Let’s address the elephant in the room. And by that, we mean the elephant-sized 6000 kilograms worth of clothing waste Australians send to landfills every 10 minutes. When ABC’s War on Waste piled this amount of clothes into a mound and asked onlookers how long they thought it took to generate that much waste, no one came close to guessing the truth.
Living in an era of thriving fast fashion companies and online shopping means we buy more, and we dispose more. In fact, the global fashion industry is estimated to value at $US 1.3 trillion by next year. The fast fashion industry has designed it this way by depending on cheap labour to offer us clothes at prices so low, we consider them disposable. But it seems they are selling us a lifestyle our environment can no longer afford.
According to the UN, the fashion industry is responsible for higher reports of global greenhouse emissions than the shipping and aviation industry combined. Polyester, the most widely used manufactured fibre, is non-biodegradable and stands as one of the major contributors to micro-plastic pollution in the ocean. A 2017 report found that 10,000 to 20,000 litres of water is needed to make enough cotton for just a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. The main suppliers of cotton include Pakistan and India – both countries where water scarcity continues to be a problem.
But the question is how many of us know all this and where do we start?
Enter slow fashion, introduced as a concept in opposite to fast fashion. Advocates of slow fashion consider the processes and resources taken to make clothing, prioritising on its sustainability and ethical principles. But it doesn’t just mean donating clothes or conforming your wardrobe to a strict diet of oat-coloured linen shirts.
Jenna Flood is committed to move slow fashion forward one person at a time. Labelling herself a ‘slow fashion stylist’ for the past three years, she has been utilising secondhand items and sustainable fashion brand pieces with her clients.
“Slow fashion to me is just slowing down, being more attentive with what you’re buying … and being meaningful with what you already have,” Flood says.
While undergoing a styling course at the Australian Styling Institute, she started embracing minimalism by paring herself down to only owning a few pieces of the essentials, but found her values conflicting with her education.
“What I was learning there was amazing, but I also felt it was really focused on buying everything new,” Flood says.
When the chance appeared for her to style people as an assignment, she discovered that her clients wanted the same things she did: less.
“They didn’t want to have that much, they wanted to buy sustainable brands, they wanted to visit op shops. They were just stuck, not knowing where to begin or start,” Flood says.
Recent research conducted by HitWise found that 19 percent of fast fashion related searches were about environment, ethics and sustainability, with the fourth most searched being “fast fashion environmental impact”. People are clearly curious, but with any other environmental issue, it seems too big to tackle.
The overwhelming feeling of powerlessness in the face of climate change is very real and has been dubbed ‘eco-anxiety’. Although it hasn’t been officially added into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, sources report that psychologists have seen patients who have suffered from high levels of stress, panic attacks, loss of appetite and insomnia due to environmental concerns.
Flood says it’s the baby steps that we need to focus on. Changing habits and appealing to her clients by tackling their personal obstacles that at present prevent sustainable fashion from moving into mainstream fashion limelight.
“I sort of try to balance it out because people have different values. There’s either cost, environmental concerns, animal welfare or how the workers are treated,” Flood says.
Anna Castles wanted to do the same by starting up a clothes swap meet named ‘Slow Sunday Swap’. Currently run once a year, the event has pooled increasing interest from waves of people who want to revolutionise their consumer habits.
“It’s about understanding the scale and then trying to share that with people in a way that’s not scary or make them feel like there’s nothing they can do about it,” Castles says.
They launched the event with an aim to “raise awareness” by opening up a door to listen to talks from local sustainable fashion designers and participate in swaps or silent auctions. That is, without necessarily forcing anyone to.
“You know, swapping isn’t for everyone. We try to make it an afternoon where you can have champagne, listen to a talk, and if you don’t feel like you’re ready to swap, that’s fine,” Anna says.
Being a stay-at-home mum to two daughters aged four and six, Castles became interested in the topic while shopping for her children. The contribution of children’s clothes to textile is often underestimated and neglected. Children outgrow clothes quickly and more often than not, parents want to buy new and affordable clothing.
But something we’ve learned from teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg and the recent climate rallies that drew hundreds of students to take a stand, is that our youth is willing to make that change for our environment, and education is a key factor in that pursuit.
In Victoria, sustainability is a subject currently being taught through the Cross Curriculum Priorities (CCP) initiative from Prep to Year 10, but experts say lack of policy are resulting in inconsistencies throughout Australia. Evidently, research shows that teachers themselves feel they are not being supported by curriculum materials to integrate climate education.
Considering the UN Climate Action Crisis and the Global Climate Strike, it seems more than likely that people want to know more. For both Flood and Castles, that knowledge is the push we all need.
“I think you just can’t shop that way anymore once you do know. You can’t buy something when you know it’s not ethically made, it’s just heart breaking,” Castles says. “If it helps even one person understand, I’m so happy.”