Did you know that we buy more clothes per person in the UK than anywhere else in Europe? And few are recycled, according to a recent Parliamentary report on "Fixing Fashion", as a whopping 300,000 tonnes of textile waste are sent to landfill and incinerators every year. After all, when dresses are selling for five pounds apiece, why should we care that the quality isn't great and they don't last long?
But it's not just the scale of the waste involved, although that's bad enough. Our love for cheap, disposable fashion is causing irreparable global damage - and the longer term costs far outweigh any short term benefits of a quick fashion fix. Here are some of the worrying reasons why we should care about what we wear.
Environmental pollution and poisons
Firstly, there's a huge amount of chemical nasties and waste involved in clothes production - for example, it may take 2,700 litres of water to make just one T-shirt! Synthetic materials like polyester, nylon and acrylic shed millions of tiny plastic microfibre threads every time they're washed, too, which pass through our washing machines and ultimately end up polluting the sea. Plus they can pass through the food chain and potentially end up in the food we put on our plate.
Non-organic manufacture uses thousands of toxic chemicals and dyes, many of which are classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation. They also contaminate the water supply - textile dyeing is the second greatest cause of clean water pollutions worldwide (after agriculture). In contrast, permitted chemicals used in processing GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified organic textiles are non-toxic and strictly regulated.
Organic cotton production is better for the environment, better for workers' health and safety, and better for consumers - especially those with sensitive skin, babies and younger children. Harmful residues remaining on non-organic clothing can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, causing irritation, rashes and even respiratory problems.
Effects of intensive production
Fashion designer Katherine Hamnett describes conventional cotton (as opposed to organic) as being "one of the most unsustainable fibres in the world." It makes up about half the global textiles market and its growth seems set to continue. India is one of the leading cotton producing countries (alongside China) and cotton output there has now increased to 75% of its textiles market.
The fate of the Aral Sea in Central Asia shows the devastation that can result from intensive production. It used to be the fourth largest lake in the world but its 25,000 mile bed dried up completely 5 years ago. Poisonous salts and pesticides released by its drainage have further damaged local fishing communities and farmland in addition to the loss of wildlife lake species.
Organic cotton is produced on a smaller scale and less invasive basis than non-organic cotton. As it's grown without synthetic fertilisers, it helps to improve soil richness and resilience, and by locking carbon dioxide in, helps the battle against climate change. GM seed is also banned so organic farmers can work in a more sustainable way.
Social cost of fast fashion
According to campaigning group Labour Behind the Label, 80% of garment workers globally are female and many work for "poverty pay, earning as little as $21 per month." The abovementioned "Fixing Fashion" report criticises the social cost of retailers "chas[ing] the cheap needle around the planet" - noting that this affects workers in the UK, too, who're often paid significantly less than the minimum wage.
Workers are often exposed to dangerous chemicals which can cause serious illness and death and work in unsatisfactory conditions. The Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013 remains a horrific reminder of the potential cost of cheap fashion; 1,138 factory workers were killed and 2,500 were injured after being forced to work in unsafe premises which collapsed.
If clothing is made from GOTS certified textiles, however, producers have to comply with stricter social as well as environmental requirements. Socially responsible manufacturing means that minimum wages, working hours and conditions are protected and child labour is forbidden - which can make a huge difference for vulnerable garment workers.
What can we do?
Awareness of the negative impact of unsustainable "fast fashion" is starting to take hold. The Soil Association's 2019 UK Organic Textile Report valued the market at over £41 million and stated that 61% of consumers interviewed wanted to know how retailers minimised their environmental impact and protected their workers' human rights.
Although the organic cotton market is still small, it's growing steadily, with the fashion and babywear sectors increasing by 22% and 17% respectively last year. Choosing better quality organic designs, recycling items, seeking out ethical clothes retailers and making/repairing our existing clothing - these are all steps we can take to bring about change by showing the fashion industry that we care about what we wear.
And choosing organic doesn't apply only to clothing of course! This month's Organic September campaign by the Soil Association focuses on food as well as sustainable farming and caring for the environment. There's plenty of information about how to get involved on their website.
And lastly, if you're looking for organic gifts for babies, why not take a look at some of the lovely certified organic ranges from Juddlies and Nature's Purest in Peach Perfect's Kids Stuff collection? We'd also love to hear your suggestions for additional organic gifts you'd like to find in our online store!