On Wednesdays We Wear Plastic

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Words || Lucy MacCulloch

About a week after I announced I was “never buying fast fashion again,” ASOS announced their collaboration with The Simpsons. Obviously, I immediately said goddamn it and signed up for ASOS for the first time in my life. Now I own some hella cute overalls that I regularly get compliments on, but always with the caveat that it’s terrible for the environment, even if it’s not an actual vest made from real gorilla chest.

Fast fashion is the second largest polluter in the world, right after agriculture. Not only is it responsible for 10 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, it also steals designs from small designers without compensation, uses unethical animal products such as fur and leather, and mistreats its workers. While these conditions help lower the cost of garments, they also lower their durability, resulting in 85 per cent of the clothing we buy ending up in landfill each year.

These problems start in the actual fibres of the clothing we wear. Fast fashion increasingly relies on synthetic materials such fleece, rayon, and polyester. Being man-made, these fabrics are considerably cheaper than natural fibres such as cotton, linen, and hemp, so companies will blend them together to cut costs. This can result in a shirt that isn’t quite as soft, will stretch in the wash, or just doesn’t wear as well as a typical cotton shirt. Ironically, synthetic fibres are far more durable once the clothes have come off; polyester can take between 20 – 200 years to fully breakdown, compared to cotton or wool which takes one year.

Even before then, just caring for your clothing can start causing problems through microfibres. Similar to the tiny plastic microbeads found in skincare that were sort of banned last year in Australia, materials like polyester can shed more than 1800 microplastic fibres in one wash, polluting 83 per cent of the world’s water and ending up in the stomachs of a whole lot of fish.

All of this, and we haven’t even gotten to Refinery calling plastic 2018’s “biggest trend” due to the rise in Perspex and PVC handbags and trench coats, or the fact that someone, somewhere, decided that every office-appropriate blouse should be made from rayon, for some inexplicable reason. There’s also the ‘fast’ in fast fashion with retailers such as H&M and Topshop releasing a new ‘microseason’ every week of the year, leaving piles of unsold stock that are thrown away or burned, as in Burberry’s case. This focus on trends rather than if clothes are good quality or suitable to your lifestyle has helped create a disposable culture that is prevalent in every meme liked on Facebook. These are usually about how you need to stop buying a new outfit for every specific event, or when you have “nothing to wear” despite having a chair with a frankly daunting amount of clothes on it. Even before people were Marie Kondoing their wardrobes — and kudos to you for doing so — to the point that op-shops were rejecting donations, fast fashion was causing problems. It is often too poorly made to be resold, or is being donated at a quicker rate than it can be sold at. If you’re wondering why your local op-shop is so cluttered, that’s probably why.

Still, there are some things you can do. Renting rather than buying outfits for special events is a good way to go, especially for costumes. Similarly, while I’m not going to pretend everyone can afford eco-fashion, or that its sizes aren’t extremely limited, changing your mindset to view fashion as an investment, rather than as a hobby, is a good way to begin to unlearn throwaway culture. Similarly, creating a ‘capsule wardrobe’ ensures that you’ll actually wear what you own by limiting the quantity, improving the quality, and curating pieces so that everything goes together, and you’ll always know what to wear.

When you do buy fast fashion, try to buy it from an overflowing op-shop instead of an unethical company like Zara or ASOS — it will help you save money too. You can also participate in clothes swaps, like the one our own Macquarie University Sustainability Squad held last year. While natural fibres are by no means perfect — cotton requires tons of water to grow, exposes its farmers to toxic pesticides, and uses child labourers — they will still last longer than synthetic ones, which is how I justified buying 100 per cent denim Simpsons overalls instead of the cool Lisa Simpson polyester blend shirt, despite that shirt speaking to my soul. Buying Australian-made, organic cotton will also help minimise the unethical labour that goes into the fabric.

You can also buy a Guppy bag — or Cora Ball, but I’ve heard mixed reviews — to catch microfibres when you wash synthetic clothing. Caring for your clothes properly will also help extend the life of them. This includes airing them after wearing, rather than washing them after one use, not using a dryer if possible — which is also good for the planet — and avoiding ironing them. Companies like Nudie Jeans and Patagonia also offer repairs for when your clothes do eventually wear out, delaying their trip to the tip even longer. In fact, avoid landfill altogether by cutting up old clothes to use as a handkerchief or paper towel replacement to save money and trees as well.

If you want to know more, the internet is your friend, both for finding some good, ethical brands to buy from and for finding out more about the ‘capsule’ wardrobes and fabrics from youtubers and bloggers like My Green Closet.

There are plenty of reasons to try to avoid fast fashion, there are also plenty of ways it makes your life easier, or gives you that sweet rush of dopamine between the confirmation email and the minute after you’ve actually opened your plastic package. Yes, you should critically analyse the impact your clothes have and your overall consumption habits, but that doesn’t mean you can’t rock your pleather skirt with all of its complicated moral dilemmas. In fact, ensuring it still fits, I’m sure you’ll see me in my Simpsons overalls for many, many years to come.