Animal rights campaigners reject wool, but acrylic alternatives are packed with micro plastics. Of course, the acrylic versions are cheaper and more accessible to a wider audience.

This summer, Britons apparently purchased more than 50 million outfits to be worn once and then discarded. Influencer culture has increased this pressure to renew. Trends are turning over at an extreme velocity, and the pressure on designers to produce upwards of eight collections a year has led to designer burnout.

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The 1951 film The Man in the White Suit, sees a chemist design an everlasting, dirt-repelling fabric. The realisation that this would mean the end of the rag trade sees the chemist chased out by the unions at the end of the film. While an extreme caricature of the industry, ultimately, this is a dilemma that brands have been faced with – and they’ve responded to it badly.

The industry has a lot to answer for. Sustainable options are available and recent moves by the likes of Wrangler and Lee to pioneer sustainable methods of denim dying, as well as 3D-printing and the use of recycled fabrics are positive moves. Brands such as Net-a-Porter, Zara and H&M have all made recent moves towards promoting sustainability.

Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood have long been at the vanguard of rejecting the ethos of disposable fashion, too.

But the onus to end fast fashion cannot be placed on the consumer alone. As consumers, we have a responsibility to return to the Make Do and Mend mentality of wartime, but not all consumers have the time to research the origins and longevity of their clothes – we need systemic change from the industry.

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