Fashion Trends and Sustainability - Can the Two Ever Be Compatible?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a trend, in the context of the fashion industry, as
‘a new development in clothing, make-up, etc.’. By its very nature, therefore, a trend must involve a change from the current norm. This change is what creates the excitement we associate with new trends, it's what causes people to spend hours attempting to predict what will be the next trend and then spend much of their hard-earned money on trying to keep up to date with any and all current trends. But as much as we enjoy seeing the emergence of new popular colours and styles, the continual change of trends might just be one of the biggest contributors to the rise of fast fashion.
Fast fashion is the mass production of, usually, cheap clothing. It is a major concern for many environmentalists as the fashion industry is the second largest polluting industry in the world, beaten only by the oil sector. But can it really be true that the simple action of buying a few new tops every 4 months is directly linked to the wildfires in California and the melting ice in the Arctic?
The sad, but simple answer is ‘yes’. As the power of social media has grown at a rapid rate in the past decade, so have the number of trends. This past year alone, we have seen the popularity of flared jeans, the re-emergence of the aesthetic synonymous with the early 2000s, and the colour brown and to name a few. Largely, the popularisation of a lot of these trends can be accredited to social media apps, such as TikTok. The continual emergence of new trends, means that consumers are demanding more and more items of clothing and the only companies that can keep up with the rapid rate of production required to meet these demands are those that produce clothes which are usually of a lower price and quality. This means that, although your new top may only cost you £7, it probably will not last very long, meaning that very soon you will have to throw it away and buy a new one. This constant cycle means that we, as consumers, are dependent on the fast-fashion brands that produce clothes quickly and cheaply.
There are two major elements to consider when thinking about this cycle.
The first is how the clothes can be produced for such low prices. Think about it, if you are buying a t-shirt for £7, then the company has to have produced it for less than that to make producing the t-shirt cost-effective. So the production of the t-shirt has to be less than £7. The production process involves buying the fabric, dying the fabric, sewing the top, importing the top (usually the clothing we buy from highstreet brands is not made in the UK), and finally, displaying the top in-store, before you buy it. Through this supply chain, there are dozens of workers involved in the process, and so simple logic dictates that not all of them can be being paid a fair price. If we say the t-shirt cost £5 to produce, meaning the company makes a £2 profit, and 12 people were involved in the production process, then each worker is paid less than 45p. So first of all, we can tell that the production of such quick and cheap clothing cannot be ethical as those involved in the production process are not being paid a fair wage. Those most harmed by this are the workers in factories and sweatshops abroad, where there are very few or no regulations on how much they have to be paid, and so the companies can employ them for next to nothing.
The second problem with the cycle of fast fashion is that when we buy cheap clothes, we are not investing in long-term sustainability. Let’s face it, if we want to keep up to date with all the recent trends, we cannot afford to spend a lot of money on each item. This means that we are continually buying items that, although cheap, are poor quality. As a result, these items quickly become damaged. Subsequently, we usually have no option but to throw them away, as they are too faulty to donate to a charity shop and the fabric itself is too worn to be upcycled. Subsequently, we become a part of the constant cycle of buying and throwing away clothing, without investing in garments that will last us a long time.
This cycle will inevitably continue as long as we subscribe to the concept of trends. When a new t-shirt style or colour emerges each season, fast-fashion companies are given new incentive and inspiration to quickly produce clothing, without regard for the treatment of their workers and the environmental impacts of their supply chain. It is only once we abandon our modern idea of trends, that demand for new products will fall and companies will, in turn, focus on producing better-quality, more sustainable clothing. And so, it is by investing in your clothing, that you can also invest in our future, as a planet, and help to stop the 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 that the fashion industry produces each year.