From Fast to Slow - The change in pace Australia’s fashion industry desperately needs
2019 | BY ZOE BROWN
Pre-loved fashion is more available than ever through charity op shops, with a range of quality second-hand clothing pictured in a Red Cross shop
The increasing availability of quick and cheap clothing in Australia has seen our clothing consumption sky- rocket over the past decade. The serious environmental consequences of our shopping habits mean the need to turn to sustainable ‘slow’ fashion alternatives has never been more urgent.
Dazzling shop window displays of mannequins posed in the latest fashion trends are difficult to ignore. Brightly coloured signs advertising markdown prices make the lure of new clothes near impossible to resist.
The dizzying pace of wardrobe turnover has become the norm among Australians. Our rate of clothing consumption is double the global average, with 27 kilograms per capita of new clothing purchased each year. Cheap poor-quality garments that now dominate the fashion industry are often discarded after only a few wears.
As the founder of ethical clothing brand Theo the Label, Esther Kirwan is well aware of the adverse environmental impacts that low quality fabrics have. “Fast fashion relies heavily on cheap textiles, and synthetics are the cheapest you can get,” she says. “Textiles such as polyester and nylon are the worst as they emit nitrous oxide which is 300 times worse than CO2 for the atmosphere.”
The speed of consumption of such fashion products is a serious concern for Lindle Epe, founder of The Earth Stylist. “It’s catastrophic. The rate that we’re consuming, it’s just way too high. We don’t need so many things, but because things are so cheap, people are just buying more of it.”
Fast fashion has sped up the fashion cycle that traditionally coincided with changes in season. The introduction of new fashion lines on a weekly basis has created shorter lifetimes for wear and driven the rate of clothing consumption in Australia.
Epe believes this rapid rate of trend turnover has made people reluctant to re-wear items they own. “It comes down to learning to be content with and valuing what we have. Then we won’t feel the need to consume so much.”
“What you wear does represent what you believe in. You don’t want to be throwing things away and creating waste.”
Rosa Brown agrees that using what you already have is an important step in tackling the fast fashion trend. As a founder of sustainable fashion organisation Wear Aware, Brown says being conscious of what we already own is an important step. “We need to become more aware that we probably already have things in our wardrobes that we can wear, and we don’t always have to buy new things.”
The throwaway culture of fast fashion is resulting in serious environmental impacts. A survey by YouGov found that in 2018 at least one piece of clothing was thrown away by three out offour of us. The ABC reported that this disposable attitude consumers have towards clothing results in 6000 kilograms of clothing ending up in landfill every 10 minutes.
Avid op-shopper Nicole Henry is appalled by the amount of clothing waste we generate.
“The overflowing charity bins at local shopping centres speaks of the large volumes of consumables we accept as reasonable,” she says.
“It astounds me sometimes the quality of what people donate to op shops.”
The thrill of finding trendy second-hand clothing in near-perfect condition is part of her love for op-shopping, Henry says. Her wardrobe now contains clothing almost entirely purchased from op-shops.
The stigma around buying pre-loved garments has been quick to disappear in recent years with the rise of vintage fashion trends and sustainability consciousness. The popularity of op shops is reflected in the number of charity op shops in Australia having grown to well over 600 stores.
Op shopping is a great way to address the issue of clothing waste and support the community Brown says. “Op shopping is a really good way to go because we are not contributing to more production and if we shop at charity shops then our money can go to good causes,” she says.
As the recipient of assistance from the Salvation Army after losing her family home in the 2003 Canberra bushfires, Henry knows the social value of charity op-shops first-hand. “Op shopping has the added bonus of knowing the support that charities like Salvos and Vinnie’s can provide to the community. Through the support we received from the Salvos after the bushfires our family was very aware of this aspect.”
Though fast fashion continues to dominate the Australian market, a growing number of sustainable ‘slow’ fashion brands have begun to emerge. The sustainability movement that drove supermarkets to ban plastic bags has started putting pressure on socially and environmentally irresponsible practices in the fashion industry.
Through her brand Theo the Label, Kirwan has been one such pioneer in the space of sustainable and ethical fashion. “Five years ago the terms fair-trade and sustainability were still a tiny niche, and I feel like they’ve grown to become far more prevalent because of demand,” she says.
The rise in sustainably conscious consumers has also seen the emergence of a marketing tactic known as ‘greenwashing’ among fashion brands. Several global fashion behemoths have introduced take-back schemes to recycle old clothing. Brown believes this is an admirable initiative but warns that consumers must consider the environmental impact of such companies as a whole.
“These brands are producing so many clothes with such poor-quality fabric and their recycling program is such a miniscule part of what they’re doing. I think overall they’re much worse for the environment than the small benefit they might be having with their recycling programs,” she says.
Epe agrees that a form of accreditation initiative would be beneficial to assist customers in identifying genuinely ethical and sustainable fashion brands. The Earth Stylist founder has created an interactive global map in an effort to make it easier for consumers to find brands that are transparent about their ethical and environmental impact. “The transparency side is showing their process; where the clothes are made, who makes them, where are their factories and where are their suppliers. It encourages them to be accountable for what they’re doing,” she says.
To make a real difference in the fashion industry, Kirwan believes change needs to come from effective education and policy. “Most people can acknowledge that sweatshops and environmental degradation are happening but having that knowledge alone doesn’t flow onto behavioural change,” she says.
Getting people to care about the issue of fast fashion Kirwan believes is a significant challenge but is needed to achieve long term change. “Schools and institutions need to update their curriculums to reflect the changes we want to see in society, so that children grow up with knowledge they can build on.”
Despite the growth of slower methods of fashion in recent years, Brown says we still have a long way to go.
“The biggest questions for the sustainability movement in general are how can we reduce production? How can we reduce consumption?”