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Charity Shopping – Help or Hinderance in the Fight Against Fast Fashion?

Who are the working class? The answer varies depending on who you ask. A typical definition implies anyone with a low-skilled job requiring little to no education. But a recently published government survey, ‘The Social Mobility Barometer,’ finds that a fifth of Brits earning between £75,000 and £100,000 per year consider themselves working class. Those living in council estates, working in unsecure, low-paid jobs that leave them struggling to do their weekly shop, might find these figures nothing short of laughable. 


Perhaps this attachment to the working class highlights our ever-increasing discontentment with what we have, since a more probable estimate puts only about 14% of Brits in the working class. They are those tortured by the ever-rising cost of living, struggling to afford the bare necessities – like clothes. 


Clothes used to be a dictation of class - an immediate recognition of the dispensable income you could or couldn’t afford to splash on designer clothing brands. But fast fashion changed the game. Anyone could now afford to wear the latest trends, as brands like H&M and Zara rapidly and cheaply reproduced the latest fashion trends for the masses. But these fast-fashion companies are only able to mass produce clothing at low cost by sacrificing both their workers and the environment. 


One need only consider the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 to see the horrific working conditions that fast-fashion company employees experience. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh has been labelled the worst industrial incident for the garment industry to date. After countless warnings that large structural cracks rendered the building unsafe, banks and shops on the buildings lower floors closed, while the garment production on upper floors was ignorantly and greedily continued. Workers, who were not in the financial position to risk losing employment, were forced by managers to come to work in the unsafe conditions. The building collapsed and killed 1,134 people, and injured almost 2600 workers, some of whom can never return to work because of their injuries. 


Companies that were unsafely producing their clothing in the Rana Plaza building were, and remain, some of the biggest names in the fast fashion industry. To name a few, Benetton, Primark, Mango, and Matalan, all had recent or current orders placed with one of the garment factories in the Rana Plaza building at the time of its collapse. 


The weaponization of cheap, insecure labour in third world countries like Bangladesh is just one strategy employed by fast fashion brands to maintain their next-to-nothing prices. Another is the total ignorance of their environmental impact.  


Fast fashion garments are typically of poor quality because they are made from cheap fabrics and dyes. The products used in their making are detrimental to the environment. The production of popular fabrics among fast fashion companies like polyester and nylon are made using fossil fuels, which result in a huge carbon footprint and contribute to the accelerating rate of global warming – the consequences of which we are living through today, as heatwaves and drought strike countries that have never before had such dynamic and severe weather conditions. The huge scale on which the garments are produced render fashion production responsible for the release of 10% of all global carbon emissions - as much as the entire European Union. 


Furthermore, 90% of fast fashion brands directly contribute to water pollution, and account for 20% of global water waste. When the poor-quality fabrics are washed, they release millions of tiny microfibres into waters like rivers and lakes. The toxic chemicals from washing detergents are bound within these microfibres which are released into bodies of water and absorbed by aquatic life. 


Another major consequence for the environment is the astronomical waste that fast fashion encourages. Trends come and go at an incredibly fast pace, rendering items undesirable only weeks after their consumerism is at its peak. The items, wore little more than a few times by the consumer, are promptly tossed into landfill without a second thought. For some context, 10,000 items of clothing are sent to landfill every five minutes. The rise in popularity of social media influencers has only increased this phenomenon, those who never seen to be wearing the same outfit more than once. 


So why is the fast fashion industry still booming? Perhaps because it is becoming increasingly difficult to shop sustainably at a reasonable price. Accustomed to the dirt-cheap prices of fast fashion companies, not everyone can afford to support eco-friendly fashion brands, where costs are justifiably higher, for the provision of fair wages and maintenance of sustainable production means and materials. 


Particularly among university students, environmental protection has become a forefront issue, with many young people making more eco-friendly fashion choices. ‘Thrifting’ for ‘vintage’ pieces in charity shops has become the latest fashion trend. Buying pre-loved clothing is an excellent way to reduce fashion waste. But bulk buying charity shop clothing to sell at a much higher price on platforms like Depop only increases the demand for second-hand clothing and raises its prices beyond those attainable for working class families, who shop at charity shops out of necessity, not trend. Unable to afford or find decent second-hand clothing, they resort to the cheaper alternative - fast fashion. 


Recycling fashion is an undeniably excellent way to reduce the mass amount of waste produced by the industry, and of course should be encouraged. But to truly fight fast fashion, considering where we source our second-hand clothing is vital.  


Charity shops in estate areas house those more likely to be dependent on charity shops as a means of shopping sustainably. Buying from these shops out of trend will only increase the demand for fast fashion, as residents may have a minimal budget for clothing, and are unable to alternatively afford these more expensive eco-friendly brands.

For those with higher dispensable incomes, shopping at these mildly more expensive sustainable brands, or vintage boutiques, as opposed to charity shops, ensures an alternative sustainable option remains available for everyone – ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. 

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