Have you ever bought a new piece of clothing and thought about where it has come from? Or the different processes that have gone into that item and the people it has affected along the way?
Clothing poverty examines this, and looks into how all the separate areas of the clothing supply chain contributes and perpetuates global poverty, the mistreatment of people and damage to the environment.
As we approach UK Clothing Poverty Awareness Day 2021 on the 9th June, this blog takes a short look into the murky world of clothing poverty
Fast fashion is the major contributing factor to clothing poverty. The term gets its name from the speed at which fashion items make their way from the glamorous catwalks around the world and into our stores.
Retailers such as Primark, H&M and Zara, for example, have built vast, hugely profitable businesses out of creating affordable, fashion led clothing quick and easy to own.
The need to produce fashion to a consistent standard and at low cost, leads to incredible financial pressure being placed on manufacturers, which in turn is passed on to workers throughout the process. The result, quite often, is poor working conditions with long working hours and low incomes. The practices that are implemented are not only bad for people, but often do incredible damage to our environment.
Cotton, or white gold as it is often called, is perhaps one of the most infamous materials associated with clothing poverty and the exploitation of people and nature. It’s history in the world is one shrouded in negativity, and yet it remains one of the world’s most popular clothing materials, being used in many everyday items including t-shirts, jeans and even money.
In 2019, over 23 million tons of cotton was produced from around the world, that’s the equivalent of 5.8 million average-sized African elephants. Currently, this incredible number is only expected to grow in the coming years. On average, it takes 11,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton. That means to meet the world’s demand in 2019, cotton farming used… (ready for it?) over 2.5 trillion litres of water, equivalent to a million olympic swimming pools.
To make things worse, cotton is often produced in areas where water is a scarce resource for those who live there.
Aside from the environment, the biggest impact of clothing poverty, fast fashion and cotton is, of course, on people. The cotton industry in the United States of America is perhaps the most infamous and well documented in history for its brutality and subsequent cultural impact, but similar practices to those carried out in 1800’s America, continue around the world to this day.
Uzbekistan, for example, used (until very recently) forced labour in its need to keep up with global demand. Working conditions in many places around the world that cultivate cotton are poor and as a result of cotton’s love of heat, can be extremely dangerous. Additionally, many cotton plants use harsh, chemically based pesticides and insecticides and because they are plants not grown to be consumed, these chemicals are applied liberally. Those involved in applying these chemicals often suffer from ill health.
The greed that circulates around cotton and fast fashion creates a continual and unforgiving circle of clothing poverty. For example a farmer takes out a loan to seed and tend their farm. They sell their harvest at a low rate (as the power sits with the fashion brands), feed the family and pay the debt. To farm again another loan is needed and the cycle begins again.
Despite the above statements, cotton isn’t bad. It is, however, important, when looking at cotton clothing to look for indications that the clothing is sourced and manufactured in an ethical and sustainable way.
The Impact Of Waste
Clothing waste is a huge contributor to clothing poverty, and is perhaps often overshadowed by the financial implications of fast fashion sales and manufacture.
One of the most harmful examples of this comes from those pieces of clothing which are created for specific, one off events. Think ‘England Euro Winners’ t-shirts printed in euphoric anticipation. If England doesn’t bring it home, what happens to those items of clothing?
In many cases, these items flood into the poorest countries. Many small businesses in these countries rely on selling very similar clothes, and where purchases here are made out of necessity and not desire. The risk is that donations on this scale undercut the local community, which puts livelihoods at risk and contributes to forging relationships of dependence.
Finally, of course, there are landfills for clothes that do not make it as a donation, which only adds to the damage these do to our environment.
What Can You Do?
We are not powerless in the fight against clothing poverty. The main thing we can do is change our buying habits, and really think about the implications of our purchases.
- Do you need to buy new clothes from the shop or can you upcycle something you already own?
- Can you buy clothing from ethical retailers instead of fast fashion retail chains?
- Research the item and look for accreditation such as the Fairtrade logo demonstrating their commitment to sustainability
- Buy clothes built to last so you don’t need to dispose of them
Morcant, for example, specialises in season-less, essentials with durability in mind. So you can wear them for a long time and reduce the impact of buying new items.
If you no longer like a piece of clothing you own or maybe you have grown it, then consider selling it yourself. This again will allow someone else to not contribute to fast fashion, stops the item going to landfill and gives you a little extra money.
Finally, you can always consider donating your clothes to a local charitable organisation. We suggest local as these often help local communities and won’t add to the cycle mentioned above. Donating in this way will however help ease ‘physical‘ clothing poverty, that is, people whose circumstances mean they cannot afford to buy clothes to wear and as a result suffer negative effects on their mental and physical wellbeing.
Download The GoEthical App And Support Ending Clothing Poverty
You’ll find a wide range of ethically vetted sellers, as well as a collection of pre-loved items. You can also register yourself to sell any of your own, beautiful items.