Western consumers must acknowledge the social and environmental impact of shopping.
I follow fashion, I own items of clothing that I have never worn and I’ve been known to buy something that I only ‘kinda like’ in a sale if the reduction is good enough (see point 2). I also care about social issues both here and abroad and would like to consider myself a conscious consumer. Rarely are these things considered to be mutually exclusive.
As a society, there is a disconnect between our attitude to fast fashion and the process involved in the creation of garments. We’re so accustomed to buying clothing from the high street in excess and on whim that the things we buy are expendable, fleeting and ultimately disposable (Primark, I’m looking at you).
But how often do you pause to think about the fact that the clothes you are wearing were made by an actual human being?
As much as people (myself included) would like to imagine that their clothes are produced by machines, the production line of an item of clothing is overwhelmingly human – from the farmers who grow the cotton to the person that stitches the logo.
60 million people globally work in the garment industry. And although the issues surrounding sweatshop conditions and garment industry workers’ rights hit the headlines in 2013 when the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, on a day to day basis we rarely stop to give the people who make our clothes consideration – or connect our consumer habits with their lives and livelihoods.
As well as the social impact of the fashion industry, there is also a huge environmental impact. Polyester, the most widely used manufactured fibre, is made from petroleum, a single mill in China uses 200 tons of water for each ton of fabric it dyes but an estimated 20 million tons of textile waste is sent to land fill in mainland China each year.
The world’s resources cannot keep up with the world’s demand for throw away fashion. Yet despite all of this, consumers in the UK have an estimated £30 billion worth of unworn clothes in their wardrobes – and we’re buying more every day.
The solution doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t have to be, to not engage with fashion at all. Throughout history what an individual chooses to wear has served as a representation of their personality, and by extension their personal values.
There are closer to home benefits of committing to buying second hand first too. It’s typically cheaper than buying new, there’s a certain amount of adventure (of the first world variety) involved in searching out alternative places to shop and there is a thrill in owning something unique.
If you prefer to buy new, there are many shops that produce clothing in a conscious and environmentally friendly way. The Reformation produce clothing out of rescued deadstock fabric and repurposed clothing and People Tree are committed to having a 100% Fair Trade supply chain. These shops are more expensive, but when you buy a £15 pair of jeans on the high street how much money do you think is going to the person that produced them? Answer – not very much.
Deciding to spend your money more consciously is a lifestyle choice worth making. As a Western consumer, where you choose to spend your money says an awful lot about you and what you care about, and brands want your money. With this in mind, individual consumer habits are very well placed to put pressure on companies to implement more sustainable and socially conscious behaviour.