Spend it with care

Fast isn’t always good. The rise of ‘fast fashion’ may have brought short-term happiness to some, but its long-term impacts are potentially devastating.

By 31 July 2019

The plastic problem has been under the environmental spotlight for a while and the fashion industry has recently come into focus. We want to protect our planet, but there is an overwhelming amount of information out there and it’s hard to know how best to respond. One thing we can all do is pay a bit more attention to the way we spend our money. The power of the pound is immense.

Focus on fashion

Recent reports and documentaries have surprised viewers with the hefty carbon footprint of simple items of clothing. The culture of fast, throwaway fashion has come under fire as items are no longer treasured for years, more like one Saturday night.

The Environmental Audit Committee recently published its final report on the sustainability of the fashion industry. It said that UK designers are already taking a lead on sustainable fashion and there are some exciting and innovative businesses out there, but the news wasn’t all positive.

According to the report we buy more clothes per person in the UK than any other country in Europe. And many of these clothes are cheap and trend-driven, simply stoking the fast-fashion fire. We consume 60% more garments than we did in 2000; that’s simply an unsustainable rise.

The report also found plenty of worrying evidence about labour practices in factories which supply these fast fashion brands and e-tailers. It is apparently an open secret that some garment factories in the UK do not pay the minimum wage and forced labour is used to pick cotton in two of the world’s biggest cotton-producing countries, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Rules and regulations can get side-stepped in the pursuit of profits.

Wheels are starting to turn, and awareness is being raised. However, it’s clear that the current fast fashion business model cannot last forever. It causes too much damage, both through its labour practices and its production of energy-intensive products. We need to recycle, mend and re-wear. After all, the most sustainable clothes are the ones you are already wearing.

Some brands are doing more to change their ways than others. But, we can all support the cause by researching a company’s practices and then asking ourselves: do I really need to ‘add to basket’?

The price of plastic

The spotlight has been on plastic for much longer and our specialist ethical investment arm Rathbone Greenbank has already written a lot about the plastic problem, highlighting the impact our disposable culture is having on the remotest parts of the planet in their latest Rathbone Greenbank Review. In an essay written for the Rathbones Look Forward series, journalist and broadcaster Lucy Siegle cited predictions that by 2050 plastic in the oceans will outweigh fish, noting that the plastic crisis is real and failure to address it will have devastating results.

The cheapness and durability of the product have assured its rise and sadly, that rise has been on our watch. Reports show that a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and that this will increase a further 20% by 2021.

But the tide is gradually starting to turn, and attitudes are starting to change. Since the new legislation was introduced in 2015, requiring any retailer with more than 250 employees to charge 5p per single-use plastic bag, usage in England has fallen by more than 80%. Laws against plastic bags are being introduced in countries all over the world and microbeads are being banned in products.

This is an encouraging start, but we can do more ourselves. It’s up to us to be proactive and take responsibility for what we buy and the way we spend our money.

Spending power

If you think that every time you make a purchase, or decide where to invest, you are effectively endorsing that company and its practices, you might start to think a little harder before you spend. Start researching corporate practice and you might find something you don’t like; there’s nothing like a profit warning to pique the interest of a CEO.

Create a framework of criteria based on your own values and use that to analyse businesses and whether or not you want to endorse them. Everyone has different priorities and will choose different ways of spending their money. Eventually, companies with poor practices will be forced to change.

There is a huge amount of information about corporate practices if you have a dig around websites. Big corporates get a bad rap, but actually, many are waking up to the need to act more responsibly. And because of their size, they also have the power to create huge change more quickly than their smaller competitors. You may be surprised by the companies that end up coming out on top. If we all start to think more about consuming responsibly, our shopping lists may start to look a bit different.