Tallulah Hutson writes about the environmental impacts of fashion, boycotting buying brand new clothes and why it’s not the quick fix she thought it might be
It began in the first week of January. I was in the kind of restaurant for people who love lentils. I was meeting a friend who’d come down to London with nothing but a small backpack by her side and the knowledge that she was moving to Bangkok for six months the next morning.
“I’ve been trying to buy all my clothes second hand…” she said, sincerely.
I can’t tell you exactly why it came up but it definitely stuck. I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions. I’ll say that they’re silly but in reality I just forget to come up with something half decent by midnight. Hearing of my friend’s anti-fast fashion actions finally got me thinking of a resolution of my own. Being an opinionated person particularly fond of making it obvious to most people I meet, on top of being a bit of a sustainability freak, it was high time to practice what I preached. So in the glittering restaurant lights of Granary Square, I resolved then and there that, for the whole year, I would buy no clothes brand new. Over six months have since ensued. I’ve had to reconsider several things I thought were straight forward about fast fashion and exactly what is the right thing to do. Many of my assumptions about the impact we can have are being remoulded into something new.
In the time of rising sea levels, increased extreme weather occurrences and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, swapping ASOS for Depop seems like a meagre feat. A 2017 policy brief by the Global Fashion Agenda, however, told me a different tale, citing the consumption of textiles for clothing and footwear as the source of the European Union’s fourth largest environmental footprint. This same brief states that clothing accounts for 70% of the 9.5 million tonnes of textile products that EU citizens purchase annually. That means that EU citizens alone are acquiring an average of 13 kg of new clothing per person each year. Each of these kilograms has an average carbon footprint of 15 kg and an average water footprint of 10 000 litres. More shockingly, a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future) points out that textiles production gives rise to 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually. That’s more emissions than all the international flights and maritime shipping operations combined cough out each year. Whilst high fashion has heralded green as the colour of spring/summer 2019, it is clear that the industry, as a whole, has been far from it.
The topic has only grown hotter over 2019. Extinction Rebellion, the socio-political protest group that saw British Parliament declare a state of environment and climate emergency on May 1st, are now calling for London Fashion Week to be cancelled. Through their social media platforms, XR cites fashion as “one of the most polluting” but also “one of the most influential” industries. In a letter sent to the British Fashion Council on July 26th, they requested that an assembly of professionals and designers be convened in place of LFW, where the industry could declare a state of climate emergency and take up the mantle of active change. Cancelling a fashion capital’s biggest show week may sound improbable. It seems less impossible, however, in light of the Swedish Fashion Council’s July 2nd decision to cancel the then upcoming Stockholm Fashion Week due to similar sustainability concerns.
The industry definitely does not want to come across as a distinctly unfashionable all-consuming, all-polluting, de-sensitized cash cow. In an open letter of response, British Fashion Council CEO Caroline Rush agreed that we are currently in a state of climate emergency. Rush also expressed willingness to meet with activists and speed-up the change that she says must come from “within” the industry.
Rush is not the first to acknowledge that fashion should take the wheel in order to swerve away from the linear purchase-and-dispose line we currently live with. A handful of designers have been championing change for climate change’s sake for some time. Vivienne Westwood has referenced climate crisis in several campaigns. She has also emphasised that quality is key for clothing to have longevity. Stella McCartney® has been a sustainability focussed brand since its inception, employing recycled nylon, polyester and metals as well as participating in several partnerships designed to drive forward the transformation of fashion into a circular economy. A circular economy is the ultimate goal – a system that originates from sustainable sources and combines maximum re-use with minimum waste.
Large consumer brands such as Adidas® have also got on board. Many of their products made in partnership with Stella McCartney® are 80% recycled paper. Adidas® have also partnered with the ocean conservation and awareness group Parley for the Oceans to create a series of products from recycled PET that would have otherwise ended up in our seas. Think everything from socks and swimsuits to running shoes. In April 2019, the sportswear giant also released their first 100% recyclable running shoe. The idea is that when your well worn out futuristic shoe is finally no good for you, you return it to an Adidas store to be washed and ground down into plastic pellets that are used to make new shoes in a process that ends where it begins.
This kind of innovation does not have to be at the industry’s expense either. According to the same 2017 Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, “Money is being left on the table”, with more than 500 billion US dollars “in value [being] lost from the system every year due to under-utilised clothes and the lack of recycling.” Supporting companies that combat this with sustainable, recycled and recyclable products, as well as clamouring for more, is something we can all do as consumers.
Should we all stop buying brand new?
The next question is whether simultaneously boycotting brand new products, as I have been, is actually a good idea. Approximately 75 million people are income dependent on the fashion industry, according to UN estimates. Large scale boycotts could present significant financial instability for many within the industry, particularly low-wage workers. Journalist and author Tansy E. Hoskins told Euronews Living that she was “only in favour of boycotts” when they have been “explicitly agreed with workers in the Global South.” The same article discusses “empowerment of workers [as] a more ethical method of reducing overconsumption”, citing low pay as a facilitating factor for fast fashion. Simply summarised, if producing textiles is poorly paid, people will work longer out of necessity, ultimately producing more. More items means more supply for the demand, sustaining lower prices. Cheap buys make us all less likely to think before we throw away.
Shopping sustainably is starting to seem like a many headed hydra without a Hercules. Choosing not to buy anything brand new has been an educational process but if we all did only this, would it solve the world’s problems? No, of course it’s not that simple. Nonetheless, there are quantitative pros to buying second-hand. According to the GFA’s 2017 circular fashion brief, “Extending the active life-time of a garment by just nine months reduces carbon, waste and water foot-prints by around 20-30% each and cuts resource costs by 20%”. Now imagine if you extended the garment life by another 2 years, or 10. As a result, the brief concluded that it is re-wear that offers “the greatest environmental benefits”, even in comparison to textile recycling.
Living the re-wear lifestyle has also made me a more conscientious consumer in general. I don’t think I can ever go back to quick fashion fixes without a thought for where that crop top came from or how long it will last. I don’t think, however, that I’ll be as rigorous about only buying second hand once this year is up. It’s good to support companies with sustainable products and outlooks if and when you need something new. I’ve also learnt buying second-hand is not a simple, instant world-saver. Many of the items sold through platforms such as Depop are relatively new. They’ve been worn once or twice, maybe not at all, and they’re often from fast fashion brands. In buying them, am I simply funding someone else’s fast fashion high turn-over habits? It is, of course, better that such items are sold on instead of going straight to landfill but I’m learning that buying second-hand doesn’t automatically remove you from the chain of unsustainable production and purchasing by default.
A Tip or Two
In summary, here is how I’m learning to shop sustainably. When buying second hand, consider the origin of the item. When buying anything at all, consider how long it will last you. When you need a specific item, do an internet surf to see if there’s a more sustainably-made version out there. Check the content – any recycled material is good but a bigger percentage has obvious environmental benefits. If you’re going to shop big brands, use apps like Good On You for company labour policy, environmental impact and animal well-fare reviews. You’d be surprised how big the differences between price competitors like Nike and Adidas® can be.
It sounds like a lot to do but at great risk of sounding particularly preachy, if it’s not on us, then who? There’s a high return rate in sense of reward too. There’s a thrill in your favourite jumper or most individual dress being something you found buried in a thrift shop for five pounds. There’s despicable smugness in prancing around in gym leggings made from materials that would otherwise have been incinerated, or sent to sit in a landfill pit. But just as I was getting into the swing of it, my challenge to gradually turn my wardrobe into a shrine to sustainable lifestyle met an unexpected obstacle.
An end or a new beginning?
Six months into 2019 I graduated from the University of St Andrews. Having plucked down my posters and photos from the walls and boxed up my belongings, I kissed the last four years of my life goodbye and boarded a train out of East Fife on the 8th of July. I arrived at Kings Cross station to be welcomed by a stark, bare luggage rack. An empty cave staring me in the face. My suitcase had been smuggled away. My vintage finds and carefully curated collection was gutted from the centre of this storyline. My mother’s leather jacket from mid-western America; a 1940s style phenomenon of a pink summer dress sourced from the St. Andrew’s vintage stall called G.I. Jane. Never to be seen again.
Perhaps my clothes of yore will pop up on some savvy eBay buyer’s screen, or adorn the side of a dodgy market stall. Perhaps divine intervention will see them returned to me, despite LNER’s failed CCTV. In the mean time, my cycle has started over. It’s the same challenge – find a way to buy sustainably while still expressing your sense of identity. The thief just upped the stakes that fateful Wednesday. They dragged away my training wheels with my suitcase. I’m wiser to the world of vintage and independent sellers’ now; this time I’ve got some intel up my second-hand sleeves. Return to START is an opportunity to buy better while project recreate-my-wardrobe is underway. If I scrape the very bottom of the barrel, there’s one last silver lining. My case contained a few pre-2019 clothes that I had bought new. At least now, they’re all second-hand too.