The true cost of our clothes

“OMG BARGAIN”, I’ll squeal with delight, as I come across some fantastic bohemian looking kaftan in the Zara sale. But how much of a bargain is fast fashion for those on the other side of the process? The makers, the growers and the environment? Hmm. 

I hate to say this. Like really hate to. There’s nothing I love more than flitting away my hard-earned cash on clothes I’ll wear for all of five minutes before chucking them in the bin and buying new ones. But, if we’re bothering to switch all the lights off, re-use bags, recycle and walk everywhere, wearing fast fashion almost defeats the point, because fashion is one of THE most polluting industries on earth.


Put simply, our incessant demand for a new wardrobe every time the weather changes is more than the environment can take. A 2013 report revealed the global apparel industry produced 150 billion garments in 2010. That’s enough for 20 new pieces of clothing for everyone on earth. To cut costs and meet demand, garment production is shipped out to countries with laxer environmental policy and fewer human rights initiatives.

Because of this outsourcing and cost-cutting, clothes have become so cheap they’re considered disposable items. In the days of yore, people owned their apparel for years, decades even: never binning a sock, as I do, at the first inkling of a hole but repairing it and continuing to wear. Now if something’s no longer in season, it’s cast out.

Casting things out, while not advisable, wouldn’t be so terrible if clothes were biodegradable, but most (particularly, but by no means exclusively the cheaper stuff) are made from harmful oil-based polyester – aka plastic – which can never be destroyed. Plus, during production they produce vast amounts of nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas that is 310 times more damaging than C02. What’s more (yep, there’s more) when we wash them, synthetic clothes release microfibres (ie teeny tiny pieces of plastic), which end up in the sea.

Next season, when we decide our clothes are no longer in vogue, even if we ship them off to a charity shop, they’ll inevitably be replaced with new clothes. It takes a lot of energy to produce so much clobber – and most of the countries where our clothes are made still use coal power – which is why the fashion industry amasses 10 per cent of global carbon emissions. It also takes a lotta land and water – and garment production regularly leaks toxic chemicals into the water supply.

Pause for breath….. Clothes produced in the east also need to get to the west somehow – consuming more oil and adding to an already colossal carbon footprint. And even once they have been created and undergone an epic journey halfway across the world and into your overstuffed wardrobe, they’re still not done with their polluting spree: laundry accounts for around one quarter of the carbon footprint of clothing


Up until five minutes ago I thought it was more wholesome than quinoa – but I’m sorry to break the news even cotton has a dark side. Why? Because more chemical pesticides are used for growing cotton than any other crop: while only 2.4 percent of our cropland is cotton, the plant still consumes 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals and 25 per cent of insecticides. It’s a thirsty crop too - a plain cotton t-shirt and pair of jeans can take over 5, 000 gallons of water to produce.


Basically, we need to buy less, bin less and seek out clothes made from natural fibres which are ethically and sustainably produced. Yes, that does mean you might have to spend a bit more but if you buy less it should sort of even out. Being a conscientous consumer is not about beating yourself up for buying a six pack of socks from M&S – but it is about really considering just how much you want ­– and will actually wear an item before purchasing rather then picking things up and binning them willy-nilly.

There are many marvellous brands working to create ethical, sustainable and, perhaps most importantly, stylish clothing. Click here to find out more.

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Watch The True Cost documentary here

Sarah Barratt