Una Mullally: Cheap fashion comes at a price we cannot afford

Sustainable items carry premium prices but fast fashion comes with environmental costs

At the Galway International Arts Festival on Saturday, I had the privilege of hosting a public interview with Prof Rebecca Earley, called "The Power of Less".

Earley is at the forefront of sustainable design. She is a textile designer who is also the director of centre for circular design at Chelsea College of Arts, director of the Textile Future Research Centre, lead researcher at Textiles Environment Design, where she created "the 10", a series of sustainable strategies, and she has worked with brands such as H&M and Puma.

Earley is a proponent of the circular economy, where instead of everything ending up as waste as it does in the linear economy, the economic system becomes a regenerative one, where waste, emissions and energy are minimised. This can take the form of recycling, repairing, reusing, and also diverting by-products or potential waste products to other industries for use or reuse.

Conversations about sustainability and fashion tend to revolve around the slow-fashion movement, inspired by the slow-food movement, and reacting to our fast-fashion reality – cheap clothes, mass-produced in factories in developing countries, with a massive turnover when it comes to getting the latest trends on the shop floor as quickly as possible for the cheapest price. We cannot claim the real costs of this are hidden, given the continuous attention brought to the environmental and human costs in that production and supply chain.


Point of privilege

Slow fashion, like organic food, is often spoken about from a point of privilege, where people have spending options, and should “do the right thing”. Earley asks the provocative question about how can sustainability fit into the reality that we’re already experiencing. How can sustainable clothing also think fast? This is where design can lead, designing to minimise waste, reduce chemical impacts, reduce energy and water use, design using cleaner technologies, design for ethical production and design for less stuff in general, reducing the need to consume.

Slow fashion cannot be the only solution, and that’s a challenging point of view. The guilt and education factor works for some conscientious consumers who have the option of buying a few items of premium, ethnical clothing a year, but the reality is that they are a tiny percentage of overall consumers. We cannot ignore the majority of consumer behaviour.

Cotton is a problem, causing issues across agriculture, water and waste. It can take 20,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of cotton

Earley assessed my own clothing. Dr Martens boots, which I buy the same pair of every three or four years, came out okay. My go-to black skinny jeans, which I'm rarely out of, were revealed to be 91 per cent cotton, 6 per cent polyester and 3 per cent elastane.

Cotton is a problem, causing issues across agriculture, water and waste. It can take 20,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of cotton. According to the World Wildlife Federation, while 2.4 per cent of the world's crop land is planted with cotton, it accounts for 24 per cent of the global sales of insecticide. Cotton farming has caused the destruction of seas, river basins, and has massive health and economic impacts on people who farm it and their families. When crops fail, people are made destitute, and the level of chemicals involved in its growing have huge health implications.

Elastane is a right pain, making it difficult to recycle clothes it's a component of because it's so hard to extract the fibres. Its use has grown massively with the boom in stretchy jeans and trousers, as well as leggings and exercise gear. So that was a fail. My Cos shirt turned out to be 100 per cent polyester, a fabric synonymous with fast fashion, but which lasts for 200 years and is made from petrochemicals, having a double whammy of issues with recycling as well as requiring a fossil fuel for its production. Damn it. And I thought I was doing well.


Earley spoke about some clothes shops dealing in fast fashion, where it is not worth their while at closing time to pick up and clean the items of clothing that have ended up on the floor during the course of shopping hours. Instead this clothing is swept off the shop floor and discarded, ending up in landfill. She spoke about microfibres – the clothing version of microbeads, which we’ve been hearing a lot about recently – and the increasing alarm related to them, how items of clothing shed tiny threads in the wash, which are then ingested by fish, which we in turn eat. Fleeces in particular are major culprits.

The complexity and scale of the damage the textile industry does to the planet and its people are huge, yet it’s refreshing to hear Earley, a leader in this area working with big brands, talk about broad solutions, not niche ones. While conversations and online bragging about sustainability and a renewed interest in recycling and repairing are becoming increasingly amplified, the figures in terms of consumption do not correlate.

One particular project Earley and her children undertook was something we could all try: a year of buying nothing new. One of the issues with conversations around sustainability is that those who have the privilege of being able to change their behaviour are the least likely to experience the environmental and economic impact of their consumption habits, and so the immediacy of actually changing how we shop and what we wear can feel vague and distant. But the problem is not far away at all. For most of us, we’re wearing it right now.