For many years I have boycotted the likes of Primark for their well-reported poor ethics, unacceptable working standards and cheap labour. I also detest the fast fashion trend that has emerged over the last decade; the throwaway lifestyle that is integral to popular culture and keeping “on trend”. Because there is a darker side to this level of wastefulness beyond the dirty workhouses and slavery.
Chemicals used in the clothing industry
What many people don’t consider is that most of the fabrics used in cheap clothing are made from plastic-derived fibres – that is, oil. Synthetic textiles such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, elastane (Spandex or Lycra), are energy intensive to produce and leave a legacy of non-biodegradable rags once you’ve finished with them.
There are also the chemicals used in clothing manufacture: highly toxic dyes, flame retardants, anti-crease solutions (Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen), endocrine disrupting anti-bacterial treatments (Triclosan), and Fluoropolymers as water repellents (Teflon).
All of these have an impact on our environment as well as our health; leaching into water supplies, polluting rivers and soil, potentially causing cancer, altering our hormones and reducing fertility.
For all of the above reasons I have avoided buying new clothes for many years when possible. Most of our clobber is purchased in charity shops, on eBay or collected from Freecycle (though apparently washing doesn’t reduce the side effects of chemicals used in the clothes manufacturing process).
When I had children, this extended to buying organic bed sheets, mattresses, duvets, blankets and toys as I was so worried about what would contact their skin, absorb into their bloodstream or enter their new little lungs.
Pricing out the ordinary
Buying locally-sourced organic food, toiletries, clothes and furnishings is an expensive business, and unsustainable in itself, for us as a low-income family. These lifestyle choices have become a badge of the middle classes, yummy mummies or hipsters with a disposable income. They have left us financially uncomfortable eco-warriors with little more than a guilty conscience.
Not only is organic clothing out of the price range of “normal” people (£22 per baby sleepsuit is aspirational, to say the least), the adult ranges are usually ugly or transform you into an extra from Jesus Christ Superstar.
Just because I live my life by green principles and an ethical code, does not mean I want to present myself in rainbow pyjamas and hemp sandals, like some passive-aggressive New Age vegan fresh from a yoga retreat. And even when I was that guy, I didn’t choose to dress like that every day.
When I work out, I need reliable and durable active wear with comfortable, supportive footwear. If I’m popping to town, skinny jeans do the job and if I’m attending a business meeting then I need to dress appropriately to be taken seriously.
All of this stuff can be found secondhand – I mean, “preloved” – but hunting it down is a very time-intensive process. I have spent many hours trawling through charity shops looking for a specific item or searching, bidding and waiting for postage from eBay.
My wardrobe is full of stuff I have accumulated since I was 14 years old. Yes, I still have tops and jeans that my best friend passed down to me in high school, vintage blouses and skirts I found in my mother’s wardrobe, shoes from my first retail job in 2000 and many charity shop gems since. But a couple of times a year I’ll have a good splurge in the sales to keep things current, and as lighter items of clothing wear out they need replacing.
Sometimes you just need what you need, when you need it. This is where Primark and the supermarket clothing brands have cornered the market.
Giving in to convenience
Sometimes you just need what you need, when you need it. And this is where Primark and the supermarket clothing brands have cornered the market. They churn them out pretty and cheap. They are actually employing decent designers and the styles are up-to-date, making it difficult to turn a blind eye to an oversized soft knit jumper or sequin Christmas party dress as winter approaches (and you had only popped in for bananas and milk).
Seasonal staples such as the black cardigan, blue jeans, top and vests have a shelf life and I have reached the point again where I need some basics. I need long-sleeved tops and the man needs t-shirts. Best bet for cute styles and basement prices: Primark.
While I’m there I shall probably buy some vests, pants, socks and gloves for the children – because they’re cheap. And the fact is, whether I pay a premium for them in M&S, Debenhams, Selfridges, Boots or Mothercare, unless they are Fair Trade and organic, they have likely gone through the same manufacturing process and been sewn in similar factories. Check out this ethical consumer guide to see how your favourite high street brands rank.
I hate myself for giving in to the bullish capitalist consumer machine. I hate the industry more for allowing these standards to continue beyond awareness of all the consequences. I hate our government for prioritising business and economic growth over health and environmental welfare. That’s a lot of hate. Time for a cup of tea.
Giving up on principle
I’ve always preached about consumer pressure; supply meets demand; buyer power; collective responsibility. However the prices of everything are rising at such speed that it is difficult for a mum to feed a family from Iceland or Tesco, let alone Infinity or Whole Foods.
In our family, food comes first and that means something else has to give. If you want quality produce with high animal welfare standards, no GMOs, sugar, artificial sweeteners, chemical additives, margarine or palm oil, it comes at a price.
And that means, as I inspect clothing and food labels, I literally have to choose what I care about more: cancer-causing foods and toiletries, animals dying in the rainforest, polluted water supplies, child labour, the list goes on. In many instances, it’s a matter of life or death.
That is a big cross to bear as an individual, especially when it sometimes feels I am the only person trying so hard. Meanwhile the world falls apart around me and I come full circle, wondering what’s the fucking point?
We’re all doomed, and now we have a climate change denier as US president, it’s hard to find hope for the future. So, although I’ve almost talked myself out of it, I’ll probably be shopping with the rest of them this Saturday and assuaging my guilt with a vegan kebab for lunch (I am not even vegan).
But don’t let me bring you down… Things are changing slowly, and the more documentaries, blogs and TED Talks there are about these issues, the more it should inspire people to petition, protest and lobby government and industry alike to demand they look at the bigger picture.
Do you feel under pressure to make the “right choice” as a consumer? Do you care what you wear or are you just happy to find a bargain?