Fast Fashion: Waste Clothing and the High Street
"I'm just fed up of walking down high streets everywhere and seeing the same shops, and this stretches to everything. I'm fed up of seeing the same restaurants on every high street in Britain"
T-shirts for £2.50, £9 jeans, a jacket for £13. Ultra-cheap clothing has become a ubiquitous feature of Britain’s high streets (and those of most other developed nations) over the past decade, and our thirst for bargain-basement fashion shows no sign of slowing down. This might be good news for the type of consumer who’s after a new outfit for pennies, but the consequences are devastating and extensive.
The combination of capricious fashion trends and the ability to pick up clothes for less than a pint has created a serious problem for the producers of “throwaway fashion” and for the environment. Before and during World War I, fabrics were very rarely thrown away, as “out-of-date” clothing was repaired, tailored to fit other family members, or recycled within the home as rags or quilts. After World War II and the rise of consumerism, this attitude has gradually shifted into a throwaway culture where most items of clothing are worn no more than seven times, according to a 2015 survey.
This type of “progressive obsolescence” certainly isn’t limited to apparel, but the statistics on textile waste over the last 10 years are worrying to say the least. Around 5% of all landfill production is textile waste, and an estimated 350,000 tonnes of used clothing goes to landfill in the UK every year.
Cultural shifts and a lack of care for our clothing have contributed to this surge in textile waste, but it’s often difficult to find a high-quality alternative. In 2009, PricewaterhouseCoopers conducted a test on clothing quality across high-street shops and designers brands, based on colour fastness, seam strength, shrinkage and resistance to abrasion. The results found that often, there is no difference between budget brands and ‘high-end’ marques. In one case, a pair of jeans costing £8 fared better in the tests than a £40 pair and a £123 pair.
So it seems that even the expensive brands aren’t necessarily constructing decent quality clothes and a guarantee longer than a few weeks is almost unheard of on the high street.
Tom Cridland, a young menswear designer from the UK, guarantees his sweatshirts for 30 years, which is a frankly astonishing figure when compared to its equivalents across the industry
Tom, however, thinks the problem is as much to do with our culture as it is to do with cost-cutting brands.
“People like to feel like they can afford to buy things” Tom says, “people like retail therapy, essentially. That's why Primark get so much business, it's attitudes like that. We live in a fast-moving culture, and I think we need to go back to a bygone era when clothing was made with care.”
We all know how quick trends shift, and our willingness to throw our possessions away the second they’re out of date is well documented. I ask Tom if he thinks things will get better:
“I think that it's going to be shift back as people become more environmentally conscious. People berate the big, fast-fashion corporates. You can already see H&M are doing a little bit to win over people who are environmentally conscious who don't approve of their fast-fashion attitude.”
The “little bit” that Tom’s referring to is the decision by H&M to award €1,000,000 to an individual or business who can come up with better techniques for recycling cotton. It sounds like a grand gesture, but whether it’s anything more than that is up for debate.
“It’s small measures but they sound quite grand” Tom explains, “€1,000,000 is a fraction of their marketing budget, and this is going to put them at the top of the pile when it comes to environmentally-conscious fast-fashion retailers. It's a great marketing idea, but that’s it. Also, there's the fact that most of their clothing is still cheaply made and badly made.”
I’m curious about what’s different about Tom’s sweatshirts, and why his clothing won’t be consigned to landfill in the same way that others might.
“When I contacted my suppliers, I said to them ‘I'm releasing a product, it's going to be a sustainable fashion project, it's going to be called the 'something'-year sweatshirt, what's the oldest sweatshirt that you've got in perfect condition?’ They showed me something from the late 70s, so we decided on the 30-year sweatshirt as the name for it. We're using world-class seamstresses and craftsmen that have been doing their work for over 50 years, we source the finest organic cotton that we can find from Biella in Northern Italy, we then mix it with polyester, which sounds less glamorous but is extremely important so that the sweatshirt will last and be less likely to rip or tear, it'll have greater functionality and stretch a little more. Finally, it's treated with technology to avoid shrinking, which is one of the big issues one has when guaranteeing a sweatshirt for 30 years.”
On top of the need to reduce textile waste, there are other reasons to ditch the fast-fashion retailers and fill your wardrobe with independent designers. Tom echoes a sentiment that many of us feel when choosing where to buy clothes:
“I'm just fed up of walking down high streets everywhere and seeing the same shops, and this stretches to everything. I'm fed up of seeing the same restaurants on every high street in Britain. We all benefit from globalisation in a certain way, but it is maddening that so many restaurants, shops and independent businesses are closing down every day and all we have are these fast fashion retailers. It's a great business model but young designers and independent brands like me are going to be driven out of business if fast fashion continues like this.”
It’s a point that particularly resonates with those who live in Oxford. As the whole point of fast-fashion retailers is to keep prices low and sell as many units as possible, it seems unlikely that they will begin to push long-lasting, well-made clothing any time soon. So what can someone like me or you do to help? Until a long-term answer becomes apparent, the solution can only be in buying from independent brands like Tom’s, and towards buying clothing to keep, rather than to bin as soon as the next trend comes in.
Tom Cridland is opening a shop on King’s Road in London in January 2016, and is expanding his range of durable menswear throughout next year.