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Cheap Clothing: The Real Cost? - Tonight

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London Fashion week drew to a close on Tuesday. Environmental activists staged a series of protests calling out the fashion industry as one of the most harmful to the planet and comparing its impact to that of non-recyclable plastic.

It’s so called ‘fast fashion’ that some argue has triggered the problem. In the past new clothes were released twice a year, spring/summer and autumn/winter. Now, with the rise of fashion influencers some brands release new items weekly in response to changing styles seen on social media. This weekly drop means we’re now buying five times more clothes than we did in the 1980’s. But at what cost?

In the UK, 2 tonnes of new clothes are bought every minute, while 50 trucks worth of used clothing ends up in landfill every day. There are also concerns over the amount of water needed to create these fast-fashion items. Through irrigation, cultivation and processing, 2,700 litres of water is used in the production of just one t-shirt. And according to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, unless there’s serious changes the fashion industry will consume more than a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050. However, in a special Tonight survey of 2,000 people we asked what was the most important factor they considered when buying clothing - and only 2.5% considered the environmental impact of production.

2,700 litres of water is needed per t-shirt - that's enough for 33 baths.

Some fast fashion brands were criticised by Government’s Environmental Audit Committee last year for not addressing waste in the supply chain. The committee also voiced concerns over low prices in the fashion industry and charities such as Labour Behind The Label are concerned that low prices result in low wages for garment workers.

Stylist Mark Heyes has worked in fashion for 20 years and believes that the industry is now changing.

“Clothing isn't the enemy here, it’s how it's dealt with afterwards and we're making incredible headway with that.”

– Mark Heyes, Stylist
Mark Heyes shows Helen how it's possible to tackle these modern problems.

But some critics argue that it’s only a small percentage of stock on sale that is sustainable and that there aren’t currently worldwide standards of sustainability or enough transparency about workers rights.

This month Oxfam is asking people to give up buying new clothes in favour of second hand clothes. The so called, Second Hand September campaign is aimed at raising awareness of the environmental impact of fashion. According to Oxfam, if everyone in the UK took part the country would save the same amount of emissions as flying a plane around the world 900 times.

Consumers can also shop sustainably by looking for excess and end-of-line new items. Newlife the Charity for Disabled Children runs clothing shops that sell surplus stock from retailers and manufacturers, diverting 2,100 tonnes of clothing from landfill annually and generating carbon savings of 10,800 tonnes.

A recent report claims the second hand market is growing 21 times faster than fast fashion. But attitudes towards second hand clothing may not be changing as quick as we think, 37% of those asked in our survey - said they were unlikely to or would never buy second hand clothing.

We are now making a difference with how we use single-use plastic. Perhaps now is the time to rethink how we shop for clothes.

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