Airing the fashion industry’s dirty laundry

Do Brits care enough about sustainable fashion to do anything?

Izzy Capelin
Sep 12, 2019 · 5 min read

It’s the age of fast fashion and consumers are constantly torn between being ethical, and being cost effective. Or so we thought. It turns out that the British public may say they rate ethics very highly but when it comes to buying clothes it doesn’t feature as a top priority.

Over 1,550 of our UK bees — or users — told us what sustainable and ethical clothing means to them — and what it might mean for the future of the fashion industry. With over half of people considering fashion to be quite or extremely important to them, it’s no wonder it’s a hot topic!

What makes up our moral fiber?

It’s not just the end product that is people are concerned with — how and where it’s made is also on our minds… well, some of us (a third of Brits don’t actually care where their clothes come from!)

Most rate price (40%) and durability (30%) to be the most important factors when deciding on the fabric of the garment — and less than 1 in 10 (7%) people think whether it’s ethically sourced or manufactured as worth their consideration. This is despite the fact that more than half of the UK claim that it’s important to them that the clothes they buy are made in ethical factories…

Once again, we’re seeing a stark difference between attitude and behaviour.

But what about the brand as a whole? How do people decide whether it’s ‘ethical’ and therefore worthy of their custom? Media sources and whether the company sells animal leather or fur are the biggest red flags to the British public — whereas what their friends/family tell them is less of a factor.

1 in 4 don’t pay attention to the ethical status of the clothing brands they shop from at all.

Leather and fur is one of the biggest red flags for Brits — but is that down to the media and the widespread coverage of animal cruelty. Is our definition of ‘ethical’ based on nothing more than what tugs at our heartstrings?

After all, there are factories across the world — including the UK — that pay their employees unfair wages and fail to provide safe working conditions. Should this not receive the same level of disdain and outcry as a snakeskin coat? Or is this once again an example of the ‘not my problem’ mentality we’ve come to recognise?

Dressing the planet… and it doesn’t look good.

The introduction of e-commerce and online shopping has added a much needed level of accessibility when it comes to clothing — but it’s not all good news. The impact this industry has on the world — both from ethical and environmental perspectives — is becoming dangerously high.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the fashion industry is the second biggest polluter after petroleum — each year it consumes 93 bn cubic metres of water, contributes half a million tons of plastic microfibre into the oceans, and adds 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. As if that isn’t enough, a lorry-load of used clothing is incinerated or buried in landfill every single second…

And we are a big part of that problem — the UK buys more clothes per person than any other country in Europe, five times what we bought thirty-forty years ago. The majority report to doing so once a month (44%) — which means a minimum of a dozen new items a year. A shocking 1 in 10 people buy clothes once a week or more — that’s a mighty big wardrobe!

Despite the undeniable impact this is having on the planet, well over a third (38%) of our British bees think that fast fashion can in fact be sustainable — and this is because most think that the responsibility of ensuring this is down to the companies that sell the products.

Only 13% of the UK thinks it is down to the consumer to drive forward sustainability in the fashion industry — compared to 53% who think it’s down to brands.

Consumers want to at least be given the choice to shop sustainably — which means brands need to figure out how to provide environmentally products without pricing themselves out of the market.

Time for a costume change?

Some companies are making efforts to ease the problem, like Zara promising fully sustainable products by 2025, and Primark, Arcadia and H&M supporting a new All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) working to make the UK’s fashion sector more sustainable — but is this enough? Primark is also rumoured to finally be launching an e-commerce platform — could this set the industry back, or will it provide greater opportunity to change the system?

Others are going in a completely different direction — the secondhand market is actually set to overtake fast fashion in the coming years. Brands ranging from Pretty Little Thing to Asda are trialling ranges using secondhand or recycled products — is this the answer to consumers’ sustainability concerns?

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A quick word on our methodology: The figures in the article are taken from Streetbees community members in the UK, carried out in May and June 2019. All of the data was collected by mobile and web surveys, and is accurate to within 3 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

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