Do you ever see a piece of clothing in a store and feel an overwhelming need to buy it, or you simply won’t be (can’t be!) happy? An important social event looms on our calendar and all we can think of is buying something new, even though our closet is already bursting with clothes we haven’t worn in over a year.
Every year 200,000 tonnes of textiles enter New Zealand’s landfills, making up four percent of total waste, according to the Ministry for the Environment. That means each person throws away an average of 145 medium-size T-shirts every year. Textiles take around 200 years to decompose, and release toxic gases into the environment in the process. Yet everywhere we look, we are bombarded with imagery of this week's hottest trends and encouraged to buy, buy, buy.
Fast fashion is a phenomenon in which clothes are produced at minimal cost and sold at an affordable enough price for the wearer to buy more. This radical change is a result of consumerism and its correlation to wealth and status. The more we have, the better we feel. Behind the glitz and glamour of our clothing, however, lies two serious problems: The living standards of workers in clothing factories, and the long-term health of our natural environment.
Being a student with a rather sad-looking bank account, I totally understand why anyone would rather spend $15 on a T-shirt as opposed to $60. I worked for a retailer (whose name I won’t mention), where an executive manager said they purposefully design clothes and jewellery to be used two or three times before being discarded. I also worked in an opshop where they were literally swimming in unwanted clothes. This might sound like a good problem to have, but often the donated clothes have holes, rips and stains. At the end of every day, the unsellable clothes are put into the skip bin which is emptied overnight.
How did we end up here? Well, we must take a trip back in time. In the 1800s, all garments were hand sewn and made from top quality fibres. The clothing was designed for multipurpose use and made to last the test of time. The early 1900s marked the beginning of the industrial revolution, where technology allowed factories to pump out goods on a mass scale. Clothes were cheaper and thus the rise of middle-class fashion began. Cheaper clothes meant sporting the latest styles was not limited to the wealthy. Soon, the focus pivoted to China and other Asian countries to produce the same clothes at a fraction of the price. There are no laws protecting the workers, which makes these regions ideal settings for profit generation. Workers in these countries are often in desperate need of any income and will put up with terrible working conditions in order to feed their families. The fashion industry makes an estimated $3 trillion every year, yet many workers are struggling just to put food on the table.
Cheap clothes are more accessible than ever and so too, unfortunately, are working conditions that amount to modern-day slavery. We have all seen the images of Asian workers (often underage) in shoe factories, slaving away to make our $160 shoes, yet these images seldom turn heads anymore. These workers are paid next to nothing, work unimaginable hours, and are trapped in this endless cycle. This is often their only option to make money, but they work and live in conditions most Kiwis would find completely unacceptable. We wouldn’t personally allow these unsafe and unethical factories in New Zealand, so why do we indirectly allow it in other countries by continuing to buy cheap, mass-manufactured clothing? Not only are innocent people being effectively enslaved, but the environment suffers significantly as well.
Toxic chemicals and pesticides are used in these factories and disposed of in the waterways, making surrounding villages rife with cancer and other diseases. I highly recommend the 2015 documentary True Cost, which shows the devastation of our mindless consumption in its entirety.
Closer to home, we have seen retailers like H&M, Zara and Topshop come to our shores to sell us clothes at affordable prices. The pricing of these garments trick us into asking ourselves why we should buy one item for $50 when we can get three for the same amount. Retailers like Kmart and The Warehouse have also reinvented themselves to appeal to a wider market.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a bargain and every now and then I get swooped into the glistening yellow sticker deals. I used to think that when I bought something, wore it and donated it to charity, I was Mother Teresa in the flesh. For obvious reasons, this thinking is highly flawed. SaveMart owner Tom Doonan is the man behind the charity collection bins scattered around the country. Donated clothes are sold at SaveMart stores and if they do not sell within four weeks, they are shipped off to Papua New Guinea. NZ sends 5.8 million kilograms of clothes overseas every year.
What’s even more alarming is that the Salvation Army and Glassons pay Doonan millions of dollars to send unwanted garments to Papua New Guinea.
If you’re reading this and wondering how you can break this cycle, you need to have a full makeover (one that doesn’t require new clothes). Ask yourself this question: Do I need this garment? If not, don’t buy it. If yes, then let's talk. Advertisers purposefully sell us products in such a way that boosts our serotonin levels and our sense of social status. Our brain says, “if I buy this product, people will like me more and I’ll be happy”.
Changing rooms are designed to have strategic lighting that make us feel a million bucks. When we get home, the effect wears off very quickly. How does it make sense to buy something only to wear it once or twice and then throw it away? Why not buy items that are made to last and have minimal to no negative impact on the lives of workers and the environment?
I hope I haven’t deterred you from consuming clothes altogether. There are companies who strive to make sure they are using the best quality materials, paying their workers a fair living wage, and ensuring that there is no environmental damage done in the process. One of these brands is Patagonia—an outdoor-clothing company who design their products to last. Their clothes are more expensive yet reflective of fair market prices. They even have kits that come along with your purchases so you can mend the clothes yourself.
Other sustainable Kiwi brands you should checkout include Kowtow, Barred, Velvet Heartbeat, Offcut, Nisa and Freeset (to name a few). Tearfund releases an annual Ethical Fashion Guide that ranks top fashion labels based on their practises from the sourcing of materials all the way to your wardrobe, which is worth keeping an eye on when you are planning your next ethical purchase. Lastly, online rentals are an excellent way to combat single-use clothing, particularly for formal wear.
If you take anything away from this article, let it be a challenge for you to think about the long-term effects of the short-term products you are buying. Something has to change, and you can be part of the solution by voting with your dollar.