“You can’t take fast fashion away from the people now it’s here.”

So says Peter Williams, previous chairman to both Boohoo and Asos, British fast fashion brands that are killing it. Their performance is staggering. In a retail landscape where seemingly steadfast, familiar high street fashion brands are shrinking into the background and in some cases close to failing (Monsoon/Accessorize and Arcadia are both in the midst of rescue plans), Boohoo recently reported year-on-year sales growth of 38%. But Boohoo are killing it in another much more alarming way. By producing clothing at ridiculously low prices, not only are they dangerously squeezing manufacturers, they are also driving a damaging ‘wear it once’ mindset in consumers that is devastating our planet through excessive waste, pollution and landfill fodder.

Fast fashion consumers too are not immune from the impact – relentless churning through piles of clothes will ultimately clutter up space both physical and mental, adding stress and costing them more financially than if they purchased fewer items of higher quality over time. Cost-per-wear of a cheap item that is discarded or fails in a matter of weeks will always be higher than that of clothing that lasts.

Girl walking by the beach in a flowery fast fashion dress

When the news broke earlier this week that the UK government rejected proposals put forward by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) to clean up the fashion industry, those of us engaged in the fight for quality over shoddiness and planet over profit collectively raged. The proposals in Fixing Fashion: Clothing consumption and sustainability could have gone further (direct legislation on volume production would represent a major step change, for example); however, they would have been a start. A start to solid legislation in an industry where no official regulator exists – can there be another industry of comparable size that operates so free of regulation? The government states it's playing its part through a scheme to boost textile and packaging recycling as well as consulting on extended producer responsibility for higher quality textiles. If that sounds a little vague and non-committal, that’s because it is.

A high street shop selling clothing and accessories

Back to Boohoo. The Guardian’s Sandra Laville this week delved deeper into the brand and their production practices. It’s emerged that the brand produce one of their hero pieces, a bandeau dress coming in at a whopping £5, at a factory in the UK. ‘Made in England’ has always been a badge of honour and carries with it an association of quality and craftsmanship, expertise and trust. But we have to wonder: when a dress costs the consumer £5, who’s left paying the rest of the bill? According to Boohoo, there has been no evidence of foul play relating to garment workers’ pay. However, the brand has repeatedly refused to engage with USDAW (Union for Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers), and there is evidence of workers in Leicester and Manchester (where Boohoo’s factories are located) receiving just £3 per hour, which is well under half the national living wage.

Boohoo drive demand and sales through canny celebrity endorsement onsocial media and by positioning themselves as ‘fashion for everyone’ (they now offer a size range from 6 to 26). This method of preaching consumption without conscience is resulting in 1.3m tonnes of waste each year.

“You can’t take fast fashion away from the people now it’s here.” I’m curious about ‘the people’ in this context. Who, exactly, is fast fashion benefiting save the brands themselves? The people who are poorly paid and endure terrible working conditions? The people that live on a planet that is increasingly polluted and stuffed to the brim with needless waste? Or the people that repeatedly spend cash on poorly made clothes?

Cheap clothes equate to more crap in your closet not more fashion.

A man in a couture jumper staring wistfully into the distance on the high street

Fashion at its best is a celebration of expression, individuality and culture. Its power is transformative and empowering. The industry is jam-packed with creative talent, innovators and design brilliance. With creativity and innovation come new ideas, and as we evolve, so too does the way we present ourselves to the world. The alarming pace of fast fashion is the issue not newness. When we attended the Copenhagen Fashion Summit last year, we were told by a speaker opening the conference that “we don’t want to go back to slow fashion – that would not be right.” A kindred spirit of Peter Williams, no doubt. How about simply fair fashion?

The everyday consumer is not a sustainability expert, and neither are the influencers that promote the vast array of fast fashion, that much is clear. The majority would be shocked if they truly considered the harm that it does. We saw a glimmer of this in Stacey Dooley’s Fashion’s Dirty Secrets when she confronted a group of influencers with the truth behind the products they promoted. Their reaction illustrated the blind trust we place in brands, but it’s clear we need to continue questioning.

Fast fashion shop fronts with mannequins on the high street

To end on a positive note, Sandra Laville rounded off her piece with some practical advice on how to participate in fashion while remaining planet conscious. First up, we were thrilled to see:

“Commit to wearing every piece 30 times. If we doubled the amount of time we kept clothes for, we would cut our fashion emissions by 44%.”

Purchasing products of a higher quality that will last enables us to do this. This is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to act as a conscious consumer. Until the fashion industry is fully supported and regulated by government, the power to act as individuals holds even more importance.

June 27, 2019 — Lily Courtauld