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Stop blaming consumers for fast fashion’s mess, it’s policymakers who dictate the future

By Angela Rawstorne, Sustainability Strategic Advisor

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes UnPerfect programme – a course that helps people find and finesse their public voices

Fast fashion, urgh, who does that?! But… isn’t it every woman’s dirty little secret?  It’s almost impossible to separate our self-esteem from the social construct of fashion: the confidence gained from a new wraparound dress for an interview, a pair of statement shoes for Saturday brunch that scream  “I can afford this, I’m a success” on Instagram. The payday treats and last-minute holiday hauls that are curated and posted on our social feeds, providing a colourful narrative of a perpetually happy life. 

Yet, we’ve all seen the apocalyptic headlines and grim imagery depicting stinking landfills, oceans choked with discarded western fashion, the shocking human rights abuses,  exploitation of female workers and child labour.  Did it make you, or the 6million active Boohoo customers or the 26million global ASOS fans, pause and reflect on the environmental and social credentials of those retailers before you clicked ‘add to basket’? 

Given the vast wealth of these fast fashion companies – Shein valued at £100billion, Boohoo worth £3.5billion – probably not.

Because not only is fast fashion a global problem, it’s a female problem. 

18 – 24 GenZ women are the biggest consumers of it, shopping with these brands more often than any other group. Molly Mae Hague was no accident – Boohoo played a blinder here – however according to recent Razorfish Vice research,  82%  insist they want to consume products that are socially and ethically responsible. This group are meant to be pulling us back from the brink of extinction! 

But there’s a beautiful irony here, draped in sequins. Women are paying twice over: not only do we fund fast fashion but we’re also abused by it, because it’s women and girls who are exploited, underpaid, and manipulated by that same fast fashion industry. 

So, let me get this straight. Not only are young women supposed to be active feminists, counter social norms and work harder to get paid the same as men… now they have to save the planet and people too? And apparently, they need to do this by not buying affordable fashionable clothes in a society that continues to judge young women on how they look. Right. 

That seems like a lot of pressure. So where are the legislators? 

Whilst the consumer has a role to play, we’re placing far too much responsibility at the feet of young women, expecting them to save the world. There is even more pressure coming her way, as the most recent 2022 IPCC assessment for the 1st time identifies big changes required in consumers’ behaviour or ‘demand side’ to cut emissions and limit global warming to 1.5C. 

It’s been proven throughout history that legislation drives change; sometimes as a result of protests and lobbying, but it needs to come from the top and it needs to target business. So, where is the legislator in all of this? 

Quite unbelievably, there were only 19 UK fashion policies published in the last five years versus 689 for obesity, despite the fast fashion industry being the second largest user and polluter of water globally and one of the largest contributors to modern slavery. 

2 years ago, Boris Johnson’s government rejected a call for a 1p tax on every garment to raise over £35 million to fund the collection and recycling of the stuff (fast fashion) that is trashing the environment. In fact, the most progressive action we’ve seen from No.10 is Carrie Symonds renting her bridal gown for 45 quid. 

But perhaps the UK doesn’t need to worry. In a globalised economy international legislation will have ramifications for British brands and hold them to account. The EU is stepping in where the UK government has failed, and the Extended Producer Responsibility legislation will make companies trading in the EU responsible for paying for the collection, sorting, and recycling of textiles.

New York state’s Fashion Act is the most progressive we’ve seen yet, requiring any fashion brand trading there to disclose their environmental and social impact, and to prove they are meeting science-based targets.  Failure to comply, and you’ll be fined two percent of annual revenue regardless of whether you are Gucci or Prada, Shein or Boohoo.  

At last, legislation has woken up and NY state is  placing the role of saving the planet firmly at the door of the billion-dollar fashion polluters, not young women. Instead they’re hitting brands where it will have the most impact, financially – according to leading B2B trade media Sourcing Journal, “Using Nike as an example, their non-compliance would result in a fine of $1 billion every year.” Ouch!

Is the solution to stop shopping? 

Maybe the millions of women spending money with Boohoo, Shein, ASOS do care about the environment and want to be part of driving the social and environmental agenda. But maybe they’re also skint, and tired, and too focused on navigating the post-covid shitshow to worry about anything else right now. 

There are lots of ‘sustainable’ alternatives to fast fashion: buy preloved, repair clothes, re-use, swap, rent, reacquaint yourself with the wardrobe of stuff you already own, and so on. These are legitimate options that need to be given more airtime, definitely, but we must stop making consumers feel guilty for the damage that big businesses have done. 

There is no denying that Fashion is a very complex and damaging industry, an industry that has proved the limitations of self-regulation. 

But, we have to start somewhere, and that means the UK government recognising the damage done to the environment and society by the fashion industry is as significant as obesity, and then legislating accordingly.  Otherwise, the apocalyptic fashion headlines will become a mainstay of our daily news consumption. Young women will continue to carry this additional burden because until the UK government starts to care, fast fashion won’t have to either

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