Katie Byng-Hall Explores The Ethics Surrounding The Textiles And Fashion Industry.
Photo by Clark Street Mercantile
Clothes shopping is something millions of us in the UK enjoy. Whether it's sprucing up our wardrobe, picking up some bargains, or splashing out on designer treats, shopping is the ultimate guilty pleasure.
However, there is a serious problem behind this retail frivolity. It's easy to forget the processes which provide us with our clothes, and what happens when we decide to throw them away. This short-sightedness can have severe implications for both people and the environment.
Many industries that are currently operating in the UK have a detrimental effect on the environment, the top three being housing, transport and food. But you might not expect clothing to be fourth. 38 million pieces of clothing are bought new every week (more than one for every two UK citizens), while 11 million end up in landfill.
Landfill disposal is vastly problematic due to the toxins released by waste which can contaminate earth and groundwater, as well as the methane emitted as it decays, polluting the atmosphere with 25 times the strength of carbon dioxide. It is estimated that 99% of clothing in landfill could be reused or recycled in some way, so if we collectively mould our buying outlook to become more sustainable, then these environmental issues could be mitigated.
Additionally, an estimated £30 billion worth of clothing lies untouched in wardrobes across the UK. This is a prime allegory for today's consumerist culture – we buy things because advertising makes us believe we need them to stay relevant and be liked, and this results in us wasting our money in a continuous cycle of purchasing and discarding, without being aware of the realities of the system which we're contributing to.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, sweatshops are factories where “workers are paid very little and work many hours in very bad conditions”. These factories are famously used to produce clothing for big brands such as Nike and Victoria's Secret.
Over 60 million people, mostly women and children, work in sweatshops producing textiles worldwide for under minimum wage. While it is true that sweatshop work can be some of the best-paid employment in impoverished areas, it is still outrageous that mega-rich companies are outsourcing their labour to people whom they feel they have the right to exploit.
If we overcame our urge to keep buying new clothing on a regular basis, then companies may not feel the need to use sweatshops to keep up with the constantly increasing demand for their products.
The Recycling Option
With the advancement of technology, it has become possible to recycle a variety of textiles, a method which can lead to the creation of new and sustainable clothing, as well as reducing the mountain of rubbish steadily flowing into landfill.
Textiles recycling is a complex process with a simple premise: textiles are first shredded into fibres, then re-spun and reused in weaving or knitting new garments, or compressed for use in products such as mattresses. If we make the effort to recycle our unwanted clothes, then they could have a new lease of life rather than polluting our environment.
The so-called 'Fashion Revolution' is an approach to clothing which aims to cease the consumerist supply-chain altogether. There is a train of thought that capitalism, including the sale of clothing, is a toxic economic system which inevitably leads to immoral exploitation of workers in third world countries.
Capitalism is also incredibly damaging to the environment, with 3% of all global emissions being attributed to the clothing production and disposal process. For some, the only way to adequately protest against this system is to boycott the purchase of new clothing completely.
The art of forming a wardrobe from second-hand clothing is becoming increasingly popular. Vintage and reused clothing shops such as Rokit and Beyond Retro are the new haunts for young hipsters, especially in London.
For conscientious people especially concerned with sustainability, TRAID is a chain of charity shops with a difference. The organisation takes people's cast-offs and regenerates them into high-quality garments to be repurchased.
As well as reselling 11,000 garments per week, meaning that 3000 tons of clothing avoids landfill per year, the charity's funds from their resold goods are put towards global projects working to improve conditions and working practices in the textile industry. Could this sustainable and societally responsible way of producing clothing be the way forward to redefine our textile industry?
Textile waste has become such a significant issue that the government is proposing legislation to regulate it. The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme was put forward in February 2019, and would aim to reduce textile waste by placing a one penny charge per wasted garment on producers; the potential £35 million that this charge could raise would then be reinvested into textile recycling schemes.
Additionally, there have been proposed changes to the Modern Slavery Act and Companies Act in order to implement increased diligence within companies against forced and child labour, thus reducing exploitation overseas.
Down to Us
It is essential that the government supports the promotion of sustainability in the UK's clothing industry, so that it is not allowed to continue to take such a toll. However, the real change has to come from us – the consumers. We all have to find a new guilty pleasure besides clothes shopping, because only then will the increasing textile waste problem be stopped.