The high cost of low price fashion

It’s true that people love a good bargain. This is particularly clear in the way that we buy and produce the clothes we wear on our backs. We oscillate through countless styles, prints, colours and trends with little regard for anything but the price tag. But what if the inexpensive clothing you buy in store is actually costing more than you think?

With the ever-expanding amount of clothes people own, brands have been forced to become more competitive than ever, opting for more clothing lines per year at a lower cost to the consumer. In theory, this sounds like a great thing for buyers. However, it also means that retailers are under greater pressure to respond to quickly changing trends in fashion, which results in blurred boundaries regarding the production process. For many, this seems to be the only way to make it in the industry; retailers of fast fashion earn at least twice as much of a profit margin compared with their more traditional counterparts.

The increased speed of the fashion cycle has also significantly altered the way in which clothing is valued. The ubiquity of cheap and attractive clothing options, or fast fashion, means that people are less inclined to consider where their clothes are coming from. Think about it: when consumers are acclimated to spending twenty dollars on a nice dress, why should they even consider looking at a garment that costs over $200?

In Australia, ninety-two per cent of all clothes are manufactured overseas, according to Clare Press’ book Wardrobe Crisis. Furthermore, in Australia roughly $15.2 billion is spent annually on importing textiles, clothing and leather goods, with its largest source of clothing imports being from China, and a large number of exports coming from Bangladesh. This makes Australia the second largest consumer of textiles.

This probably isn’t particularly shocking news to most people – you’ve no doubt noticed the ‘Made in China’ label on just about everything you own. What might surprise you, though, is that the way we engage with fashion has led to a host of other problems in the environment, such as mass chemical and clothing waste.

Behind the seams

The major issue with fast fashion is that we discard most of it, and the growing demand on the production cycle creates a multitude of environmental and human rights issues. According to the upcoming ABC three-part series War On Waste, Australians generate 6000 kilograms of clothing waste every ten minutes. This, coupled with the waste created during the manufacturing processes, makes the fashion industry the second most wasteful industry in the world, after the oil industry.

According to Joanna Chalker, one of the organisers of Canberra’s Earth Festival, this issue is further compounded by the demand for animal products. A key example of this can be found in the leather industry, which is quickly becoming part of the fast fashion cycle as it’s produced more cheaply and quickly than ever, thereby pushing the ethics of the manufacturers.

“Over time, as the demand grows for animal products, people build larger facilities that fit many more animals and can no longer see the animals as individuals which often leads to a hunger for money.

When companies can make a large profit in an industry, they will often do whatever they can to minimise costs – such as with food, shelter, warmth, care – and focus on how to gain more through overpopulation, harsh machinery and genetic modification,” says Chalker.

This is especially true with regard to Australia’s exports from Bangladesh, which mainly consists of leather goods. In Hazaribargh, a community in the south-east corner of Dhaka, Bangladesh, approximately 240 tanneries are located on just 25 hectares of land. It is widely regarded as one of the most polluted places on Earth. According to a report by the Bangladesh Society for Environment and Human Development, these tanneries discharge approximately 6000 cubic metres of effluent, both toxic and non-toxic, and at least 10 tonnes of solid waste daily. It is there that the fashion industry has its noxious beginnings.

According to PETA, even though many leather-makers describe their goods as “eco-friendly,” the process of turning skin into leather requires multiple chemicals, including formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and various dyes and finishes, some of them cyanide-based. Moreover, many of the people who work in tanneries must also suffer, with a higher incidence of leukaemia and lung cancer found in those who work in tanneries. In its current state, the fashion industry is both exploitative and environmentally damaging. By buying cheap clothing that is sourced from such places, consumers contribute to the death, illness and suffering of others in the world, as well as the continued abuse of animals.

“Animals live in horrible conditions and are slaughtered for fashion,” Chalker argues. “It’s unbelievable that we use animals to provide us with something we don’t actually need. The environmental effects are a problem, too, because there is so much excess water that gets wasted.”

This issue is described in-depth in the documentary RiverBlue, which highlights the causes of mass water pollution and traces them back to the fashion industry. The filmmakers discovered that contamination is not the only threat to the water systems of China and Bangladesh: it is also the amount of water that clothing production requires.

Take the denim industry, for example: in its original state, before dye and processing, denim is a dark grey colour. Indigo and other synthetic equivalents then turn it the classic blue that we see every day in Australia. Making jeans is a hugely water-intensive process, involving a number of rounds of washing to give it a faded, fashionable appearance.

In Xintang, China, the denim capital of the world, the waste water from this process primarily ends up in their rivers and waterways. There, they produce up to 300 million denim articles per year, and use 920 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans – the equivalent of leaving a garden hose running for 106 minutes. When you look at these statistics, it can be pretty hard to know where to start.

Sustainable fashion: a pipe dream?

In some ways, it’s almost impossible to imagine a future where fashion is sustainable, particularly in Australia where there is already a limited market for home-grown brands. Fashion itself is the subject of constant change, with old styles quickly being replaced by the new. Some design theorists, such as Sandy Black, the author of Eco-chic: The Fashion Paradox, posit that sustainable fashion is therefore paradoxical, as it is challenging to fit within a market of repeated obsolescence.

For retailers of clothing, knowing where products have come from plays a big part in raising awareness and building a sustainable future. Surprisingly, in Australia many companies are unaware of where their clothes were originally sourced. A recent Australian Fashion Report found that approximately 48% of brands did not know where their garments were made, and 91% didn’t know where the raw materials came from.

Transparency is a really important part of ethical and sustainable practice, not only because of the environmental impacts of various supply chains, but also because of the likelihood of both child and forced labour use in garment, textiles and cotton production globally. According to author and journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell in her book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, millions of workers are without formal employment contracts, which leaves them “completely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Without a written contract, Chinese labourers have no evidence they are employed, and employers can simply deny their existence.”

As consumers, we, too, have a responsibility to be a part of this change. Through education and awareness, there are ways that we can minimise the harm in the fashion industry. By buying local, buying less and buying from independent designers, we could see a radically different fashion paradigm. As it currently stands, people tend to be less connected with the garment they’re wearing. How often do we ask the questions: Who made this? Where did they make it? What conditions was it made in? Why is it so cheap?

According to Chalker, the role that individuals play in working towards a sustainable future in fashion is particularly important.

“If we all reduce the demand for animal materials such as silk, wool, leather and fur, the industries will stop producing those products in such large quantities. Buying fair trade products goes a long way in supporting workers around the world,” she says.

“When people are educated on the environmental and ethical impacts of animal use in fashion, people are less likely to buy accessories, clothing or shoes made from animal products and under-paid workers.

In the next 20 years, if no one wants to buy such products, no one will produce them. We will be more sustainable and ethical in our fashion.”

Working towards a better future

The toxic effects of industrialisation and the changes in the fashion industry seem almost irreversible, but there are some people who are working passionately toward creating change.

Here in Canberra, we tend not to be known for our innovative industries or practices, though they do exist. One way that we’re working towards a sustainable future is through events such as the Earth Festival, which plays a key role in educating people about issues like this. Held on the weekend of the 25th of March, it focuses primarily on veganism, environmental sustainably and consumer awareness regarding individuals’ everyday choices.

Chalker hopes that the festival will encourage the community to start making changes to their lifestyle by choosing animal-friendly products.

“Our goal is to help change the choices the community makes to transition them towards a vegan and sustainable lifestyle. Having stall holders selling ethical and sustainable products will help make the transition easier, as people can meet the businesses they could buy from,” she says.

Canberra has also been a starting place for some of the leaders in the eco fashion movement. A number of brands here are working towards sustainable manufacturing processes and raising consumer awareness about ethically sourced and responsible fashion.

Pure Pod is one of these, having emerged as a pioneer in the sustainable fashion movement. Pure Pod’s ethos is built on sustainability and a love for the environment and fashion. They utilise high quality, eco-friendly and sustainable fabric to create their clothing, including bamboo, organic cotton, bamboo denim, hemp and soy, among others.

Kelli Donovan, the designer of the Canberra-based fashion brand, says that the biggest threat to sustainability is fast fashion, which she believes makes the everyday consumer unaware of the impact they’re having.

“As it grows, it makes the consumer less understanding of why my clothes are more expensive than the giant retail superstores. It really does filter through. Shops have too many clothes that they can’t sell.

Second-hand stores are really struggling to get rid of everything. People are getting rid of their clothes at a faster rate than ever. It’s discarding all of the work that has gone into a garment, and there’s always a human hand behind everything you wear.”

Donovan has recently become a part of the Fashion Revolution, and holds regular workshops on slow fashion. She describes one of her biggest passions as “making people and students aware of the effects on the environment”.

“I really want to spread the word about the environment whilst creating a beautiful product,” she says.

So, what can you do as a consumer to be a part of the change? Well, it starts by educating yourself about the environmental effects of fast fashion, buying from locally sourced and ethically produced fashion retailers, and spreading the word. There is still time to make a difference, but it begins with a simple question: Who made my clothes?

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