The Stand.

Stories from UOW

We live in the age of mass consumption. We buy clothes we don’t need, don’t really want, and will never wear, often with the click of a button. So what impact does fast fashion have on the world? And why should you care?

When was the last time you bought a new piece of clothing? Did you wear it only once or has it become a beloved item of your wardrobe? Think about it: a wedding is coming up so you get a new dress for the occasion. Or there’s a party and you don’t have anything that will work. Or you just ducked into Kmart (or Target, or H&M) and found a handful of T-shirts for only $5 each. At that price, who cares if you only wear it once?

We are slaves to fashion like never before. Australians, on average, buy 27 kilograms of clothing each year. And in the 10 or so minutes it will take you to read this story, six tonnes of clothing will be dumped into landfill.

Elyse Stanes, who has just completed her PhD in the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, has spent the past four years exploring the varied, and complicated, geographies of clothing. As part of this research, she has investigated the environmental and ethical impacts of our clothing choices.

Elyse Stanes, from the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities.

Elyse says her decision to focus on clothing for her thesis was motivated by her undergraduate years spent working casually in the retail sector as well as the fact that there was little research available about clothing as an example of rampant consumerism.

“One of the things that I realised during my PhD is that there are very few things that we connect with as intimately as clothing. Clothing is important because it we use it for warmth and protection,” Elyse says. “But it’s also a representation of who we are and who we want to be. It is deeply connected to our bodies, lives and ways of living.

“I studied my undergraduate degree at UOW – a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Human Geography – and when I finished my degree, I had the opportunity to travel to India, and during my time there, I got an insight into how some of our clothes are made.

of clothing are bought by Australians each year
of clothing goes into landfill every 10 minutes

“Some of the clothing factories are hidden and geographically located in different places. I was invited into these factories and got a chance to see how some items of clothing are made. Often it was a place where a button or sequins were added, or an applique was sewn onto a garment.”

When she began her PhD, Elyse saw the relationship between consumerism and clothing as one fundamental piece of the vast and sprawling puzzle that is the fashion industry.

“I’ve always had an interest in environmental sustainability, but clothing to me seemed to be the perfect example of the complexity of waste and consumerism, and our relationship to stuff. It’s not as easy as simply buying then disposing. There are cultural and household factors that come into play.”

Fashion at dizzying speeds

The condition of clothing factories on the Indian Subcontinent came to light in a tragic way in 2013. More than 1,100 workers were killed when the nine-storey Rana Plaza factory complex, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, came crashing down.

The factory was the production hub for many of the world’s biggest fashion brands. It was also incredibly unsafe, with cracks appearing in the building’s foundations the day before the collapse. The disaster provoked international outrage and condemnation, but half a decade later, progress has been slow; workers’ conditions are still largely considered unsafe, they are unpaid and overworked.

We live in an age of mass consumption. We are all guilty; I have a closet of clothes that have been worn once, but now languish sadly in the back of my closet. Dresses bought for that wedding, dinner, birthday party, always fed by the notion that what I already owned just would not suffice.

Fast fashion – a term that refers to the speed with which designers churn out clothes and the speed with which we consume them – has become the beast that can’t be tamed. While fashion used to be defined by the seasons, clothes now move from catwalk to a store near you in a matter of weeks.

Everything is faster now. The average high street or chain stores brings out 12 seasons a year.

Elyse Stanes

Once upon a time, we had to physically enter a shop to buy an item of clothing. Now we click, scroll, Instagram and Afterpay. Boxing Day Sales were a cherished event, a time to stock up on sheets, towels and clothes for the year ahead. Now, the sales arrive on our phone before we’ve even sat down to Christmas lunch.

For Elyse, this rapid consumption prompted her to think about how clothes are used, and what happens with them when we finish. Through her research of young adults, aged between 18 and their early 30s, Elyse discovered that the search for something new was behind their desire to keep buying.

“Everything is faster now. The average high street or chain store brings out 12 seasons a year,” Elyse says. “That alone seems to be a real appetite for something new. That’s a real driver of fast fashion. There is a problem with how much is made as part of fast fashion, but there is another side with how people care for their objects regardless of their fast labelling.”

Marketing is an integral cog in the fast fashion machine. It is a crowded world out there – good marketing enables a brand to cut through the noise, and reach customers on more platforms, and in more ways, than ever before.

The amount of water consumed in making one T-shirt. Graphic: Matt de Feudis

Elyse’s findings were echoed by Dr Michal Strahilevitz, from UOW’s School of Marketing and Management: “The idea of consuming less, it’s not as fun as the idea of easily getting everything you want, whether you are buying online or in store. Shopping is fun, it is for many a way to treat oneself.”

Michal believes the Internet, and consequent availability of everything we could ever need, right at our fingertips, has fuelled our shopping obsession.

“Online shopping has made it easier for us to shop. Once upon a time we had to go to the mall, but now you can shop over breakfast, over dinner, on your lunch break, in the middle of the night. If you don’t feel like doing your homework or cleaning the house, you can shop online. Then you find something cheap, you think ‘I should get two of those! Oh, they’re only $3 each, I should get three!’ It’s too easy to be constantly shopping.

“Those who bought a lot before the Internet are buying even more. Some of those that did not shop much before are finding themselves clicking their way into a pile of stuff.”

Michal, who obtained her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, says the United States has it worse than Australia, in part due to the rise of Amazon.

“Amazon makes it so easy to shop. With great prices, fast free delivery on most items, and a fantastic online shopping experience, Americans have found themselves regularly going to the door to see if their latest Amazon shipment has arrived. Once Amazon hits Australia in full force, it will likely make online shopping even easier to do, and thus harder to resist.

“It is easier and cheaper to buy online, so we buy more and more stuff. Then we need a bigger house for our stuff. Then we buy storage containers to organise our possessions or (even worse) we rent storage lockers to simply hold it all. When it gets this bad, it starts to feel like your stuff owns you. It is hard to be serene when we are drowning in stuff.”

Dr Michal Strahilevitz, from UOW’s School of Management, Operations and Marketing.

Waste not, want not

Here are a few startling facts for you: the average person in affluent countries disposes of 23 kilograms of clothing a year. In the UK, the average piece of clothing lasts for 3.3 years. Globally, the average number of total garments produced each year is estimated between eight and 10 billion, with an estimated 60 billion kilograms destined for landfill or to be burned.

If those facts don’t make you look at your wardrobe differently, I don’t know what will.

Elyse says issues of waste were one of the key reasons she was drawn to this area of research. It is clear that Elyse is passionate about sustainability and preserving what we can of the planet.

“Clothes have an end of life. And what we do with them depends on the garment,” she says. “You might think, ‘I don’t want that anymore so I’ll pass it on to an op shop or sell it online’. Sometimes the item doesn’t feel good anymore, so we just throw it in the bin. But clothes do not simply end up in op-shops to be resold.

“A percentage of that goes into the global second-hand trade, where clothes are sent onward nations across the Global South, but now there are reports of the clothes being sent back because they don’t want them. It is interrupting their own economics of clothing production. What isn’t sold in op-shops, or on-sold to the global second-hand economy is either recycled, or put into landfill.”

But the garment materials also complicate how clothing can be worn over time and break down. Synthetic materials, such as polyester, further complicate the problem as clothing made from these plastic-based materials take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to break down. Additionally, when in use a single polyester garment can leach more than 1900 microfibres per wash, which makes its way into our ecosystem and into the human body. Human-made fibres are difficult to recycle and most polyester items are destined to spend eternity in landfill.

Polyester now makes up more than 60 per cent of textiles globally, much of it used to produce garments that could be classed as ‘fast fashion’. In the wardrobes of her participants, polyester and polyester-blend clothing was the most likely to accumulate in the back of buyers’ wardrobes, Elyse says, abandoned because the fabric no longer feels right to the wearer. Polyester items do show signs of decay, but not in the gentle, comforting, slightly distressed style that appeals to second-hand clothing aficionados.

Elyse says her research reveals that many young adults see the polyester items in their wardrobes as a source of guilt and shame; the clothes have not aged enough to be thrown out, they won’t be accepted by op shops, they fetch minimal money on eBay on Buy Swap Sell sites.

“For the most part, the young adults I spoke to looked after their clothes, but this generosity was generally extended to natural materials, such as cotton, silk and wool. Polyester was usually shoved to the back of the cupboard, to exist in wardrobe purgatory. Cotton can be recycled but polyester has a more complicated recycling process that is hard to do on-mass, so instead that’s the stuff that goes to landfill,” Elyse says.

“Cotton is not without its problems, because it is incredibly labour intensive to make and uses a huge amount of water. I guess it shows how complicated clothing can be, and that there’s no easy solution.”

Michal says sustainability is an area where many global clothing brands are happy to spruik their green credentials for marketing campaigns, but not all brands are equally committed. She explains that using sustainability as a marketing gimmick is often called “greenwashing”.

She cites Patagonia, the global outdoor company, as one company that truly subscribes to the green ethos; it is their practice and purpose to encourage consumers to think about the world they live in before making another purchase.

“A few years ago, Patagonia brought out this great campaign in which they told their customers, ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’. The idea was not to buy the jacket if you don’t need it, use what you have or mend it if it needs to be mended. Patagonia are very authentic, they really care about the environment and the impact of doing business,” she says. “That campaign really cut through all the clutter and from a marketing perspective, it was incredibly effective.”

Michal believes herd mentality – or ‘contagion’ as she terms it – is a way we can encourage people to think more about the clothes they wear and how much they buy. And social media has a large role to play.

“If more people talk about the environmental impact of our clothing choices, more people will hear that message and hopefully they will both act and spread the word.”

Slow is the new black

Many of us have succumbed to the pressure of social media; once an outfit has been immortalised on Instagram, it is pushed to the back of the cupboard and never worn again, for fear of being seen as a repeat wearer. It is as if we are all celebrities, starring in a lifelong movie of our own making. When an actual celebrity does wear an outfit twice – such as the ever-thrifty Princess Kate who often repeats her outfits in a show of keeping it real – it is so out of the ordinary that it provokes think pieces.

“Wouldn’t it be great if Gwyneth Paltrow came out and said she was not buying any new clothes for a year?,” Michal muses. Our clothing is seen by so many people, and social media seems to be making that worry about what we look like even bigger.

“In the US, sustainability focus varies from segment to segment. You will find towns or communities where everyone brings their own bags to the supermarkets and the most popular car in the lot is always a Prius. These consumers care about the environment and anyone who step outsides the norms of that – who, for example, buys bottled water rather than brings their own reusable bottle – is looked down on or feel they have to justify their choices. But then there are communities where having the SUV, the huge house full of stuff, the 400 pairs of shoes is seen as a status symbol. It’s a type of herd mentality.”

The art of the social media flat lay.

Elyse, for her part, would like to see a shift towards a slower pace of fashion, which advocates for higher-quality garments that are better for both consumers and artisans. She is involved in the Australian/New Zealand arm of Fashion Revolution, a movement that celebrates designers who are creating ethical fashion and pushing for fairer supply chains. Every year, Fashion Revolution Week is held to coincide with the Rana Plaza collapse, on 24 April, 2013, and encourage consumers to ask, Who Made My Clothes?

Elyse says her thesis has changed the way she approaches what she wears and forces her to make more considered choices about how she spends her money.

“I don’t buy as much as I used to,” says Elyse, who spent years working in retail. “I understand now what goes into each item of clothing, the huge industry behind it. I look for quality over quantity, and I’m attentive to what I buy.”

Slow it down. Before putting down money on a new dress, think about whether you will wear it once, twice, or forever. Shop your closet. The world, and your wallet, will thank you for it.

Graphics by Matt De Feudis. 

You might also like