Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Coat of many colours

The British buy five times more clothes as they did in the 1980s. Globalisation means things can be produced in far-off lands at low cost, meaning more choice and lower prices. A BBC investigation examined whether the planet, and some of its poorest inhabitants, are footing the bill for our unquenchable thirst for fashion.

The pressure on brands to get trends from catwalks to our backs cheaply, and deliver profits for investors, can lead to a rivalry to secure the cheapest source - a phenomenon critics refer to as "chasing the needle" around the world. As wages rose in Bangladesh, companies looked elsewhere to keep costs down.
In Ethiopia, for example, wages average just a third of the rates paid in Bangladesh. Rates of less than $7 (£5.75) per week are typical. Speaking on condition of anonymity, workers at a factory near Addis Ababa told the BBC this was insufficient to live on. They also said that conditions - from unsanitary toilets to verbal abuse - were intolerable. In order to compete, the Ethiopian government has made almost a virtue out of its low labour costs.
From the Workers Rights Consortium campaigning group, Penelope Kyritsis told of workers who had overtime payments withheld, and women who had their abdomens felt by hiring managers to check if they were pregnant. She claimed that there had been little improvement since the report came out some months ago. Ms Kyritsis says that the country's garment industry can't use the excuse that at least it is providing a livelihood where none else might be available. She highlighted the "extremely high turnover, with workers leaving government jobs for other jobs to resume positions in other informal sectors or in agriculture".
Orsola de Castro, co-founded campaigning group Fashion Revolution, explained “There are two great misconceptions when it comes to sustainability and ethics - one is that the culprit is fast fashion, and this lets the luxury sector off scot-free, when in fact it is the entire Ethiopian fashion industry that needs to be called into question," she told the BBC. "And the other is that locally-made is ethical and sustainable. It isn't."
Textile production, it's claimed, contributes more to climate change than aviation and shipping combined. Clothing demand is forecasted to rise by the equivalent of 500 billion t-shirts over the next decade. And there's consequences at every stage of a clothing item's life cycle - sourcing, production, transport, retail, use and disposal. To start with the basic fabrics used, it's not as simple as cotton versus synthetic. Cotton is an extraordinarily thirsty crop. The UK House of Commons' Environmental Audit Committee highlighted in a recent report, a single shirt and a pair of jeans can take up to 20,0000 litres of water to produce. It concluded that "we are unwittingly wearing the fresh water supply of central Asia".
A polyester shirt made out of virgin plastics has a far larger carbon footprint. Transporting items increases that further and dying fabrics can introduce more pollutants. Microplastic fibres shedding into waterways is becoming an increasing problem - a single washing machine load can release hundreds of thousands of fibres. Plus, a million tonnes of clothes are disposed of every year in the UK, and 20% of that ends up as landfill.
Critics say if we're serious about sustainable fashion, the objective of policy should be to persuade us to buy less. Given the importance of consumer spending, it's hard to see any politician entertaining that. At the heart of the business model is convincing us to keep on buying. 

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