With thrifting, upcycling and sustainable clothing choices becoming more popular, is disposable fashion becoming old hat? We ask the LSE community.
“There’s definitely a pressure not to be seen wearing the same outfit twice, especially on social media. You can get wrapped up in the idea that you need a new outfit for every event, and cheap online shops make this so easy,” says 20-year-old undergraduate Saach Sivakumar.
Saach is the President of LSE’s Enactus society - a student group who use creativity and entrepreneurship to tackle social problems. When we meet, Saach and fellow Enactus members have gathered together for an upcycling workshop where they are converting old t-shirts - otherwise destined for landfill - into tote bags.
A new lease of life
These workshops - which the group hope to run fortnightly with LSE students - are part of the society’s latest project, Vita Nova (or new life in Latin), designed to tackle clothes waste.
Project supervisor, 22-year-old Management student Jun-e Chew, explains how the idea for the project came to him while researching the waste produced by the fashion industry. According to studies, around 350,000 tonnes of clothes are sent to landfill every year in the UK with a garment being worn on average just seven times before it’s thrown out.
“Fast fashion is something we’ve all played a part in at some point, but my generation are starting to realise the impact the industry is having on the environment and want to take control of the situation and our futures,” he says. Saach agrees, highlighting how the prominence of climate change in the news agenda and the influential work of figures such as Greta Thunberg are starting to have an impact.
Make do and mend
It seems Jun-e and Saach aren’t alone, a new study shows young people are increasingly making more sustainable fashion choices. In the last year, over half (52%) of those aged 25-34 bought second-hand clothes and half (50%) have repaired damaged or worn-out clothes.
Celebrities and social media stars are also becoming more conscious of this trend. Actor Joaquin Phoenix committed to wearing the same tuxedo throughout the awards season and Little Women star Saoirse Ronan, wore a gown repurposed from another dress to the Oscars.
Someone who’s no stranger to making the most of her wardrobe is Philosophy PhD student and teacher Christina Easton, who gave up buying new clothes for a year in 2017. “I had a large wardrobe I’d built up over the years, much of which I wasn’t using. When I did some research and learnt about the environmental costs of the clothing industry, I decided to buy no new clothes for the year.”
While the challenge wasn’t always easy, Christina recalls trying to darn some tights, or cheap – there was one occasion where repairing a pair of boots cost more than a new pair, the experience was eye-opening. “I learnt that we are regularly buying things we don’t need. Consuming is a huge part of modern society which is difficult to escape. Because buying less can take more time and (sometimes) more money, I think making this change has to be morally motivated.”
Assistant Professor Rebecca Elliott, whose work focuses on green consumption and climate change, believes environmental worries are a key reason people are motivated to turn away from fast fashion.
“Environmental concern may well play a key role, and these concerns are real. Textiles are among the most difficult materials to recycle and many textile fibres are synthetics that don’t decompose in landfills. Clothing production also eats up lots of resources, especially water,” she says.
She adds that worries over labour exploitation and concerns that workers have been subjected to poor conditions and pay - perhaps most tragically highlighted by the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 - is also a likely contributing factor.
Blue planet moment
However, while concern around fast fashion is brewing, and it’s possible disposable clothes could soon face the same backlash as throwaway plastics, it’s still an incredibly popular industry. With the profits of retailers like Primark and Bohoo - where you can snap up a dress for less than £5 – booming, fast fashion is yet to have its ‘Blue Planet moment’.
Professor Ben Voyer, who researches consumer behaviour, believes there are several reasons why fast fashion is still thriving, despite increased awareness about its impact.
“First, fast fashion offers convenience and tangible benefits to consumers: ease of buying and being on trend. Second, there is always a gap between consumers’ attitudes and their behaviours. Consumers often claim they care strongly about certain topics – and they often do – but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will act upon these,” he says.
LSE Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity and sustainability expert Madhumitha Ardhanari agrees. “For every person who is looking into ethical fashion, many more are consuming fast fashion. Ethical fashion brands are largely expensive and fast fashion provides both affordability and variety for most people,” she notes.
While Madhumitha believes we can all make changes to our shopping habits to help reduce waste (for example, she regularly swaps clothes and only buys second-hand), she argues change won’t happen until there are regulations in place.
“Governments need to regulate businesses better. And businesses need to orient revenue models towards slow fashion (ie: producing fewer, better clothes) and business models towards repair and repurposing rather than focusing on relentless production. Without these key shifts at the production end, it’s going to be hard to truly end fast fashion.”
It seems that, while we might be starting to question our relationship with fast fashion, we’re not at the breakup stage just yet.