Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth

A UK parliamentary report has concluded that the demand for cheap, throwaway clothing is environmentally unsustainable and that the fashion industry urgently needs a new economic model. The shopping-averse Stretch Kontelj is shocked by the evidence of excess he finds in his own wardrobe...

 (Belish/Shutterstock)
(Belish/Shutterstock)

WHEN I first heard that MPs in the UK were calling for a charge of a penny per garment as part of a new ‘producer responsibility scheme’ that could raise £35m. to fund better waste collection and recycling systems for clothing, I thought it was another case of politicians sticking their noses in where it wasn’t necessary and that it was bound to lead to more cost and additional red tape for no discernible benefit.

The initiative did however pique my interest, so I started to read more broadly on the issue. And the more I read, the more I started to think that perhaps the politicians, in this instance, are onto something.

I’m no greenie in the trendy sense of the word, fixated with climate change to the exclusion of all else, I do however consider myself somewhat of a practical or pragmatic environmentalist. I’m concerned about issues such as litter, waste recycling, water quality, air pollution, the plastic ocean challenge and pollution in general.

In this sense, ‘fast fashion’ worries me.

A parliamentary report by the Environmental Audit Committee looking into clothing consumption and sustainability in the UK concluded that less than one percent of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new products, with around 300,000 tonnes of discarded garments being thrown away each year – much of it ending up in landfill or incinerated.

According to the report, the UK buys more clothes per person than any other European country, with the average consumer buying 26.7kg of ‘fast fashion’ garments per year compared with 16.7kg in Germany, 14.5kg in Italy and 12.6kg in Sweden.

Cheap clothing is available in abundance and has come to be considered disposable. Social media and the desire to emulate the latest celebrity trend is helping to drive the industry. But at what costs to the planet?

As observed by chair of the EAC Mary Creagh: ‘The scientific warnings are stark on sustainability. Overconsumption and climate change are driving mass extinction. We need a new economic model for fashion. Business as usual no longer works.’

Fast fashion is a term used to describe an accelerated fashion business model that has evolved since the 1980s. It involves increased numbers of new fashion collections every year designed for quick turnover, promoting seasonal trends and cheap products in a continuous cycle of profit for the manufacturers and retailers. As the AEC report noted, everything we wear has an embedded environmental cost in terms of energy, water, land and chemicals used.

Textile production is a major contributor to climate change. It produces an estimated 1.2bn tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, which is close to the combined carbon footprint of all 28 current members of the EU.

The total carbon footprint of clothing in the UK is growing and if it keeps rising at current rates, it will be a major inhibitor in the UK’s quest to achieve the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals.

The fashion industry is also an extensive user of water and in this regard, it is a serial polluter. The industry relies on water throughout the production process for textiles and garments. It takes on average 10,000-20,000 litres of water to cultivate just 1kg of raw cotton. The production process, involving textile dyeing and finishing of the raw fibre into a garment for retail, is very water intensive and polluting, making it significantly detrimental to the ecosystems.

Guilted by what I had read, I undertook a stock-take of my own wardrobe. I have long considered myself a minimalist when it comes to clothing and fashion. I’m renowned for my aversion to fashion trends and shopping in general, so you can imagine my horror when I examined my wardrobe and discovered that I’m as bad as any shopaholic fashionista.

To give you a sense, I have 13 T-shirts, five long-sleeve sports tops, two polo tops, six jumpers (including a Guernsey), three pairs of jeans, three pairs of casual trousers in assorted colours, three business suits, six business shirts, seven casual shirts, four wet-weather jackets, one track suit, five pairs of sports shorts, one sports jacket, one tuxedo, two leather jackets and, get this – 23 pairs of socks, including sport, casual and woollen. It’s alarming – and I’m someone who has an aversion to shopping. I can only imagine what the list must look like for somone who is unashamedly a slave to fashion.

In my defence, apart from two casual shirts, which I recently purchased on sale, albeit now with a tinge of buyer’s remorse (at least I bought them local), the average age of the items in my wardrobe is between five and 10 years old.

It does however go to show that the average person can accumulate an embarrassing amount of clothing without even trying, let alone if you are someone who enjoys a bit of ‘retail therapy’.

So, to play my part, I have made a commitment to myself not to buy clothing of any description for the next 12 months, and depending how that goes, with an option to increase the period to two years.

It’s my contribution to slowing down the fast-fashion industry. If my resolution catches on, who knows, it just might well make a difference, albeit small, to the preservation of the planet.

One small step, or dare I say, one less T-shirt at a time...

  • Dr Stretch Kontelj permanently resides in Guernsey but is originally from Australia of Slovenian heritage. He is a former mayor and councillor of Greater Geelong, a city in Victoria, Australia, of some 250,000 people. He is vice chairman of the Guernsey branch of the Institute of Directors and takes a keen interest in local politics and community affairs

  • @StretchKontelj

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