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Sustainable fashion?

To explore the concept of sustainable fashion.

by Claire Rose

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To explore the concept of sustainable fashion.

Preparation and materials

  • None required.


  1. On London’s Oxford Street last July, a new fashion store opened amid much press attention (and queues of around 500 people). The US-based chain, with 480 shops worldwide, aims to open 100 shops in the UK ‘in the near future’ (Retail Week, 29 October 2010). This chain sits alongside other well-known brands supplying cheap and cheerful fashion, as well as some supermarkets. It would seem that cheap, fast fashion has never been more, well, fashionable.

    And why not? Fashion makes us feel good. It helps us express ourselves, and it can be a creative way to explore and demonstrate who we are and how we’re feeling. It can help us identify with a ‘tribe’, or set us apart. More simply, a bright T-shirt can lighten up a grey day; a colourful scarf can make the cold blasts of winter feel a bit more bearable.
  2. Our love of fast fashion is such that we now buy 40 per cent of all our clothes at value retailers, a commercial fact that new chains have leapt upon, with the result that they are expanding at an extraordinary rate (TNS Worldpanel (2006) Fashion Focus issue 29, from Ethical Fashion Forum). These shops turn around new lines and collections within weeks, or even days.
  3. But what is the effect of our desire for ever cheaper, ever faster fashion?

    –  An Oxfam report published in 2004 reveals the sad fact that it is the textile workers who suffer most acutely, as pressurized factory owners demand an ever increasing output to meet the timings required by retailers.

    When interviewed by Oxfam, a factory owner from Sri Lanka explained: ‘Last year the deadlines were about 90 days . . . [This year] the deadlines for delivery are about 60 days. Sometimes even 45 . . . They have drastically come down (see Just Style (2006), ‘Purchasing trends in the fashion industry’, from Ethical Fashion Forum,

    It is the workers in developing countries – from Sri Lanka to China, or even closer to home, in Eastern Europe – who pay a hard price for our fixation on new styles.

    –  And the effects of fast fashion don’t stop there. The environment suffers, too: elaborate supply chains, with clothes constantly being shipped from all over the world to our local high street, take their toll. The pollution produced contributes to climate change.

    –  And when we are done with this season’s clothes (or they fall apart), what then? We tend to throw them straight into the bin, where they travel on to landfill sites – while we move on for our next fast fashion fix.
  4. So what if you love fashion, but don’t want to harm people or the planet – what can you do? The good news is that lots of new ethical fashion companies are now opening, allowing us to get our fix without costing the earth. Companies such as People Tree provide high-quality, fair-trade fashion, with a guarantee that workers have been fairly treated.

    And you can make a difference with the clothes you already own: next time you think of throwing away an old dress or top because it’s damaged – or just because it’s old – stop and think about how you can reuse that garment to make something new and exciting. Could those jeans be turned into shorts or a skirt? Could the fabric from that dress make a scarf?

    Upcycling, as it’s known, means taking those old, worn-out items of clothing and turning them into something new – and better. There is loads of information about this online, and there are even local groups who can help you learn how to sew and reuse. The Oxfam fashion website is a good place to start.

    The great thing is that something you have made yourself will usually mean more to you. Fashion and clothes are important to us. So why would you buy cheap throwaway items when you could work a bit to make something truly unique, and that really expresses who you are?
  5. So next time you’re about to buy some fast fashion, think about why the fashion is so cheap. It may not be you who is paying right now – but someone, somewhere is.

    In short

    ‘Where did you get that skirt?!’

    –  ‘That new shop that’s opened on the High Street – and it was only £7! Isn’t cheap fashion great?’

    –  ‘A sweatshop in Manila – and I got it really cheap because the girl who made it is 16, is paid 11p per hour, the factory she works in has lax safety regulations, and the material is bad quality and comes from cheap sources (likely another developing world sweatshop with similar working conditions). And because it’s so cheap I’ll chuck it away in a few months (or it will fall apart anyway) and it will end up in a landfill.’

Time for reflection

‘Last year the deadlines were about 90 days . . . [This year] the deadlines for delivery are about 60 days. Sometimes even 45 . . . They have drastically come down.’

Let’s think about the impact of our desire for new, cheap clothes on the people who have to make them.

And the impact that delivering those clothes has on the planet.

And, eventually, the difficulty of getting rid of all that cheap material . . .

Are my new clothes worth the true cost?


The Lord’s Prayer (Come and Praise, 51)

Publication date: November 2011   (Vol.13 No.11)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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