With Britons buying twice as many clothes as a decade ago – last year we spent £50 billion – there is mounting concern about cheap, disposable fast fashion. Some have even branded it ‘look and chuck.’
Last night, BBC One aired Stacey Dooley’s documentary Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, which revealed that around the world millions of gallons of clean water has either been diverted to growing cotton, or has been polluted by the toxic chemicals used for dyes and manufacturing.
For many viewers this came as a massive shock and saw Twitter erupt. The facts simply don’t lie: to grow enough cotton to make a single pair of jeans can take 3,400 gallons or 15,500 litres of water. And the trend for cheap, disposable fashion means more than 300,000 tons of clothing are dumped in landfill in Britain alone each year, which last year worked out at 235 million items.
Are we *finally* at a tipping point? Who knows, but there certainly is growing momentum on the issue, with many officials now recognising the need for urgent action. Last week, MPs called on British fashion retailers to take action amid claims that social media is fuelling a “throwaway culture” that is adversely affecting the environment.
Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee wrote to Britain’s ten biggest clothing retailers asking them to reveal their environmental footprint, quoting evidence that British shoppers buy far more new clothes than any other European nation.
The firms involved, all high street favourites and supermarkets, include Marks & Spencer, Primark, Next, Arcadia (Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridge, Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Evans, Wallis), Asda, T K Maxx, Tesco, J D Sports, Debenhams and Sports Direct International. The majority churn out hundreds of new fashion lines a year, incessantly updating their stock and fuelling trends.
Image courtesy: Unknown
Unsurprisingly, it’s been claimed that Instagram is perpetuating the need for the ‘new,’ with people adopting a ‘look and chuck’ mentality made possible through the prevalence of fast fashion.
Mary Creagh, chair of the Committee, said: ‘If you look at Italy’s fashion market, there’s much more focus on high-end clothing and people tend to save up and buy just one or two garments, like Max Mara coats, which are timeless.
‘Ours is much more trend-driven. This year it’s yellow, last year it was pink, this autumn it’s check – pretty soon you’re exhausted. Everyone’s doing it, it’s Topshop, M&S, H&M, they’re all fast-turnaround, high-turnaround, relatively cheap clothing.’
Dooley and Lucy Siegle are clear in the documentary that such cheap fashion amounts to ‘consumer catnip’. It’s most dramatic illustration comes from Central Asia, a major hub for cotton production. Yet here, it has now become as dangerous to the environment as plastic.
Cotton producers in Uzbekistan – the world’s sixth largest cotton producer – have diverted water away from the Aral Sea to giant cotton farms, profoundly impacting the livelihood of farmers and fishermen in neighbouring Kazakhstan. The sea has almost vanished and vast quantities of chemicals were left on the sea bed, poisoning millions of people and farmland.
And the reason? Our insatiable appetite for cheap jeans and the rapacious cotton farming that feeds it at almost any cost.
As was revealed in the documentary, the loss of water has had a profound impact on the region. There are no longer trees or plants to stop the wind, and huge dust storms whip up in seconds. An entire ecosystem has died, the fishing industry has been annihilated and thousands have lost their jobs. Equally, it is much harder to grow crops and to farm animals.
The health crisis has seen an increase in strokes, blood pressure and cancer in the local communities. It is believed to be linked to the toxic pesticides which were dumped in the water by cotton factories. As the water has receded, the pesticides have turned to sediment on the dusty ground, only to be spread into the air by the billowing winds.
Image courtesy: undark.org
The documentary then turned to South East Asia, where chemicals are being dumped into Indonesia’s Citarum River, already one of the most polluted waterways in the world, and causing similar devastation. The local army has spent months trying to clear the sea of plastic floating down the river.
But just as toxic are the levels of mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic now present in the waters.
As she travels along the Citarum, Dooley discovers that factories are going to extraordinary lengths to avoid detection, dumping their waste at night, or pumping it through underground pipes into the river. The result? Lurid-coloured water, frothy waves, and a lack of oxygen – causing a putrid stench, dead birds and rats and devastation to local families who rely on the water for drinking, bathing and washing their clothes. More than 28 million people have been affected by the polluted water. This is both heartbreaking and unacceptable.
‘I’ve seen lots of devastation over the years,’ continues Dooley. ‘The problem here is the sheer enormity. The scale of what’s going on is just breathtaking. It’s hard to think the clothes I’m wearing could be causing so much damage. But I can now see how this industry has become such a threat to the planet.
The documentary points out that where, in the past, there were autumn, winter, spring and summer collections of clothes, retailers now work with more than 50 collections a year.
‘To tell people I’m never going to shop again would be completely dishonest,’ says Dooley. ‘Of course I am. But I do recognise how powerful I am as a consumer and I do want to go back to owning clothes and loving clothes and not consuming them in the way we do now.’