CHEAP FRILLS: FASHION’S DIRTY SECRET

Judith Willis reviews a new documentary tackling environmental issues caused by fast fashion.

Did you know it can take over 15,000 litres of water to grow the cotton to make a pair of jeans? Up until recently, I had no idea of this staggering statistic – nor did I know of the speculation that the fashion industry is one of the top five most-polluting industries in the world.

I discovered that the business I love and work in has caused and is continuing to cause immense damage to the environment, in ways I was completely oblivious to.  I found this out when I watched Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, a BBC documentary presented by investigative journalist, Stacey Dooley. Like most of her viewers, Stacey’s eyes were opened by the shocking impact that the everincreasing demand for cheap clothing is having around the globe.

The first unexpected issue she addresses is cotton. Cotton is the most used fibre in textiles produced in the EU and totals 43% of all clothing sold. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I used to think cotton was one of the best materials out there. If a garment is made of cotton then in my eyes it is well-made and healthier than wearing synthetic materials. Little did I know that the production process includes pesticides used in cotton farming, toxic dyes in manufacturing, and a colossal amount of water, which is causing serious knock-on effects. Early on in the documentary, Stacey travels to Kazakhstan – a country that has been hugely affected by cotton production – and discovers just how badly fashion has affected the environment. Back in the 1960s, the country was home to the Aral Sea which covered 68,000 sq km (the size of Ireland) and was home to an array of fish and wildlife. Now, it has all but dried up. A whole sea, gone, after one of the rivers that fed it – the Amu Darya – was diverted into cotton production farms and drained. As Stacey was driven across the desolate landscape which once was the sea bed, she spotted a camel roaming in the distance. “I feel that this portrays perfectly what is going on here,” Dooley says. “There used to be fish. Tens of thousands of tonnes of fish. And now there is a camel.”

The result of the sea drying up has had massive effects on the entire region. Without the sea, fishermen lost their jobs and struggle to provide for their families. Without the sea, tourism has ceased. Without the sea, the climates are extreme, with temperatures reaching as high as 45 degrees Celsius or as low as -30 Celsius.  “You don’t understand the enormity of the situation until you’re here,” explains Stacey. “I feel like we understand what plastic does to the Earth, we’re fed that every day, but did I know cotton was capable of this? Of course I didn’t. I had no idea.”

The next issue Stacey investigates is the cheap garment industry and the chemical waste discarded during manufacturing. It’s well known that if items are suspiciously cheap, a corner will have been cut somewhere along the way. Stacey visits Indonesia, an international hub for clothes production.

She is taken along the banks of the Citarum River by a group of activists who show her the toxic chemicals released everyday by over four hundred factories that neighbour the river, through the waterways. The river is largely a murky muddy brown but an aerial camera shot shows areas that are purple or yellow. In some parts of the river, the water is bubbling and frothing. When a sample was taken from the river water, toxic levels of mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic were found. This is water that the local communities use to wash themselves, their clothes and their dishes.  Stacey was stunned: “To me, this feels like a complete catastrophe… Indonesia isn’t even in the top five [of garment manufacturing countries] globally.”

Upon returning to the UK, Stacey reached out to representatives from brands including ASOS, Primark and ZARA, to find out what they were doing to be more sustainable, but all declined to comment. Even when Stacey approached reps at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, they were practically running for the hills. The only individual willing to have a discussion was Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation for Levi and Strauss. He told Stacey, “We share information on how to reduce the water footprint of our cotton. We’re working on a solution that takes old garments, chemically deconstructs them and turns them into a new fibre that feels and looks like cotton, but with zero water impact.” These changes aren’t going to happen overnight. “This is a big industry. It’s so broadly decentralised that affecting change is nearly impossible,” Dillinger continued. “Especially when the appetite doesn’t want change [but] there needs to be a regulatory solution.”

In other words, fashion brands need to start investing in eco-friendly production, but the government needs to get involved too. An inquiry in June was launched this year to investigate the impact of fast fashion, but Parliament has yet to report its findings.

In today’s world of fast fashion, shops no longer produce just seasonal collections. New lines on the high street are being added on a weekly basis and people are buying more clothes than they need, just to follow the latest trends. “Fast fashion lures us,” explains Lucy Seigle, a journalist specialising in environmental issues. “It’s a production system that brings us clothes at intense volume.” The more that high street brands produce copies of catwalk fashion at affordable prices, the more that people are tempted to keep updating their looks – and their wardrobes. “Globally, we’re producing over 100 billion new garments from new fibres every single year, and the planet cannot sustain that,” explains Lucy. On top of that, 300,000 tons of clothing is dumped in landfill every year.

After watching this documentary I was haunted, riddled with guilt and shame. Not only am I consumer of fast fashion but I work in it. I tried to justify my role as a consumer of fashion by reminding myself that I am a conscious shopper but at the end of it all, I’m still part of the problem. So, I’m taking steps to change this. The day after Fashion’s Dirty Secrets aired, I accosted one of the brand directors at the company I work for, about what we as a business are doing to avoid being a participant in fashion pollution. I was pleasantly surprised by his willingness to discuss the subject and the measures the company are taking to work towards being more sustainable. I then emailed the CSR and Sustainability Executive for the retail group that owns the company I work for and expressed my concerns to her. She emailed me straight back and invited me to have a meeting with her to discuss our options.

Bringing an end to this problem may never happen, but at the very least we can try to reduce it or prevent it from worsening. It will be a mass team effort that all of us need to be involved in; brands, consumers, laws. We have been educated and now we must act.

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