Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

SocietySeptember 26, 2020

We need to talk about fashion’s waste problem

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

In recent years, an influx of cheaply made clothes has had a devastating effect not only on our local industry, but the entire planet. Rose Jackson takes a look at the wider impact of fashion’s waste issue, in a piece originally published by Ensemble.

It’s hard to know where this story starts. Does it begin with the stained mattress, overflowing bag stuffed with used clothing, tampons and Milo dumped outside a Hamilton charity store? Does it begin with broken community bonds, loneliness and filling the hole in one’s soul with “stuff”? Was the story written into the foundations of capitalism and colonialism? Or is globalisation the true author of the tale?

Exactly where it starts is difficult to pinpoint, but how it’s manifesting is plain to see. Waste everywhere, throughout the entire fashion industry. Textile waste, metal waste, plastic waste. Wasted resources, wasted trees, wasted water. Not to mention the wasted time that gets invested into making clothing that gets worn once (or not at all) and dumped outside a charity store or in an incinerator for other people to deal with.

And the most devastating waste of all, people. People forced into manufacturing operations, in countries where those who buy the clothes can’t see them, surrounded by unsafe working conditions, enslaved to meet the increasing demands of voracious consumers, burned in factory fires and crushed to death by collapsing buildings. All for a garment that’s bought on a whim for no reason at all and thrown away when it stops “sparking joy”. If it ever did.

What do we mean by throw away? It brings to mind the idea that something’s vanished permanently, as if by magic. But there is no “away”, nothing is ever really truly “away”. For example, every single bit of plastic, including plastic-based fabrics that now make up over 60% of new garments, are still on our one precious Earth, drowning the charity stores, landfills and countries where the majority of textile waste is shipped, once richer countries have “cancelled” the latest fashion look.

Photo: Getty Images

To understand how we’ve got ourselves into this position, let’s dive into some fashion mathematics.

Back in 1941 during World War II, a Mass Observation survey discovered that the average wardrobe of a middle-class woman in the UK consisted of 17 garments. All of these items would be repaired, refashioned into other garments as they wore out, and finally replaced when they were threadbare and consigned to the rag bin. Clothing was also relatively costly, in comparison to wages, so every purchase was carefully considered.

Fast forward to 2016 and people in the UK were buying on average 22 garments per year. That’s already five garments over what they had in their complete wartime wardrobes.

The cost of modern clothing has plummeted, the marketing has ramped up exponentially to drive desire and you can start to see how the maths doesn’t add up when it comes to keeping textile waste under control.

We’ve also come to a terrifying point in the garment manufacturing industry where it’s possible for new clothing to be manufactured, shipped overseas and sold cheaper than it is to buy secondhand.

Extinction Rebellion protesters march at London Fashion Week in September last year in protest of the industry’s environmentally destructive ways (Photo: Getty Images)

Back in Aotearoa New Zealand, the picture has started to look sadly similar. Since import regulations were removed in the 1980s, the price of all goods, including clothing, reduced significantly, overseas brands moved in, local manufacturers couldn’t compete on price lines and our once thriving industry collapsed.

There are still incredible New Zealand brands producing locally, and a small but mighty manufacturing sector, but the cost-sensitive consumer who was willing to sacrifice quality for volume and timeless pieces for fashion fads was the ultimate victor. And to the victor, the spoils. In the form of billions of cheaply made clothes that have had a devastating effect not only on our local industry, but the entire planet as well. If consumers are getting it cheap and getting lots of it, others are paying for it. Here are just a few examples of places that are at the bottom of the cliff and currently paying the price for capitalism’s favourite twins, overproduction and overconsumption.

Op-shop and charity store business models are based on receiving donations that are then sold to raise much-needed funds. Only as profitable as the stock they are gifted to sell, they seem beholden, in some consumers’ eyes, to take what they’re given and be grateful for it.

Over the years these places have become dumping grounds for the world’s low-quality textile waste. There are multiple reports from various charities about not only the overwhelming volume of donations but the quality, or lack of. Among useful garments and household items are filthy textiles, soiled nappies, household rubbish and food waste. And this is what their staff, often volunteers, have to deal with when they come to work to sort donations each day.

Aside from selling garments through their retail stores, charities do a lot to try and divert as much as they can from the tip, including donating better quality items to community groups, supplying linen to the SPCA and offering bales for rags.

Vinnie’s Re Sew in Wellington and Intercept in Whangārei work hard to upcycle donations and use as much as they can. But charities can’t possibly process or take all that is donated so perversely, they, rather than the people who left it on their doorstep, have to foot the bill for delivering the dregs to landfill.

a collage of New Zealand op shops
New Zealand op shops (Photos: Rose Jackson)

However, New Zealand is now fast running out of room for our collective rubbish. The problem is so bad, Waste Management is proposing a new landfill site in Dome Valley that will become Auckland’s largest dump. And then, when there’s no more space it gets shifted somewhere else, in this case shipped overseas for other countries to deal with. Out of sight, out of mind, in another landfill, in our shared atmosphere contributing to global warming across the entire planet.

Is it too late to rebalance the equation and ask consumers to buy less, buy quality and pay more for it? What else can we do? How can we get to the top of the cliff and slow the flow of new goods into the system?

We can stop buying so many things and refuse to engage with companies that mass produce poor-quality garments and use slave labour to do so. We can buy vintage and secondhand, while acknowledging that there is inbuilt size and time privileges in this act so it’s not possible for everyone to shop like this.

We can support sustainable local fashion brands that don’t overproduce. We can mend and repair items. We can fall deeply in love with few special pieces that we wear over and over again. And we can get involved with Fashion RevolutionMindful Fashion NZ, the New Zealand Fashion Museum and other organisations that support a considered approach to fashion.

But individual actions will only get us so far.

This has got to be taken on by those bigger than us, those who created the problem in the first place. After centuries of colonialism pillaging the natural and human resources of so many countries and the perpetual growth of capitalism resulting in serious overproduction of goods for an already flooded market, it’s time for systemic change.

The world needs to start working towards a circular economy model that is “restorative and regenerative by design”, aggressive and manipulative marketing campaigns that fuel overconsumption should be held to account and businesses need to consider product stewardship and take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products, from raw materials to final demise.

I’m sure fashion brands would think twice about their production numbers if they suddenly had all their old garments mixed with household waste returned to their front doorstep, like staff and volunteers have to deal with at charity stores.

The New Zealand government recently announced a $124 million dollar scheme to reduce landfill waste, which is a great start, but ultimately this is bottom of the cliff stuff. Let’s hold governments and corporations accountable, insist they move to the top and create enforceable, people-centric policies to stop overproduction and exploitation. Use globalisation for good and start supporting creative communities around the world to produce quality textiles and garments at a sustainable rate, using traditional and modern techniques that work in harmony with nature.

Pre-selling collections and made-to-order is another approach that can slow the fashion flow. Small brands, like Nisa based in Wellington, offer made-to-order, which ensures almost zero waste is created and all resources are treasured and used.

Nisa undies (Photo: Supplied)

It means garments are more expensive to produce, which brings us back to that question, can we resist the capitalist hype and buy less, buy quality and pay more for it so we can support local manufacturing and living wages? These large systemic changes, coupled with our individual actions, will go a long way towards increasing product quality and longevity and reducing waste.

It can all feel overwhelming at times, but there is still so much to love about fashion. Putting on something special to instantly make a bad day brighter. The magic of taking a flat piece of fabric and turning it into a three dimensional garment. Getting out the sewing machine at home and whizzing up a mask from a favourite scrap of fabric. The creativity, thoughtfulness and team work that goes into creating collections and the visual symphony of a well-crafted fashion shoot.

But there should be no love for a system that uses and abuses such a joyful expression of human creativity and puts profit ahead of people and the planet. We deserve better than this, and I dearly hope that the current global situation will ultimately precipitate a kinder, slower, more considered fashion industry for all.

Rose Jackson is a long-time champion of vintage and fashion that lasts, as a guardian of Collectors Anonymous, trustee of the NZ Fashion Museum, and contributor to Fashion Revolution NZ.

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