Life is (to steal, and slightly modify, a line from Kanye West) becoming faster, cheaper, quicker, shoddier… and as disposable as the carton your McDonald’s fries come in.
Shopping is no longer about what we need, but what we decide we want: over Christmas, Tesco launched the VX1i ‘Party Phone’, which comes SIM-free as an alternative second phone, so that you don’t risk losing your more expensive one during enthusiastic dancing – it’s the ultimate throwaway phone for night-time partying.
The most shocking story of our disposable nature, of this new decade, comes from the NY Times, alleging that bin bags full of clothes that had not been sold by an H & M in America had been found slashed with razors and disposed of outside, so that they would be rendered unwearable.
That’s a pretty extreme example, but when it comes to clothes, we seem to be environmentally and ethically at our worst, without even realizing it. Fashion magazines used to revolve around fashion seasons – winter and summer – and we’d dress and buy accordingly. Now, we’re offered new, affordable apparel every few weeks – we can buy a ‘capsule’ wardrobe for our two week holiday, and not mind if we leave behind a few items, whilst the celebrities that litter the fashion magazines are never
seen in the same outfit twice (and if they do, the photos are printed side by side with damning red rings, citing their reusing crime). We are becoming a society obese on the clothing equivalent of fast food.
A new action plan was launched at the beginning of last London Fashion Week to make fashion more sustainable and less environmentally damaging, by Defra Minister Lord Hunt. Environmentally, clothing and textiles have an extremely high impact, exacerbated by the high volumes of clothes we consume in the UK. The Defra ‘Sustainable Clothing Roadmap’ has brought together over three hundred organisations, from high street retailers, to designers and textile manufacturers to battle the environmental impacts of ‘throwaway fashion’. Companies and some of the biggest names in the industry have signed up to take action to make a significant difference to the environmental footprint and social inequalities, which blight some of the production and retail processes of consumer fashion.
We buy, we wear (maybe once, maybe not at all) and we replace, on an epic scale. In the UK alone about 2 million tonnes of clothing, with the enormous value of £23 billion, is purchased every year, with the discount fashion sector (characterised by low-cost, short-lifetime garments) making up one-fifth of the UK market. This is an area of the shopping sector that has grown, beyond belief, and beyond most people’s expectations. What’s worse is that, according to DEFRA, 74% of the 2 million tonnes ends up in landfill every year, when it could be recycled or reused. Instead, it sits, attempting to biodegrade in a mass of synthetic fabrics and cheap material.
Obviously, a lot of the blame has fallen upon the ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em quick’ retailers, and whilst, obviously, the more expensive end of the market may be just as guilty, you’re far more likely to hold onto a t-shirt that you had to scrimp and save for. In the past five years, with the rise of ‘value retailers’ such as Primark, H&M and TK Maxx, not to mention supermarket fashion ranges which you can buy on your weekly shop, the price of clothing in the UK has plummeted by up to 25 per cent. For this reason, textiles are fast becoming the biggest waste product in the UK.
TRAID is a textile recycling charity, aiming to divert clothing from landfill sites and back out into the public. Leigh McAlea, TRAID’s Communication Manager, said that TRAID ‘has noticed a rise in cheaper quality and poorly made clothing over the past two years. The majority of this clothing comes from high street fast fashion retailers such as Primark. It is very common to get clothing on the belt from low cost retailers which has never been worn and the labels still attached.’ The fact that it is cheap doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t reuse it, what is true however is that the reuse value is negligible as such cheaply made clothing wears so quickly. This of course impacts on the amount of textile going to landfill as more people buy more clothing that simply isn’t made to last.
According to Leigh, ‘It also marks a trend that TRAID is sorting more quantity for less quality’, which it appears, we are doing as consumers as well. The poor quality of our cheap fashion fixes has caused the bottom to drop out of the recycled textile industry and the value of recycled material has fallen by 71 per cent over the past fifteen years.
Low prices encourage waste – who hasn’t blown £15 in Primark for that one-off bop outfit that, more often than not, is in the end used as a sponge for those hastily prepared JCR ‘cocktails’ and thrown away at the end of the night. Not so far removed from that, were the dresses that melt in the wash that were last year’s environmentally friendly innovation to hit the world of fashion. They were the fruit of the Wonderland project, a unique collaboration between a pioneering British designer and scientists at the country’s leading universities, which sought a solution to the ‘Primark effect’. The team created plastic dresses – made out of a similar material to washing capsules – that disappear on contact with water, with the aim of drawing attention to the problem of waste plastic.
This is all very good and well, but we all like new clothes – and there’s still not anything very sexy about being dressed in clothes you’ve had for years, seldom washed because you want to preserve them for as long as possible. There is no green language that is socially acceptable and fun. Who wants to be an ‘environmentalist’, dressing in hemp and telling everyone that if you don’t wash your hair for a month, it actually starts to self-clean?
Sexing up recycling is always going to be a tall order, but things are being done to change environmentalism’s image. Clothes-swapping has been re-branded as ‘swishing’ and it’s all the rage. There’s an official website and the International Day of Swishing has just passed. Having less of better stuff is a more tasteful, healthy and moral option. The alternative is ‘fast fashion’, which is tempting, briefly appetizing, but ultimately not very satisfying.