Why we must end the damaging culture of throwaway fashion


Our insatiable hunger for speedy, cheap fashion is trashing the planet. It’s time we changed our outfits, writes Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos of University College London and founder of the Retail Psychologist.

In the UK there is an estimated £31 billion worth of unworn clothing collecting dust in people’s closets, while the average US person discards 32kg of clothes annually. Evidently, the ‘throwaway fashion’ mentality is now widely adopted in the western world, as consumers expect their need for fast, cheap and up-to-date clothing to be catered for by fashion brands. This phenomenon poses two substantial threats, to the environment and to communities.


The world’s resources simply cannot keep up with throwaway fashion. For example, cotton, the fibre employed to produce over half of the clothes and textiles that we use, is responsible for 2.6 per cent of the world’s global water usage. More than 20,000 litres of water are required to produce just one kg of cotton, and this effect can be seen when examining the Aral sea in Asia, which has been almost eradicated due to inefficient water use during cotton production. Cotton production is therefore not sustainable.

In addition to the issue with water usage, cotton production requires toxic pesticides, which can lead to the death of farmers as well as damaging the environment when released into the water stream, as it promotes the growth of green algae which harms water-based organisms. Further costs to the environment are provoked by polyester usage. Manufacturing this non-biodegradable material creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and also requires large amounts of water when cooling it, along with lubricants that can be a source of contamination.


The second threat is to communities. As a result of the west’s appetite for fast fashion and the highly competitive clothing industry, the majority of clothes production occurs in countries where labour costs are low. In developing countries, such as Bangladesh, factory workers often suffer the consequences. They are subject to extremely low wages.

The fashion industry’s demands are sometimes fulfilled through child labour or pensioners. Indeed, in Uzbekistan, the government closes down the schools so children can go and pick cotton in pesticide-contaminated fields.


Despite this disheartening investigation into the negative impacts on the fashion industry, there is a solution to be found in the form of sustainable fashion initiatives. For example, organic cotton is renewable, natural and biodegradable and has many benefits, both to the environment and communities. .

Organic textiles that are certified by the Soil Association require their manufacturers to meet social criteria as well environmental ones, such as minimum wages, working hours, child labour, discrimination and harsh or inhumane treatment. Organic cotton farming also offers direct advantages to the farmers as it gives farmers time to grow other crops for food and income. Cotton is normally grown as a monoculture, but relying on one crop means farmers can be left with nothing. However, organic cotton production requires the farmers to grow a variety of crops so that the soil is healthy and fertile, and this can double up as a food source for famers and their families.


One company which has acknowledged this sustainable material is H&M; H&M’s Conscious campaign promised to use nothing but organic or recycled cotton by 2020. Other companies, such as the Dutch clothing brand aWEARness create their clothes from 100 per cent recyclable polyester. By transforming items that have reached the end of their life into new clothes, aWEARness manufacture clothes that use 95 per cent less water and 64 per cent less energy.

Large clothing brands have incorporated ethical supply chain procedures into their CSR campaigns, One company that is founded on transparent, ethical fashion is Honest, conceived by Bruno Pieters.

Having previously been the art director for Hugo Boss, Pieters seeks to incorporate the fair treatment of both humans and the environment into his fashion label. Honest provides a fully comprehensive cost breakdown for each of its products, from the price of each zipper and size label to the mark up costs, allowing the consumer to make informed purchase decisions. The enhanced traceability of the supply chain wensures that every aspect of the garment is produced in an environmentally friendly way and makes customers aware of where and who was involved in the process. This transparent way of producing clothes successfully addresses the negative environmental and human impacts and sheds light onto new ways to produce sustainable clothing.