A clothing wrack with a series of hangers holdinding shirts or jackets on them

The True Cost of Fast Fashion

How many pieces of clothing have you bought this month? How many came from fast-fashion retailers like Cotton On, H&M or Topshop? Australians have become the second-largest consumers of new textiles, each buying on average 27 kilograms of new clothing per year. But as shown on the ABC’s War on Waste, Australians produce over six tonnes of discarded clothing in just ten minutes, which over a year would fill two and a half MCG stadiums. Globally, nearly 60 per cent of all clothing produced is put in landfill or incinerated within a year of being made. Although many people don’t associate fashion with the global waste problem, our obsession with cheap trends comes at a huge cost.

Fast fashion is characterised by producing massive amounts of trendy low-cost garments, with new styles being added weekly or even daily. However, prices are often kept down by making clothes low quality and paying workers below minimum wage. Most garment workers earn around 25 cents an hour, while child labour and dangerous working conditions are also common.

Environmentally, many of the synthetic fibres that make up fast-fashion garments take centuries to biodegrade. Even natural fibres, like cotton, release methane as they break down, and often release chemicals from dyes that leach from landfills into groundwater. The water it takes to produce one cotton t-shirt is enough for one person to drink for three years, meaning our country’s resources go into items that are slowly rotting away in landfill. Furthermore, underfunded charities are burdened with the million-dollar yearly expense of sending clothes to landfill that are too low-quality to be resold in op shops.

Faced with such a huge issue, it can be difficult to know where to begin. However, by changing your own attitudes towards clothing consumption, you can become more sustainable without compromising your style.

The first step to building a sustainable wardrobe is to re-evaluate what’s inside. If you have a clear personal style and are conscious of what you already own, you’ll be less tempted by fast-fashion sales and short-lived trends. If you’re unsure of your style, consider how you want to present yourself. Think about keywords (e.g. comfortable, colourful), which parts of your body you like to highlight, what suits your everyday activities, and people whose style you admire. Try on everything you own and only put back pieces that suit your needs and make you feel great!

Afterwards, you’ll be left with a pile of clothes you haven’t been wearing. But before binning or donating the lot, figure out why. If the item just doesn’t fit, the solution might be as easy as taking it in, meaning to make it smaller. My favourite pair of jeans were a brand-new Zara pair I found in the op shop for $10, which had been in stores just the week before for $50. They were too long, so I shortened them myself and now wear them all the time! Many items just need taking in, cropping, or cuffing to flatter your body and give them a new lease on life. These adjustments can be done easily by hand or with a sewing machine, with the help of YouTube tutorials if you’re unsure. Otherwise, getting things tailored is relatively cheap and pays off in the long run.

Some items may just need maintenance or jazzing up. Instead of chucking a favourite but worn-out pair of shoes, get them resoled. If you have old jeans which still fit but are looking worn and boring, get creative! Patching, embroidery, stitching and fabric paint are all fun ways to make clothes new and interesting again.

Remaining items can be sold online or at a local market. Student stalls at the Pop-Up Village Market are only six dollars, and are an easy way to make a quick buck. You could also attend a clothes swap, which are regularly run by groups like Light Share, or organise your own with friends. By exploring these options before you donate, you can make money and help keep charities from being overburdened.

After your clear-out, it’s important to step out of the fast fashion cycle and buy second-hand, or from sustainable brands. Canberra has great op shops, with many right in the city. If the idea of wearing someone else’s clothes grosses you out, don’t write off op shops just yet – many (like Red Cross) get bulk donations directly from high street outlets, giving you quality, new, branded pieces for a fraction of the price. If you’re willing to buy second-hand, but don’t want to wade through op shops yourself, you can buy from others on Facebook, Depop or Carousell. Vintage shops like Landspeed are another option; they cost a bit more, but find the good stuff for you.

If you want to buy new but aren’t sure which brands are sustainable, check out apps like Good On You, which give brands ratings based on their ethical and environmental practices. Favouring natural over synthetic fabrics is better for your health and comfort, as plastic clothing is often toxic and less breathable. Many sustainable clothing brands also have charity initiatives, so you can contribute to multiple solutions at once.

Generally reducing the amount of purchases you make is good for the planet and your pocket. If you want something, write it down, and if in a couple weeks you still want it, you can make an informed choice on which brand to buy from and make your purchase. It’s much more satisfying spending your hard-earned money on something you know you’ll love and wear often, compared to the passing excitement of sale purchases you never end up using anyway.

It’s important to remember that when shopping, your purchase is your vote. By buying from a company, your money supports them, and says that you agree with their practices. Although your individual purchase may seem insignificant, companies won’t make changes until we as consumers start putting our money in the right places. Join the slow fashion movement today and start your own war on waste!