Fabric of of society
Is our appetite for fast fashion sending us down a runway to ecological doom? Senior lecturer at AUT University’s Fashion School of Art Design, Kim Fraser, considers the implications of our obsession with what’s new and what’s next.
Mass runs of cheap knock-offs are the name of the game. As consumers we have succumbed to a fast fashion era where we revel in $10 finds that will no doubt be discarded before the season’s out because we can afford to – and are offered – an updated version at an unprecedentedly expeditious rate. And to compete in the rapid pace to market, it’s the quality control that is skipped out of the chain, meaning we are buying quantity over quality.
We consider little of an item’s longevity, content in the notion that we can replace our cheap frills just as soon as a big chain can rip off a high end line’s next collection.
Over the last five years, we’ve become a fast fashion nation. The 2004 textile fibre agreement between China and the US provided our entry ticket into the global wardrobe of ‘Mcfashion’. As Fraser notes, the majority of New Zealand women now buy from fast fashion places. We don’t need to justify splurging on a good quality trench coat by touting it as trans-seasonal because we could buy a cheap one for every season if we so desired.
But what becomes of that sagging polyester find from the bargain bin that you wore a total of twice?
While it’s confirmed both cheap threads and good quality clothing are commonly dumped in landfills in the US and the UK, it’s unclear what happens to pre-loved garb here in New Zealand. No one’s ever done the maths.
Through Fraser’s research, she set out to discover the state of our excessive fashion consumption and subsequent waste, then considered how we might redress the issue.
“I tried to find that information in New Zealand and I couldn’t. The
New Zealand government points you to British stats and figures,” says Fraser, who is currently working on quantifying clothing consumption and waste data in a form comparable with international findings.
While in Britain clothing waste is estimated at two million tons – a mere two per cent of total annual waste for the country – it can only be assumed we’re in a similar league. The way our data looks, there’s probably not much of an issue here, yet, says Fraser.
“In Britain, they’ve raced down the path of consumerism, we’re going down that path and we could do it another way.
“The world’s got this problem, if we were able to change things down here, maybe we could create a model that could be used overseas.”
Fraser’s research refers to Waste Online, which notes 50 per cent of textiles consumed every year are recyclable. With this in mind she considered a solution in reworking our unwanted wardrobes into new garments. But trawling through op-shops revealed the bulk of clothing was a disheartening array of chain-store trash.
“We’ve got really low quality here,” she says of the 90 per cent of stock deemed unsalvageable for reuse.
Going forward, the answer lies in sustainable design, something Fraser admits wasn’t even considered when she went through design school.
“Most people in the industry wouldn’t know how bad cotton is on the environment. The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan was the fourth largest [in the world]. It’s shrunk in 20 years to two per cent of its size [a loss the UN claims to be one if the planet’s most shocking disasters]. Uzbekistan is a nation that grows cotton, and there’s a huge amount of water used to do that. For every one kilo of cotton, 20,000 litres of water is used to grow it.”
While she sees hope in the work of younger local designers like Laurie Foon of Starfish and foresight in AUT’S introduction of a minor in sustainable design, the game change lies on the sewing machines of the big guns roaring out myriad designs in cheap cloth.
“There is a place for fast fashion, but they need to consider the fibre types; if it’s only going to be worn twice, make it out of recyclable fibre.”
But while we have no hard data here there’s little incentive for those big brands to reconsider their ways, she says.
“It’s very hard for established companies with established supply chains to change. They aren’t considering it because it’s not necessary. They haven’t seen there’s a need to change. This significantly impacts Kiwi businesses attempting to develop innovative sustainable product… given this lack of evidence, an ‘intervention’ in New Zealand is not even considered.”
Over the last five years, we’ve become a fast fashion nation. The 2004 textile fibre agreement between China and the US provided our entry ticket into the global wardrobe of ‘Mcfashion’
Kim Fraser and her colleague Angie Finn have been awarded an AUT Learning & Teaching Fellowship for 2012. This will allow the pair to work on a new cross-disciplinary Sustainable Design Minor programme with ‘Online Delivery’ scheduled for 2013.
Kim Fraser, senior lecturer, AUT University Fashion
School of Art Design.