Fast fashion: building a sustainable wardrobe… and portfolio

When I was growing-up we used to do a big ‘back to school’ shopping spree in August. We’d get a set amount and that would be our clothes for the next few seasons.

I used to blow the whole amount in one store when I was younger, but as I got older, I became much more strategic: I bought fewer clothes but of much better quality. I still remember when I came home with my first pair of designer jeans – my Dad nearly fell off his chair at the price tag (about £200 if I remember correctly) – but for six years I owned a single pair. I wore them multiple times a week, they didn’t fade or stretch. They were perfect and worth every penny. I nearly cried when the dog ripped them and decided to get a more affordable pair from a high street store. They cost me £35 and only lasted 6 months. Needless to say, the next pair were designer again.

But occasionally, I’ll still buy ‘fast fashion’. There I said it. While I don’t agree with changing your wardrobe every season, sometimes you just need a simple white t-shirt for £3. Recent controversy over the working conditions at Boohoo has brought fast fashion back into the spotlight. But I’m here to tell you it is possible to fill your wardrobe, stand by your ethics and not break the bank.

“You can invest in fashion, but not fast fashion.” — Ketan Patel, EdenTree Amity UK

The dangers of fast fashion

While myself and many others still consider shopping to be a seasonal event, fast fashion can often make that ‘season’ very short and the next trend is soon hitting the shelves. Rathbone Greenbank Investments (a dedicated ethical and sustainable investment division that provides screening services for Rathbone Global Sustainability and Rathbone Ethical Bond funds) points out this “focus on fast-moving trends and low prices clearly contributes to be a growing problem of waste and unsustainable resource use. Pressures on the fashion industry (valued at $3 trillion) to sustain profits also often mean that corners are cut on environmental stewardship, working conditions and safety*.”

Fast fashion production is global and garment production is one of the most labour-intensive manufacturing industries, with estimates suggesting it employs upwards of 60 million people worldwide. Research from EdenTree says: “The fashion industry is responsible for perhaps as much as 10% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. On current trends, emissions from the industry are expected to increase by 50% by 2030. Oxfam has estimated that more than two tonnes of clothing is bought each minute in the UK, and this produces ‘nearly 50 tonnes of carbon emissions, the same as driving 162,000 miles in a car**.”

Mike Berners-Lee’s study into the carbon footprint of… well, everything, estimates that the average UK person has a clothing footprint close to 225kg per year – or more than 400kg when you include laundry***. This means if you live in the UK, clothing and textiles would make up about 2% of the carbon footprint. This of course doesn’t take into account wider social or environmental factors like textile toxins finding their ways into water supplies. And it assumes the average person uses each article of clothing approximately 200 times before recycling or outgrowing. I think it’s safe to say that £5 dress you bought for the heatwave isn’t going to be worn 200 times…

Sustainable and affordable brands

As Fidelity’s Matthew Siddle highlights, “We have found that companies are generally aware of the potential for sustainability concerns to reach a tipping point at which consumers, investors, or both start rejecting brands with poor practices. Some of the biggest players are taking proactive steps to mitigate this risk^.” H&M is a key example. It probably doesn’t jump out as being sustainable, but although classified as ‘fast fashion’, the brand does, I think, do a good job at being transparent.

On its website (or app) you can find out which materials the product is made from, which countries it was produced in and even which suppliers and factories H&M partnered with to make it. It also has a conscious clothing line (look for the green tag), featuring organic cotton and recycled polyester. By 2030 H&M aims for all its products to be made from recycled or other sustainably sourced materials. It also has a garment collection programme. The programme accepts old clothes (any brand) in exchange for a discount voucher on future purchases. Your old clothes could quite literately be paying for your staple upgrades.

Another example is Primark, owned by Associated British Foods. The company has partnered with Greenpeace to train its cotton suppliers in more efficient farming techniques that save water, use less chemical fertiliser and pesticides, and produce higher crop yields. Brands that are affordable and not fast fashion; M&S, NEXT, Adidas or even Nike would also tick that bill.

How to build a sustainable wardrobe?

The answer is very simple – shop from labels and collections that support sustainability. No matter your budget, you can find different ways to support sustainability. Whether it’s a visit to a charity shop, buying pre-loved clothing or shopping vintage, you can still fuel your love for fashion and trends without supporting the production of damaging, unrecyclable materials that encourage a throw away culture.

*Source: Rathbone Greenbank, Putting the brakes on fast fashion, 15 May 2019
**Source: Edentree, Fast Fashion, 10 Aug 2020
***Source: Berners-Lee, M., How bad are bananas? (2010)
^Source: Fidelity International, Overcoming fast fashion’s hidden costs, 14 Aug 2020

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