When I was a kid in the '70s and '80s, new clothes were a big deal. We went to David Jones or Grace Bros and my mother shelled out serious money. They were Australian or European made. One party dress would last (too many) years. The clothes were well-sewn, and never fell apart in the washing-machine. They looked the same when I grew out of them as they had when they were first bought. I would often pray to grow faster, just so I could feel the illicit thrill of something shiny and new.
I can't buy new clothes anymore. I can't simply walk into a shop, try items on and make a purchase. I've never been a fan of shopping, unless I'm wandering through market stalls or rifling through second-hand clothing, but this recent antipathy has taken me to a whole new level.
I remember arriving in London in 2013 and making a beeline with my daughter for Gap, Zara and H&M to gorge on dirt-cheap fast fashion. I knew no better. Now I do. Now I ask myself one question before I buy. Where are my clothes coming from? A straightforward question, with huge and complex ramifications.
We in the developed world buy 80 billion pieces of new clothing a year, 400 percent more than two decades ago. Consumerism has become our drug of choice; a drug sanctioned wholeheartedly by society. Mass-market, disposable fashion is the epitome of this current marketing model of planned, inbuilt obsolescence.
Traditionally, fashion cycles followed the seasons but fast fashion has compressed these into periods of just four to six weeks. Garments go from the design stage to the retail floor in the blink of an eye. We buy more, because there's always something more to find. We buy more because it's cheap, and there will always be a newer, nicer jacket, top or skirt if the one we've brought home doesn't suit. I used to comfort myself that our discarded clothes ended up in developing countries to be worn by others. I was wrong. Most of our clothes end up in landfill.
Fashion is now a truly disposable product, like plastic cutlery, baby wipes and toilet paper.
Why is it, in a global economic climate of increasing costs of living (housing, transportation, health insurance, higher education), clothes continue to decrease in price? Is this our consolation prize, a puny little reward for all our hard work?
But there are human costs. Cheap female sweatshop labour is the real root of our little rewards. This 3 trillion dollar a year industry, employing more than 40 million garment workers and generating immense profit for the few, yet it cannot support the essential human rights of its workers: safety, a living wage, childcare, decent housing, food and water. The developing world -- once again -- is being sacrificed for the developed world.
In some countries, children also work in the garment trade, missing school to make our T-shirts and underpants. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 260 million children are in employment around the world. In Bangladesh, wages for garment workers are as low as US$3 per day.
A 2015 report found that only 9 percent of Australian fashion brands pay their workers a living wage.
Yet the cost of fashion goes beyond this, and also claims lives. The Rana Plaza factory building which collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013 saw 1100 garment workers killed and 2000 injured. This was a mere month before I was traipsing gleefully around London's Piccadilly, snaffling up my bargains. In other factories across the subcontinent, hundreds have been killed in fires due to faulty and ancient equipment. In China, the banned technique of sandblasting (for distressing denim) continues to be used, resulting in silicosis and death.
Then there are the environmental costs. Fashion is the second most environmentally polluting industry on earth, after coal oil. Synthetic fibres are non-biodegradable, so I used to think I did better by wearing cotton. But if it's not organic, it's GMO. The water table in some areas is depleted from this intense, pesticide-sprayed cotton-growing process. The textile industry is thirsty, and ruthless. Entire ecosystems are being destroyed to produce clothes that we buy, wear for a short while, and soon tire of.
So what can we do about it? How can we even begin to make an impact on these overwhelming injustices?
With our personal actions. Slow fashion is the answer for me. If the budget allows, I buy eco, ethical, sustainable brands using organic materials with high-quality workmanship, made to last. These are not buzzwords, this is not green-washing. Do your research. Buy from brands that have supply-chain transparency, look after their workers, and take action on climate change. The 'Good on You' app allows you to track each brand: my personal favourites are People Tree, Patagonia, Inkkas, Bassike,Moonbird and Etiko.
Own your power as a consumer. Our buying choices do change the bigger picture. Buy from thrift shops and markets, set up community clothing exchanges and bazaars. Try hand-me-downs. Swap with friends. Think bigger, deeper and wider, and then everything becomes shiny and new.
This post is part of The Huffingon Post Reclaim series, tackling the issue of global waste.