If you’ve ever passed by Union St on the last Saturday of the month you may well have wondered what all the ecstatic faces peering out from behind stuffed suitcases and bursting bin bags may be… Believe it or not, they are the smiles of people saving the world by lugging home a whole new wardrobe to try on.
The Common Thread Clothes Exchange is a volunteer-run monthly event, enabling the people of Sheffield to recycle their unwanted items of clothing and refresh their wardrobes in a social and environmentally-friendly way. Attendees give their old clothes to the exchange to be sorted, browse the racks of others’ – finding new outfits, or visiting the Repair Station and learning how to restyle and fix broken zips, rips and buttons. The monthly events are staffed, steered and prepared for by a team of around 25 volunteers from hugely diverse backgrounds, recycling about 400kg of clothes every month.
As we see, quite literally, the rise of fast-fashion on our high street through the construction of a new three-storey H&M at Moorhead, it seems a crucial time to discuss the impact that fashion corporations like H&M, and soon to join them on the Moor, Next and New Look, have on the world.
In 2017 the UK purchased over 70 billion pounds worth of clothing(1). That’s doubled since 2005. At the Clothes Exchanges we don’t preach about the impact this overconsumption has on our planet and its populations: we know that feeling of finding a new piece of clothing, taking it home and hanging it on the front of your wardrobe for when you wake up. The exchanges are all about frenzied rifling and snap decisions. So I’m going to list some of the impacts here instead. If you’re interested in finding out more then watch The True Cost documentary, it’s on N**flix. I promise you will soon cry walking past Primark and become the most irritating person to go the pub with.
‘Fast-fashion’ was developed by the heads of brand retailers out of a manufacturing process called ‘quick response manufacturing’, with the purpose of increasing profits and achieving world domination. The aim was to create the most efficient production line with the shortest lead times, using a global supply chain to cut costs, thriving as foreign manufacturers in developing countries competed to lower prices. These methods were developed so that clothing could reach stores at low prices, but more importantly, as part of constant new trends and styles. A new ‘mini-collection’ every month, and the marketing that goes hand in hand with that, encourages you, the consumer, to visit and purchase more and more.
The environmental impact of these production lines and the waste they create is multi-faceted. Google Image Search ‘Fast Fashion Pollution’ as I take you through some stats. In Kanpur, India, millions of litres of toxic wastewater are poured out of leather tanneries every day into the river Ganges(2). The waste includes chemicals such as Chromium 6, which pollutes the drinking and farming water causing diseases including lung cancer, ulcers and toxicity of the liver, and directly increasing infant mortality.
Despite an increase in recycling in recent years, in 2016 the UK still binned 300,000 tonnes of clothing. Most is non-biodegradable and will sit in landfills for 200+ years releasing toxic gases. That’s only a small part of the 26 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted each year, from production through to disposal of clothing in the UK(3).
There has been a heightened awareness recently of the global inequality that climate change perpetrates, and the fashion industry is a perfect example of this. Not only through the effects of the environmental devastation it causes, but also the wage inequality it is dependent on.
Only 10% of the clothing donated to charity in the UK ends up being sold in our Charity Shops(4), the rest is sold in developing countries, for example Ghana (sold as “Obroni Wawu”, trans. “Clothes of the dead white man”) – where the local clothing industry has disappeared as a result and has become one of the multitude of countries exporting cheap clothing back to the West. In order to retain profit as the cost of raw materials increases, clothing manufacturers in these countries cut expenditure where they can: workers wages. By subcontracting to ‘other’ companies running the garment factories, the big brands based in the West – where employment law and regulation would prevent them from doing so – remain free from responsibility for poverty wages, factory disasters and the violent treatment of workers.
In 2013, 1,129 workers were killed in the worst garment industry disaster in history at Rana Plaza, Bangladesh. The workers had already pointed out cracks in the building to management, but were forced back to work. There are about 70 million garment workers globally(5). 3.5 million work in Bangladesh where the minimum wage is £1.10 per day(6).
There are many ways that the fashion industry should be held accountable for these crimes, and we should continue to speak up against them. As always though, we also need to take action, and personally I am a fan of fun action. Common Thread Clothes Exchange returns to Union St after its summer break on the 29th September. Bring your old clothes! You can even leave them before the event at the drop-off box in the Union St cafe if you’re super keen. Do get in touch if you’d like to join the team of volunteers, it’s entirely volunteer-led so there are roles for everybody whether you have minutes or weeks to spare. Slow and steady wins the race…