This essay by Isabella Rose-Leahy was the winner of the competition for years 7 to 10.
So-called 'Fast Fashion' is defined briefly as cheap clothing manufactured quickly in response to changing fashion trends. This seems harmless, not least because it allows those on low incomes to afford nice looking clothes. It simply produces affordable clothing replicating the latest catwalk trends and high fashion designs. However, once we scrape below the surface it is soon evident that this is a cynical trade seeking to make perfectly serviceable clothing unfashionable and undesirable in order to sell garments, often of very low quality, produced in terrible conditions in developing countries. Cheap clothes are bought and cast aside in rapid succession as trends change. This is largely dependent on an easily influenced society manipulated by sophisticated publicity campaigns. This alone is unethical, however further investigation reveals that the negative impact of 'Fast Fashion' spans the globe impacting vulnerable people and the environment.
Inevitably the production of consumer goods involves the consumption of energy and materials and the production of waste products and pollution. In a society increasingly obsessed with generating huge sums of money for an absurdly wealthy elite the appeal of producing low-cost products which are effectively disposable leading to further potential sales is obviously appealing. Even better if these products can be manufactured where wages are low, and environmental protection lacking. When a population hooked on celebrity is offered a cheap way to emulate their role models it is no surprise that the environmental impact of buying such clothing barely registers. Even when the label 'Misguided' marketed a £1 bikini, very few commented that this can't be profitable without making unethical compromises.
One of the major impacts that fast fashion has on the environment is the production of untreated toxic wastewater. The chemicals released during the manufacture of cheap garments in developing countries include the heavy metals lead, mercury and arsenic. Whilst obviously very damaging to wildlife and the environment these toxins also have a huge impact on local people. In many developing countries where fast fashion garments are made local people are dependent on waterways for washing their laundry, washing their bodies and preparing their food. In addition many people, not to mention other species, actually obtain their food from such waterways. Top predators are particularly at risk from the toxic effects of heavy metals as these toxins tend to accumulate in organisms. This means that plants accumulate a modest amount of polluting heavy metals, such toxins become more concentrated in those organisms that eat plants, even more concentrated in the organisms that eat these herbivores, and can reach lethal levels in top predators such as eagles, tigers or even human beings. Then there are atmospheric pollutants. The IPCC estimates that 10% of global CO2 is produced by the garment industry, together with the industry consuming 1.5 trillion litres of fresh water while contaminating the environment with damaging microplastics.
With regards to waste, it is not just chemicals that need to be considered. The offcuts that are produced during manufacture can clog waterways and litter the streets near clothes factories, and in the richer developed countries where such clothes are purchased, unfashionable garments are simply thrown away. Clothes that have consumed valuable energy and produced pollution during their manufacture simply end up in the bin. A fascinating article in the Guardian called “Fast Fashion Speeding Towards Environmental Disaster” features a study that highlights industry failures and calls for a shift in consumer attitudes. The author also calls for innovation in the use of offcuts in Bangladeshi factories, better recycling and pollution control. This is obviously very much needed because one calculation published by the BBC stated that a single European textile finishing company uses 466 kg of raw materials to produce each kilogram of the finished product.
Even if factories in developing countries clean up their act, they will still take valuable resources from the local community, and energy used to produce clothing inevitably impacts on the climate. Such energy use and carbon production does not stop once the clothes are manufactured either. Energy also has to be used to transport garments from far flung factories to their intended markets in the USA and Europe. According to Dr Patsy Perry an expert from Manchester University such clothes can travel several times around the globe while being distributed, creating a huge carbon footprint, thus having a significant effect on climate change.
At one point an organisation called the European Audit Committee suggested a one pence charge per 'fast fashion' garment to cover the cost of recycling associated waste, however this was rejected by governments, and although better recycling, the reduction of polyester (which is difficult to recycle), improved pollution control and other practises have been suggested, in a notoriously fickle industry driven by a quick profit these are unlikely to occur unless consumer pressure increases.
Although not strictly environmental, when considering consumer pressure perhaps we should think about the practices of the company Boohoo in their Leicester factory during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been reported widely in the media, who exposed terrible working conditions in sweat shops where staff were paid less than the legal minimum wage, forced to work in very cramped and dangerous conditions, and were not protected from a COVID-19 outbreak in the factory. Within a very short period over one billion pounds was wiped off Boohoo shares. QC Alison Levitt gave a damning picture of a company that put profit above people and highlighted a culture where little thought was invested in the environment or the workers making its goods. However, brands such as 'Pretty Little Thing', 'Karen Millen', 'Coast' and 'Warehouse' still seem to hold their appeal. Memories are short, and according to the Financial Times sales were soaring for Boohoo during the later months of the pandemic with a 40% increase in early 2021 as conventional shops remained closed.
It has been pointed out by Libby Peake of the Green Alliance that the UK consumes more clothes than any country in Europe. What is particularly startling is that the UK consumes twice as many clothes as notoriously fashionable Italy. This should tell us something.
Bullying and peer pressure have a huge impact on what young people wear, and what we buy. Somehow we need to grow an environmental conscience. Think about 'Slow Fashion'. Look at genuine role models rather than shallow celebraties. Buy or upcycle from charity shops. Remember we are not impressing anyone by wearing clothes from a sweatshop staffed by workers whose drinking water is polluted by the products that they make. We need to consider novel strategies such as clothes rental, a concept which is not new, but permits those on a limited budget to look good on special occasions. We need to change the minds of people around us, remembering not to bully those wearing fast fashion, but to engage them in discussion. They may have little money, and to them fast fashion may have been seen as their only choice. However, faced with the might of the industry and their cynical marketing strategies this may not be enough, so I believe that Fast Fashion should simply be banned.