What Story Does Your Outfit Tell?

By Alice Healy, English Literature and History Undergraduate

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Clothing can play a huge role in our everyday lives. It provides us with a way to express ourselves outwardly and can have an incredibly large impact on our day-to-day confidence. Who doesn’t love a new coat, an amazing pair of shoes or a bargain pair of jeans? At first glance, having cheap and fashionable options is the ideal situation. However, when we venture deeper into how the clothes on the high street can be sold for so little, we face the truth of the real story behind fast fashion.  

What does fast fashion even mean? Essentially, the term describes the clothes we see in shops such as H&M, Primark and Zara. These retailers take inspiration from catwalk designs and reproduce them extremely quickly, in order to meet the demand for new trends. As a result of the speed of production, these clothes are often not built to last and are of relatively poor quality. The fast shifting consumer demands also means that unsold clothes are often sent to landfill, as most are unable to be recycled due to their “mixed” fabric.

Owing to the disposable nature of cheap clothing, we have, as a society, developed a “throw-away” attitude towards clothes. The incredible amount of landfill waste is not the only environmental issue with fast fashion. There are a few reasons why garments in these shops are so affordable, one of which is the environmental corners being cut in the name of profit.  

Toxic chemicals achieve the vibrant colours, prints and fabric finishes, making textile dyeing the second largest polluter of clean water globally (only after agriculture). In the documentary RiverBlue, it is said that “there is a joke in China that you can tell the “it” colour of the season by looking at the colour of the rivers.” It is estimated that 70% of the rivers in China are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the largely unregulated textile industry. Not only is this method of production wasteful, but it is also extremely dangerous to our natural world.

 “there is a joke in China that you can tell the “it” colour of the season by looking at the colour of the rivers.” – RiverBlue Documentary

Fast fashion is not only problematic to the environment, but also in regard to human rights. High street retailers often use sweatshops to produce their clothing, paying the manual workers, who are often women, inhumanely low wages for long hours and under poor conditions. Sexual harassment and discrimination are faced by many of the female employees, some reporting that their right to maternity leave was not upheld by employers. In Bangladesh, sweatshop workers earn around $33 per month, which is $27 under the living wage. Additionally, since 1990 more than 400 workers have died and several thousand have been wounded in 50 major factory fires. Large corporations are exploiting developing countries in order to keep profit margins high.  

So, what can we do to tackle this huge issue?

As consumers, we have an incredible amount of power. Stopping purchasing garments from high street retailers, or at least cutting down how much you buy, is perhaps the largest way to individually aid the fight against fast fashion. Buying clothing from charity shops is an amazing way to not only support great causes, but to get more expensive clothes for a fraction of the cost. Buying clothing from charity shops also helps to reduce the amount of clothing going to landfill, as many of the unsold donated clothes eventually end up as waste. If you are financially able, buying from ethical brands is a wonderful way to support smaller, more conscious businesses, but admittedly this is not viable for everyone.

Education is powerful and being informed can help us change our negative behaviours. Doing what we can for our environment and fellow humans is essential, and if that means resisting a new Zara dress, I’m more than okay with it.

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