The world is changing. As consumers we are becoming increasingly aware of our ‘environmental footprint.’ As I write this I am looking at my re-usable metal water bottle, convinced the water does not taste as good as it did out of the Evian plastic bottles I used to use, but this is a trade-off I am happy to make because I am now so much more aware of the impact that the over-consumption of plastic has had on our oceans.
For many people, thinking about pollution conjures up pictures of airplanes and power stations. However, recent research indicates that the fashion industry is the second largest contributor to global pollution (second only to oil). In addition to accounting for over 10 percent of total green house gas emissions, the textile industry is also responsible for around 20 percent of industrial water pollution, as manufacturers discharge dyes into nearby rivers. Combine this with the fact that one million tonnes of clothing will end in landfill each year – and the scale of the problem starts to become apparent.
In the UK we consume more fast fashion than any other country in Europe, and three in five garments bought will end up in landfill within a year. So what has caused such a fashion explosion?
The rise of social media has certainly not helped our attitude towards ‘outfit repeating’. Post a picture on Instagram or Facebook and within minutes hundreds of your friends have seen your brand new dress. This means the days of tactical outfit repeating are over, unless you commit to dodging photos at all events.
On top of this, the rise of the fast fashion business model – that facilitates cheap clothing and encourages customers to constantly consume ‘new in’ – has led to a cultural shift in buying. We focus on quantity over quality, wearing things once and then letting them disappear into our wardrobes never to be seen again. In fact, the next time most of these garments are seen is when they are thrown away to make wardrobe space for more disposable fashion items.
Research conducted by the Environmental Audit Committee has shown that the UK has the lowest expected active life of clothes in the European Union, and in 2017, 235 million items of clothing were sent to UK landfills.
Dr Alana James, Senior Lecture in Fashion at Northumbria University, has extensively studied the impact the fast fashion business model has had upon UK shoppers and the environment. Working with both high street fashion retailers and consumers, her research has centred around the changes that can be made to the mass-market fashion sector to help move towards a more sustainable future.
We chat to Dr James to discuss how consumers can help save the planet by altering their spending habits…
What inspired you to dedicate your research to this particular area?
I studied fashion at the University of Manchester and was educated on how to be a fashion designer. When I came back to Newcastle to do my master’s degree at Northumbria University, the philosophy from undergraduate to postgraduate changed quite significantly and I started to think about the more responsible angle of where fashion came from. I did my masters in 2009 which was a year after the recession in the UK, and people’s shopping habits had started to change. We saw the emergence of the fast fashion business model, and places like H&M and Primark were becoming the real leaders on the high street because consumers were wanting quantity rather than quality. All of a sudden they had less money due to the recession, but they were still wanting to shop.
I went on to do my PHD at Northumbria and worked with high street fashion retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Next, Monsoon and H&M to explore how fashion could be made more sustainable. Working with the companies was the most interesting part. Before that I had approached it from a very naive angle that questioned why companies were being unethical and unsustainable. When you hear it from their perspective however, it’s very different – they have to be a successful business before they can make any changes going forward.
What immediate steps do you think are needed by fashion retailers to help limit the impact fast fashion is having on our environment?
I think a very obvious answer would be for them to start encouraging their customers to make more considered purchases, and instead purchase for longevity. By reverting back to a pre-fast fashion business model, people would buy for quality and longevity rather than buying a dress for a Saturday night and never wearing it again. There are some really successful examples of companies who have made these changes, such as the activewear brand Patagonia. They launched a marketing campaign featuring a picture of one of their outdoor jackets and it said: ‘Don’t buy this jacket’. It was brave – they were obviously trying to discourage consumers from purchasing clothing that they don’t need to buy, to show that they care about the environment.
It’s all about making small changes in a move towards a more sustainable and ethical supply chain. It might be that retailers start using a different type of cotton or start looking into where they manufacture in more detail, so that they can ensure there’s a living wage for their workers and they are allowed to be part of a union.
There has been recent media and public interest in the problems fast fashion is causing for our environment. Why do you think there has been such a shift in consumer ideology?
There are lots of reasons for this and I think the media is having an incredibly positive effect. This media attention goes back to the early 2000s, where retailers such as GAP and Nike were exposed for their use of child labour in their supply chain. There was also the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, a garment factory in Bangladesh that resulted in the death of approximately 1,200 workers. These big media exposés have been positive in the fact that they draw people’s attention to the subject and help expand consumers’ knowledge. Documentaries – such as Stacey Dooley Investigates Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, and Blue Planet by David Attenborough – have also drawn in the mass public and have highlighted ‘this is what’s happening, and this isn’t right’. It’s generally becoming more of a talked-about topic, so as consumer knowledge grows, retail action is in turn also needing to change.
How do you educate your students about the impact fast fashion is having on our environment?
We don’t have any particular modules and I think that in itself is a good thing. When brands segregate their sustainable and eco-conscious collections, they almost take it away from the norm by saying sustainability is a stand-alone entity. In fashion education, we don’t want to say this is what fashion is in one module and this is sustainability in another – just like we teach them skills like design cutting, sustainability has to be one of those elements. Using brand examples is a really good way of teaching students about sustainability in fashion so that they can see the theory. It’s very holistic and integrated.
COST THE EARTH
Take a look at our top fashion-savvy picks that are both stylish and sustainable…
Hirestreet Dress Hire
In the age of wear once, Insta-friendly outfits, Newcastle-based entrepreneur Isabella West has answered everyone’s wardrobe prayers by creating an online platform for renting the latest styles from high street brands at a fraction of the price. Giving fashion-enthusiasts the option to hire their favourite fashion pieces, wear and then return them, the service stocks more than 20 UK brands – ranging from ASOS to Zara – and the average rental price is £12.50 for 10 days.
A goldmine for rare vintage finds and coveted clothes of seasons past, the Depop app has been revolutionising the wardrobes of budget-conscious shoppers since its launch in 2011. For those who are unacquainted with how the app works, Depop is in essence an amalgamation of eBay’s entrepreneurial workings and Instagram’s social community. You can make a purchase on Depop using your PayPal account or your credit/debit card, but users are required to have a PayPal account to sell.
Founded by Newcastle University graduate Louisa Rogers, Trendlistr is an online collection of curated vintage fashion and accessories. Sourcing pieces from across Europe, the catalogue aims to reflect iconic fashion moments from the 20th century and provides an abundance of striking silhouettes, unusual prints and eye-catching designs. Offering a range of sizes and easy-to-care-for materials, the collection abides by a mix-and-match philosophy, which encourages customers to pair their purchases with modern trends to create their own unique style.
Uncaptive Ethical Clothing Co.
Located in STACK Newcastle, Uncaptive Ethical Clothing Co. recognises the impact the fashion industry has on our planet, from sweatshops and child labour to pollution, global warming and the exploitation of animals. Launched in July 2016 by Itala Periotto and Declan Hill, the brand uses ethical business practices to support positive change and help create a sustainable future. Providing womenswear, menswear and childrenswear that is gentle on the skin and kind to the planet, the brand also offers a range of eco-conscious living essentials – meaning you can purchase guilt-free.