If you are on Instagram, chances are you maybe have often seen hashtags such as #sustainablefashion #secondfhandfirst #slowfashion so on and so forth. Now the eco-conscious community is well-versed with these terms, but that does not apply to someone who is just getting started on their sustainability journey or someone who simply wants to make greener switches in their everyday life.
If you are a layperson, who has decided to give greener alternatives a try and don’t know where to start, this is a good place for you! Some of the greener modes of fashion include – slow fashion, sustainable fashion and second hand fashion. What's the difference and which one is better?
Before we get into details let’s look at the following :
WHAT IS THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF THE FASHION INDUSTRY
Like any industry, the fashion industry consumes considerable amounts of natural resources and in today's world when we are on a brink of a climate change emergency, each resource, every emission counts. The world as a whole is looking for greener ways of doing things, but to do that we need to know what exactly is the impact of fashion on our environment.
Excessive carbon emissions is how we got here! Carbon occurs naturally in the environment. If you remember 3rd grade biology lessons you must know that all living beings are made of carbon in varying percentages. So when does carbon emissions become problematic? When we produce more carbon than the earth's green cover can sequester. Plants take carbon dioxide and return it to the soil.
However, since the industrial revolution, human dependence on fossil fuels has grown which has led to excessive amount of carbon dioxide being trapped in the atmosphere which acts like a green house gas which absorbs and emits infrared radiation, which in turn heats the Earth’s surface and the lower levels of the atmosphere. And without sufficient vegetal cover it cannot be brought down. The fashion industry alone is responsible for 10% of humanity's carbon emissions.
It does not stop here, fashion industry is also one of the industries that is resource-heavy. It not only consumes a lot of water, but also pollutes it due to harmful chemicals used in the production and dyeing processes that are then released into the water streams. As an industry it is the second largest consumer of world's water supply.
Another problem we face is that of micro plastics. Micro plastics are nano plastic particles (less than 5 millilitres) that enter into the oceans, and our water streamings affecting aquatic and terrestrial life. It is estimated that the fashion industry is responsible for releasing 1.4 million trillion plastic fibres in the ocean.
That's not it, then there is the question of excessive waste that is dumped into the landfills thanks to over consumption of cheap clothing (read fast-fashion) that does not last long and hence is discarded after a couple of wears. Also the concept of trends is detrimental to waste-reduction as people discard clothing seen as "not-in-trend". The cycle then repeats itself. We buy more and dump more!
All the mind-less purchasing results in heaps of clothes' piles heading for the landfills or incineration. The clothes then take a couple of hundred years to disintegrate and the whole process emits methane which is another form of greenhouse gas that is worse than carbon dioxide.
This is especially true as more and more fast-fashion brands emergence on the scene with their cheap low quality clothing, which further fosters this practice of discarding clothes without any consequence.
WHAT IS FAST-FASHION & WHAT IS THE HUMAN COST OF FAST FASHION
Until a few years ago we hadn't heard of fast fashion. Then in comes Zara in the early 90s with it's fast-track production cycle. It just took Zara two weeks to get the clothes onto the rails from them being designed. This rapid mode of production was coined fast-fashion by the New York Times. We already saw how it affects the environment. That's not where it ends. The human casualties of fast-fashion are equally disturbing.
The documentary "The True Cost of Fashion" exposed fast fashion industry’s ugly side. The Dhaka factory incident caused death and injuries to many. 1,134 workers died, and more than 2,000 were injured.
Then there is the question of exploitation of women. It's ironic as a large percent of these clothing are made for women. As per the article by The Guardian, this is what was found:
- A garment factory worker's pay starts at just £25 a month, with sewing workers earning just £32 a month – which is way below a living wage
- 80% of workers work more than 10 to 12 hours until 8pm or 10pm, after starting at 8 in the morning – way over the legal limit on working hours
- 3/4 of the women workers we spoke to had been verbally abused at work and and over half of them beaten!
- Factory helpers were paid £60 a month, less than half of the living wage
- Workers at some factories worked up to 140 hours of overtime each month, working until 2am
- 60% of workers were unable to meet production targets – in one factory the target for each worker was to produce 20 ladies shirts every hour
This gets us to our last point, what are earth-friendly options or alternatives to fast fashion available today?
When it comes to the fashion land space nothing is cut from the same cloth. You often hear slow fashion, sustainable, ethical fashion used interchangeably and rightly so. Then there is second hand fashion, which as the named suggests simple means using what already exists, we are all aware of thrifts and charity shops which sell clothes which are reused, restyled or sometimes upcycled into a new product. I like to club all of them under the umbrella of conscious fashion.
Nothing is set in stone, but these are the broad definitions
Slow, Sustainable and Ethical Fashion
What is Slow Fashion? Slow fashion is the antithesis to fast-fashion and the mindless consumption it encourages, trend after trend, season after seasons. Slow fashion takes a more mindful approach towards the whole process – especially production, durability and style of the garment. It encourages both the brands and users to scale back on quantity and invest in quality garments that would last for years, to stop chasing fleeting trends and invest in garments that would last a long time. It creates an environment where the consumer goes beyond pure consumption and looks at how the clothing is sourced, produced, packaged and sold, it calls for conscious consumption.
This is how the Kate Fletcher who coined the word defines it
“Slow fashion is about designing, producing, consuming and living better. Slow fashion is not time-based but quality-based (which has some time components). Slow is not the opposite of fast – there is no dualism – but a different approach in which designers, buyers, retailers and consumers are more aware of the impacts of products on workers, communities and ecosystems…Slow fashion is about choice, information, cultural diversity and identity. Yet, critically, it is also about balance. It requires a combination of rapid imaginative change and symbolic (fashion) expression as well as durability and long-term engaging, quality products.” — Kate Fletcher (widely credited with coining the term “slow fashion” in 2007).
Sustainable Fashion more or less looks at the environmental impact that a brand/label has across the verticals – sourcing (is the fabric made from natural fibres? Is it organic? Is it recycled?) production, processing and treatment (is the production resource heavy, how much water does it use? Is the waste treated properly as per standards, what are their carbon emissions.) To summarise, it goes a step further into the nitty gritties that sometimes slow fashion brands do not.
Ethical Fashion takes into account the living components within the chain – humans and animals. It takes into accounts factors such as wage, working conditions, union rights, slavery, child labour, animal welfare and so on.
Do note they often overlap. A slow fashion brand can be ethically produced in which the labour force is taken care of and adequately supported. Similarly, an ethical brand can be sustainable and make sure their environmental impact is lowered. More and more conscious brands as I like to call them are going above and beyond to make sure their impact is as low as possible putting people and planet over profit.
Second Hand Clothing
As the name suggests, these items were already produced and are now being reused in the original form with no or minor alterations or are being upcycled to create a new or a better-quality product. The three main categories that exists within this realm are – vintage, preloved and upcycled products. Vintage is anything that is above 20 years old, preloved can be any clothing that is not new, and upcycled clothing are clothes that are often restyled for a new look or purpose
WHAT IS ECO-FRIENDLIER, BUYING SECOND HAND OR BUYING SUSTAINABLY?
Both are great options! Second-hand clothing does have an edge as it’s circular fashion. What is intended to go to waste in the landfills is brought back into the economy as fresh merchandise to be sold. It is resource-poor, nothing goes into producing the garment, the only resources used are to transport the garment. sustainable clothing no matter now ecological has a higher footprint in terms of resource usage than second-hand clothing.
Oxfam has been reusing and reselling clothing since 1948, when the first Oxfam shop opened in Oxford, U.K. In 1974, Oxfam became the first national charity to develop its own facility for recycling and reusing clothes and never sends clothes to landfill. The facility, Wastesaver, handles 12,000 tonnes of textiles every year.
It’s not to say that sustainable, ethical or slow fashion has no place in the wardrobe. When buying second hand there is no point in just extending the life by a few months and then tossing it out into the landfill, it isn’t helping anyone. The best solution is to rather buy less, choose quality over quantity, seasonless or seasonal trends and more than anything, mending the garments. Don’t throw out a perfectly good denim cause the zipper is broken. Instead, have it mended or upcycled to prolong its usage. What’s most sustainable is using what you already have, buying less and or buying things you really love and wearing them for as long as you can.
To conclude, yes buying second-hand is eco-friendlier than buying sustainable, ethical or slow fashion. However not when done to replace the same old "buy and toss" mentality that fast-fashion encourages.