It can get old sometimes, listening to people complain about the cost of designer clothing. Especially when it's in reference to young, local designers, most of who have absurdly large minimums and hefty up-front costs to contend with. It is understandable, too, that people have come to expect such low cost clothing, when this is exactly what so many high street labels are prepared to offer us. But what is the real cost of choosing these cheap clothing options over the pricier and better quality designer goods available on the market?
"Few sectors are more emblematic of today's consumer-driven growth model than the fashion industry", writes Jacqueline Jackson for Environmental Leader, who goes on to explain that, "The world's resources cannot keep up with our increasing demand for throw-away fashion". Cotton, for example, is a key input of the fashion industry and is alone responsible for 2.6% of water use globally — a figure that will see water demand exceed supply by 40% as early as 2030 if not corrected. On top of this, an estimated 17–20% of industrial water pollution results from textile dyeing and treatment, while 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used throughout the world to turn raw materials into textiles. A large percentage of these chemicals end up in our freshwater sources and can cause lasting damage for years after the fact. This is not to mention the pesticides used by farmers to protect these textiles and the harmful effects that these can have on local wildlife. As Beth Greer notes in The Huffington Post, "It takes almost a 1/3 pound of synthetic fertilisers to grow one pound of raw cotton; and it takes just under one pound of raw cotton to make one t-shirt".
It is a truth not absolute, but the general rule of thumb in this regard is that the cheaper your clothing costs at retail level, the more harmful its life cycle is to the environment. The $1.2 trillion global textile industry remains one of the most resource-intensive in the world, something which is in no way helped by our increasingly throwaway approach to fashion. According to Environmental Leader, our fashion waste only continues to escalate too, with the average American discarding a hefty 32kg of clothing per year. Approximately 85% of this then ends up in incinerators or landfills, where it can take hundreds of years to decompose. Unfortunately, this is not a trend that's isolated to America either. On a global level, Jacqueline Jackson argues that, "The rise of 'fast fashion' is sending materials hurtling towards end-of-life quicker than ever". So why are we as consumers more willing to spend $10 on a t-shirt that might last one season, over something of quality that we can hold onto for years?
This may come down to the increasingly high turnover, not just of clothing, but also of trends. It is undeniable that, as technology pushes fashion into an increasingly global space, we have become more demanding as consumers. Not just that, but we have also come to expect ready access to all the latest trends, many of which will have completely disappeared just six months later. This is where waste becomes a major problem. Millions of tonnes of unused fabric go to waste each year at mills around the world, when accidentally dyed the wrong colour for example. According to Environmental Leader, 2010 saw 234 tonnes of textiles go into landfill in Hong Kong alone. Meanwhile, customers in the U.K. have an estimated $46.7 billion worth of unworn clothes lingering in their closets.
Of course, it is not just our disposable approach to fashion that is to blame. The rise of 'cheap' synthetic fibres is also causing irreparable damage to our environment, leading to an overall increase in global warming. Polyester and nylon, for example, are made from petroleum and require large amounts of crude oil in their manufacturing process. This, in turn, releases some pretty serious chemicals into the air, which are harmful to both our environment and our health. What's more, these synthetic fibres can take much longer to break down than their natural counterparts. As young fashion designer, Elissa McGowan points out, the fashion industry at large — and cheap clothing in particular — has a huge impact on our environment. A large concern for McGowan is how these synthetic fabrics can continue to harm our environment, long after they have been sent out with the garbage. "Synthetic materials can take up to 200 years to decompose," McGowan says, "which is horrific." Increasingly young, environmentally aware designers like McGowan are striving to produce clothing that has less harmful ramifications in the long term. But this comes at a considerable price, since good quality eco-friendly fabrics like organic cotton or organic silk are much harder to come by and, therefore, much more expensive.
This environmental awareness is not something limited to young designers though, as large luxury companies also start striving to make a difference in this space. François-Henri Pinault, chairman and chief executive of luxury group Kering, for example, is strongly committed to sustainability. For Gucci, his company has pioneered an innovative tanning process that steers clear of the traditional heavy metals used; all their Saint Laurent stores use 100% LED lighting, reducing electricity consumption by 24%; and their label, Stella McCartney has launched many different initiatives, including sustainable wool sourced from Patagonia, with a commitment to conserve 15 million acres of endangered land. "I admire Kering for challenging the lavish and wasteful attitudes of so much that is defined as 'luxury,'" Suzy Menkes writes for Vogue. Again, though, this kind of commitment does not come cheap.
With all that said, it is important to note that not all 'fast fashion' is created equal, either. Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) is one company, for example, which has shown real initiative in the sustainability sector over recent years. H&M's president and chief executive, Karl-Johan Persson, in particular, has taken lead on a number of fair trade and environmental concerns. One of the world's largest consumers of organic cotton, the company has also been testing a new recycling initiative in order to reduce the textiles industry's contribution to landfills. As Robin Givhan notes for The Washington Post, though, "H & M's choices — to work with factories that pay higher wages, to use organic cotton and so forth — have cost the fast fashion behemoth money. 'As a [publicly] listed company there's enormous pressure to deliver quarterly results," Persson said in an interview before dinner. "All other things equal, profits would be higher. But we believe in the long-term business case. We sacrifice short-term gains.'" This is all well and good, but Givhan argues that H&M's continual commitment to low prices is precisely what contributes to our negative consumer attitudes, prompting us to view this type of 'cheap' clothing as inherently disposable.
Undoubtedly, environmental consciousness is an ongoing battle for the fashion industry and certainly not one that will be revolutionised overnight. It is comforting to know, though, that more and more of the large companies are committed to bringing about this change everyday. And even more impressive to see that so many young, local designers are committed to the cause as well, no matter what effect this may have on their end price point. Importantly though, consumer attitudes also need to shift in order to enact real change. With that in mind, it is imperative for us all to consider just where our clothing has come from and how it has been produced before making erroneous judgements about the cost of the item. As with organic food produce, ethical fashion doesn't always come cheap. But it will be well worth it in the long run.
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