We're draining the world's resources, buying clothes for less money than we would spend on a coffee. Throwing ourselves over sales rails, frantically focused on the price tag and not for a second reflecting on whose hands stitched the seams, cut the pattern, fastened the buttons – before wearing it for a night out, then chucking it in the bin.
Fast fashion may be cheap, but its environmental impact is far from it. The textile industry is responsible for 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions yearly – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Producing a single pair of jeans can take more than 10,000 litres of water – that's one-fifth of a person's entire water consumption in a lifetime. Each year, 120 million trees are cut down to feed our insatiable appetite for newness. Every second, one garbage truck filled with textiles is incinerated or sent to landfill. Freshwaters and soils are polluted and micro-plastics shredded from our clothes are infiltrating our food chains.
And despite all this, fast fashion is thriving, and clothes are pumped out at a faster and more aggressive rate than ever before. The wellbeing of our planet is a global problem, and yet the sustainability conversation is a niche one, discussed behind exclusively shut doors, resulting in the general public being unaware and unfamiliar with the problems. But if you don't know, how can you change?
Jess Montgomery, writer and founder of non-profit organisation Think The World Differently, which advocates for a better clothing industry, thinks part of the unawareness is rooted in the general presumption that fashion is frivolous and irrelevant.
"As long as we treat fashion as fluff and entertainment, we deny the ability to fully confront the very serious negative environmental and social impacts that the global clothing industry is having," she explains.
"If the negative impacts of the clothing industry are presented as just a 'fashion' problem, and if fashion is perceived as a niche interest group, then this creates the potential for people who do not see themselves as fashion enthusiasts to tell themselves that this is an issue that does not concern them," Montgomery continues.
Image and statistics via Traid
Similarly, Andrea Speranza, Head of Campaigns and Education at Traid, explains how "there is still very little understanding of the problem generated by the way we produce, consume and dispose of our clothes, and there is not enough understanding of the environmental benefit of giving longer life to clothes."
Traid has been a pioneering force in slowing down the fast fashion merry-go since 2003, when its educational programme was introduced. Through workshops, talks and campaigns, Traid educates the public about the environmental impacts of fashion, all the while making clothes last longer by yearly diverting around 3000 tonnes from ending up in landfill.
After learning that 23% of the clothes in an average Londoner's wardrobe remains unworn, Traid launched its 23% campaign last year which aims to get people actively reflecting on what they no longer need and put it back into use. In the last six months, Londoners have passed on 221 tonnes of wearable clothes and saved the same amount of water a tap running non-stop for 67 years would use.
"Sustainability is basically about doing more with less," Speranza explains. "When we give longer life to clothes, whether we repair it or buy second-hand clothes, we're doing the most sustainable thing. But if people don't know there is a problem, how will they be part of the solution?"
Education clearly needs to catch up with reality. Sara Arnold, the founder of rental service Higher Studio, explains that "kids can go all the way through state school with only hearing climate change mentioned in about 10 classes. We're basically teaching people things that are completely irrelevant," she continues.
Which is why there's a slew of trailblazers who have taken matters in their own hands – with a little help from social media. Ethical blogger Tolmeia Gregory is one of the forces making the environmental and social impacts of fashion more accessible and digestible to the general audience.
"[Instagram] is such a great tool because you can share information visually and in bite sizes and then build discussions from that. Being able to spread a positive message in the palm of people's hands is something more people need to utilise."
"I want to keep people on their toes and continue thinking about these sorts of issues," she continues. "We can't just bring it up once in passing; we need people to be aware so that they don't lose sight of what needs to change."
Image via Tolly Dolly Posh
Gregory took the first leap towards eschewing fast fashion entirely in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster 2013, and it has been several years since she last shopped on the high street. Through her platform, she hopes to inspire others to do the same.
"Less is most definitely more if buying less means saving the planet," she states. "It does take time to change your mindset on shopping – I worked out that it probably took me a good three years, but it's a change we all need to consider making if we're serious when we say 'there is no planet B.'"
Although, a lot of brands aren't taking it seriously, sustainability is merely a buzz-word and a money-making machine. From recycling schemes to ethically conscious collections, we're inundated with incentives from fast fashion behemoths, churning out new promises, new initiatives, new commitments, daily.
"It does take time to change your mindset on shopping – I worked out that it probably took me a good three years, but it's a change we all need to consider making if we're serious when we say there is no planet B." - Tolmeia Gregory
"Greenwashing is definitely a problem," says Holly Bullock, founder of ethical fashion podcast Clothes and the Rest. "Brands lure in potential customers with the promise of environmental credentials, when actually, only a small percentage of their collection is 'conscious'," she continues. "It shouldn't be the customer's job to work out what is, and isn't, genuine. I understand why sustainability could seem overwhelming; some people may simply swerve the issue altogether."
Recycling schemes have been brought forward by a plethora of brands, rewarding customers who bring in their fashion waste with discount codes. At first glance, it seems like a win-win. In actuality, these schemes add further fuel to the fire of throwaway culture, all the while boosting sales. According to a report by Greenpeace, "closing the loop through the recycling of textile fibres is nowhere near possible," due to limited technology. Additionally, in an article for The Guardian, Lucy Siegle explains, "It would take 12 years for H&M to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste. Meanwhile, if 1,000 tons is recycled, that roughly equates to the same amount of clothes a brand of this size pumps out into the world in 48 hours."
Recycling increases circularity and is always preferable to throwing clothes away, but sustainability is not singular. Recycling a few garments while keeping up the same consumption pattern will take us nowhere.
"These recycling options are often presented as the solution, and that by recycling people do not have to change their behaviours," explains Montgomery. "It is a myth that those of us in the global north can continue to live and consume as we do today, and still hope to have a recognisable planet at the end of this century."
Arnold agrees, explaining how brands are "using it as a way to carry on business as usual."
"We have to just slam on the brakes," she continues. "We're going to a point where there are going to be food shortages, how can we be growing cotton and be taking oil out of the ground to produce clothes?"
Slamming on the brakes of consumption is exactly what Arnold aims to do with her fashion rental company, Higher Studio. By providing customers with a rotating wardrobe, meaning they are paying for performance rather than ownership, she allows for creativity without draining the world's resources.
"The magic with rental is that people can be so much more experimental with the way they dress because they're not committed to the items," she explains.
Arnold is a strong advocate for rental as the future business model and wants to see these applied to all aspects of life. "I think we could stop buying clothes," she says. "I think it depends on how we think of ownership. I would like to see that we would have these leasing models for our whole lives and get rid of consumerism."
Stories Behind Things is another pioneer helping to close the loop and paving the way towards making sustainability sexy. Through organising clothes swapping parties, co-founders Jemma Finch and Ella Grace Denton offer an alternative way of shopping which avoids pumping out more clothes, while allowing for one person's trash to turn into another's treasure. The duo's Instagram has amassed a following of nearly 20,000 followers who daily tune in to receive tips around conscious living and updates on the latest sustainability news.
As global citizens, we need to realise the power we hold, and we need to collectively pressure brands and demand transparency. No matter how it's sugarcoated, the industry is not going to fix itself. With education comes power, and by understanding and changing our consumption patterns, we can achieve more than we think.
"We wanted to create a space where we could combine our love for sustainable living, fashion and storytelling, a space where we could tell the stories that deserved to be heard, about brands that actually care," Finch explains.
Passing on clothes to charities, getting into the habit of renting, taking part in swapping parties and buying second hand are all simple measures we can take today. But most importantly - consuming less. As global citizens, we need to realise the power we hold, and we need to collectively pressure brands and demand transparency. No matter how it's sugarcoated, the industry is not going to fix itself. With education comes power, and by understanding and changing our consumption patterns, we can achieve more than we think.
According to fashion search engine Lyst, searches for sustainable fashion increased by 66% last year, suggesting an increasing awareness and will to drive positive change. But we can't shop our way out of this debacle.
"It's too late for small measures," Montgomery states. "Ultimately, this comes down to values – do you value stuff, or do you value the health and wellbeing of this planet and your fellow human beings?" she asks. "It is our collective activities that have gotten us into this mess, and it is collective action that will get us out of it too."
Fashion is reputed as frivolous, shallow, superficial – something that doesn't really matter. From what the environment is telling us, it does matter. We're running out of time, and how we act now will determine what planet we will live on in the future. Whether you're a fashion enthusiast or not, we all wear clothes, we all shop and we all contribute to fashion's environmental destruction. Which is why your wardrobe is the perfect place to start implementing change.