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Fashion is inevitably a visual language where everyone is free to express themselves, such as from the clothes they wear, the shoes they wear, and also the way they pair accessories with them. However, it is true to say that fashion has a very negative impact on the environment. As the second-largest polluting industry globally, fashion contributes to 92 billion tons of textile waste annually and accounts for one-fifth of industrial water pollution. What’s even more shocking is the amount of water it takes to produce cotton. WWF estimates that it takes twenty thousand litres of water to produce just one kilogram of cotton, which is the equivalent of a single T-shirt and a pair of jeans. If you felt bad reading this, it is estimated that we are buying 60% more clothing, but keeping those items for about half as long as we used to.
It is understandable that fashion can be addicting, with clothing stores like Zara & Urban Outfitters introducing trendy yet stylish collections multiple times throughout the year in order to stay within the fashion craze, it is hard to resist the urge to not purchase cute outfits at a low cost. Fast fashion particularly, is a clever and successful business strategy in the textile industry. By maximising their profit margins through the process of changing sold-out items with new items of a slightly contrasting style, it makes shoppers like us think that we need a wardrobe makeover, psychologically making individuals believe that their current clothes are outdated and tacky.
How do we change our fashion habits?
Since the 1980s, sustainable fashion was already in existence, with companies such as Esprit and Patagonia exploring innovative ways to change the way they manufacture and produce clothing due to their observations of how toxic and wasteful processes like chemical dye. However, it was not until the past couple of years that new ethical brands such as House of Sunny, Pangaia and Lucy and Yak, as well as the effort from fast fashion companies like Zara and H&M to combat environmental problems that really made sustainable fashion become popular. In addition, online fashion platforms such as Depop and Vinted, where individuals can sell used or vintage clothing and purchase other second-hand items, are also becoming the norm nowadays, with over 13 million users registered. This illustrates that sustainable fashion can be just as trendy as fast fashion, but with the added benefit of being less damaging and harmful to the environment.
Apart from the outside world, it is recognised that some students at KCL have taken the initiative to support sustainability in fashion. UneNouvelleVie(UNV), which is a student-led fashion business in collaboration with the KCL Enactus Society, is the perfect example of sustainable fashion. With the purpose of fighting the fast fashion consumption trend, UNV introduces an alternative of recycling fashion waste, particularly textiles. Not only does UNV help collect unwanted clothes across several British universities, they have also partnered with talented youngsters and students from art & design schools to produce stylish and affordable clothing from these second-hand items, making each piece unique, attractive and creative.
Meanwhile, KCL’s Sustainability Society has also emphasised the importance of fashion recycling, as well as sustainability in everyday life, through articles written by their team. Their blog post by Cristina Zheng Ji has raised an excellent and genius pitch idea that the clothing industry can learn from. The pitch, which is the environmental cost labelling system, is essentially inspired by a traffic-light system where red presents the highest environmental cost and green symbolises the lowest, in which will be applied to four types of impact, including water and energy usage, recycling capacity and biodegradability. This labelling system will then be illustrated on clothing tags, allowing consumers to recognise the environmental consequences and the choices they make. Although they may still choose to purchase the item, it will help them evaluate and reconsider their purchasing habits.
King’s has also introduced a sustainable fashion workshop last year. In collaboration with King’s Entrepreneurship Institute , LSE Generate and Imperial Enterprise Lab, the two-day event, lead by Madeline Petrow, founder of sustainable fashion platform, Mamoq, taught students the fundamental elements of sustainable fashion and the step-by-step process of what it takes to convey your ideas into reality and successfully launch your own brand. This illustrates the effort and awareness that KCL has done to educate students on not only the topic of sustainability, but also how they can start becoming their own boss and run a creative business, combining their entrepreneurship skills and ingenuity.
Even though it seems like there has only been little improvement to our fashion-buying habits, there has already been a drastic change, particularly, an increase of vintage and second hand clothing purchases, with a 100% revenue growth annually from apps such as Depop for the past few years. Fashion brands should continue to invest in eco-friendly processes, such as biodegradable materials, upcycling textile wastage and finding ways to communicate this process to all consumers, allowing individuals to become more aware of the buying power we have and the impact it can create. Fashion can still be an enjoyable hobby for shoppers like us, but we should always remember, as British fashion icon Vivienne Westwood has said, “buy less, choose well and make it last”. With this short yet significant phrase, I hope that all fashion lovers will make good rational choices with the items they purchase in the future.
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