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Saoirse McHugh: Fast fashion is hard to escape, but it is damaging our environment

There is no room, environmentally or socially, for fast fashion anymore, writes Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party.

Saoirse McHugh

In her fortnightly column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about what we can do as individuals in the face of climate chaos.

WHEN WE THINK about living sustainably or reducing our environmental impact, the most obvious lifestyle changes include reducing air travel and altering our diets to lessen the amount of animal product we consume.

Many of us are painfully aware of plastic use and know that extracting peat for electricity generation or animal bedding is entirely at odds with the climate action we as a country must take.

There are several industries, however, that slip under most of our radars in terms of their negative environmental impact.

They seem clean and initially it can be difficult to see how damaging they are. One example of this is data centres.

To me they have this sci-fi feel to them and it is hard to imagine the enormous amount of electricity being used to run them, perhaps because I cannot properly fathom the amount of power used to store, process, and distribute data.

Clothing is another example of an industry that does not always come up in conversations about sustainability, possibly because the vast majority of clothing purchased in Ireland is made elsewhere.

This gives the clothing industry a feel that the products come from nowhere and only rarely, like in the case of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory building collapse in Bangladesh which claimed 1134 lives and left over 2000 injured, is the real cost of fashion revealed to us.

The fast fashion industry is very damaging by many metrics – it is polluting, wasteful, and growing yearly.

The water footprint of cotton is enormous and has contributed to severe water shortages in many parts of the world. A single cotton shirt requires around the same amount of water as one person would drink in two-and-a-half years.

Polyester is an extremely common synthetic material created from fossil fuels. In 2015, polyester production was responsible for carbon emissions equivalent of 185 coal fired power plants running for a whole year, according to the World Resources Institute.

The people who make the clothes are often treated horrifically,  possibly working in unsafe buildings, being paid terribly low wages and having virtually no workers’ rights.

One might think that as each of us come to own more clothing we end up buying less but, in fact, the amount of clothing purchased per person has increased by 60% in the last 20 years while the amount of times we wear an item has reduced by almost half, according to one study. 

There are lots of new and old initiatives set up to tackle the clothing production and waste problems such as second hand shops, clothes swaps, clothes rentals. Some companies are reducing their clothing turnover or running clothing repair programs.

I know how nice it is to buy something new. I used to go shopping as a stress reliever or to give myself a boost and I would get really excited about the idea of going out wearing something I had just gotten.

I still get tempted to just go buy something new for the sake of it, but have reduced my clothing purchasing by a huge amount.

I am not saying this to moralise the issue or to push an idea that individual action is what will save us. I don’t believe that we will be able to buy our way out of this and I don’t think we will be able to simply swap the clothes we currently buy for environmentally friendly clothes.

There is no sustainable way to produce and waste vast quantities of clothing. We will need to change our relationship with buying clothes and sever the link that purchasing new fashion has with how good we feel.

Like almost everything, the pursuit of profit is what is driving this. We are told from every magazine, every advert and every shop front that new clothes will make occasions special, make you fun to be around or makes you desirable/professional/easy going. 

Clothing and style can help us feel confident and can add to our enjoyment of our lives but the buy, wear twice and then dispose cycle is not fundamental to that.

Changing the dominance of fast fashion might mean more things like fashion swaps or rentals, a global minimum wage, restrictions on how much a company can produce and waste and a cultural shift away from fashion being disposable.

Whatever way we move forwards as a society one thing is certain: there is no room, environmentally or socially, for fast fashion anymore.

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Saoirse McHugh

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