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Rosalind Skillen

Fashion must not become something that costs the earth

Rosalind Skillen

The clothing industry is one of the main sources of pollution


The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters

The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters

The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters

There are eight billion people in the world yet we produce somewhere between 100 and 150 billion items of clothing every year.

This staggering statistic demonstrates how the fashion industry clearly has a problem. The scale and speed with which garments are produced and consumed every year is costing us the earth — quite literally.

It may surprise some readers to learn that the fashion industry is the second highest polluting industry in the world. Long supply chains and energy intensive production means that fashion produces more greenhouse gas emissions than aviation and maritime combined.

However, despite planetary damage caused by fast fashion — including biodiversity loss, water scarcity and climate change — this is an environmental issue that goes unregulated and underreported. Few industries are as connected to the natural world as fashion, which depends on water and crops, such as cotton. Yet, there is a huge disconnect between the clothes we wear, how they are made, and crucially: who made them. In fact, research conducted by environmental charity Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful found that only 4% Northern Irish consumers are even aware of the harmful environmental impact of clothing.

In addition to the environmental impact of fashion, the industry also has a huge human cost. Garment workers across the fashion supply chain are grossly undervalued and underpaid, earning an average of $3 a day. Just 7% of garment workers earn enough money to cover necessities, such as food and healthcare, and 93% of brands do not pay garment workers a living wage. Given that 80% garment workers are female, they are hit the hardest.

Beyond huge economic inequalities which characterise the fashion industry, garment workers also work long hours, their working conditions are unsafe and many develop health conditions related to their labour. They are often informally employed as ‘temporary’ workers, stripped of rights or benefits. Appallingly, one in three garment workers also experience sexual harassment in the workplace.

If the environmental case is not convincing enough, the ways in which workers across fashion supply chains are stripped of freedom, dignity and security should certainly provide reason to move our investments away from fast fashion.

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Fast fashion is clearly an environmental and social issue that requires international attention. It requires accountability and regulation from governments. It requires campaigning for a fair living wage, and for reasonable working hours and conditions for garment workers. It requires the implementation of fair standards and guidelines.

However, what about our role as consumers? We often forget about the power of the consumer. Brands greatly fear reputational risk and their market value depends on keeping consumers happy. We can boycott unethical brands and choose to support local, sustainable businesses. We can also hold brands accountable on social media, tweeting them and calling out exploitative practices.

However, it is important to acknowledge that second-hand shopping can be very time intensive and ‘green’ labels are more expensive than ordinary fast fashion brands. For the vast majority of people, these are simply not options.

In my opinion, the best thing that we can do to honour the planet and the people who made our clothes is to treasure what we already own. We honour those who made our clothes by wearing and loving them.

In the UK, we throw away one million tonnes of textile waste each year. We buy more clothes that any other EU country and we have five times more clothes than our grandparents.

Direct solidarity with garment workers therefore means tackling textile waste and celebrating what we already own. Take a pair of jeans as an example. The jeans that you are wearing today were most likely designed in the UK or EU. The materials were likely manufactured in the Asian markets, sent to a clothing factory in Bangladesh and shipped 1,000 miles to be sold in Northern Ireland. On average, these jeans would be worn nine times before being thrown away and then shipped to second-hand textile markets in Africa.

Think about the air miles, exploitation of garment workers, amount of water required to create cotton and dying of the material — which often involves harmful chemicals polluting rivers.

We, in Northern Ireland, only see the end result. We do not think about the huge environmental and social cost behind the creation of these jeans.

There is therefore an urgent need to re-connect with the stories and histories behind our clothing.

The ongoing local campaign ‘Fashion Forever’ is doing just that. The central message of the campaign is ‘reuse, repair, reimagine’, inviting consumers to extend the life cycle of their clothes by repairing them rather than disposing of them.

As the ‘reuse’ messaging in the campaign highlights, the most sustainable items in our wardrobe are what we already own. ‘Repair’ shows how simple reparations, like adding a coloured patch or stitching, can transform a garment. Finally, ‘reimagine’ encourages consumers to be creative with older items. The campaign also offers advise on how to care properly for clothes, including how to wash and dry items to keep them in good condition.

We live in a disposable society that seems to have fallen out of love with clothing. Yet, clothes are a powerful means of expression. Fashion is a beautiful way of exploring our creativity and identity. However, consistent overproduction is devaluing garments and the skill of the labour force who made them. Huge companies are pushing factories, and entire countries, to the lowest prices for producing garments for as little as possible. This is not only unsustainable: it is deeply unethical.

In Northern Ireland, it is important to be aware of how our clothes are made. Of course, we are all starting from different points, but the wonderful thing is that if you own clothes, then you are already a part of this movement.

We can all make an effort to ‘reuse, repair, reimagine’ — and might I add: to remember. Let’s commit to reusing older garments, repairing broken items and reimagining new ways of styling pieces. And no matter what clothes we wear, let’s always remember the people who made them.

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