It’s the season for silly-price-cutting-sales around the world. Throughout November, we’ve endured frenzied shopping scenes played out in shops and tablets as Singles Friday, Black Friday and Cyber Monday turned many normal consumers into shopping zombies. Here, products that we didn’t even realise we wanted, let alone needed, flew off the shelves simply because of gutter price points. It seems that the sales, which have been so heated that even pepper spray and knives have been used at Black Friday’s rush to the door, releases more than just the inner shopaholic – with huge environmental devastating effect.
I used to be one of those partaking in the fashion sales, albeit with a credit card as my main line of attack. Unexpectedly, it was my move from London to Hong Kong 11 years ago that caused a complete fashion consumption overhaul. Living beside the world’s clothing factory – and beside the country that then housed 16 of the planet’s 20 most air polluted cities – gave me fashion whiplash. I swapped my previously comatose approach to clothing overconsumption and bought into the ‘buy less and buy better’ school of thought.
But it was my adventurous bike ride that sealed the deal on my new ethical values and changed the way I shop and dress, forever. I cycled 1,200km from Shenzhen through China’s expansive southern manufacturing hinterland to Hanoi in Vietnam, sweatily peddling my way for 10 non-stop hours every day past gigantic factories that enable China to export 37 per cent of the world’s textiles and 39 per cent of the world’s clothes (including many of the cheap products hitting November’s sales).
Along the way, I developed a new sensitivity towards consumption. Yes, China is a major manufacturer and the GDP applauds domestic and global consumption. But there is a big social and environmental cost that comes with this. Sixty one per cent of China’s groundwater is classified as ‘unfit’ for human contact by China’s Ministry of Environment; 190 million people in China fall ill and 60,000 people die every year from diseases caused by water pollution , of which the textile industry is a major contributor; and cancer rates are reported higher amongst people living near polluted rivers.
But what struck me as I peddled through city after city, each offering a kaleidoscopic view into how our clothes, textiles, tiles, electronics to even our door knobs are made, is how disconnected people are with the impact of our consumption on communities around the world. I passed hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of damaged environment – take your pick from the constant grey, smoggy skies, rusty red coloured rivers, piles of that season’s coloured cut-and-sew waste dumped down alleys or into riverbeds. I passed countless saddened, cracked and grey faces belonging to people who busily – and almost robotically – hurried along their way. These people share our aspirations and no doubt those who I passed felt pressured to put good food – increasingly hard to find in China where almost one fifth of China’s soil is heavily contaminated – on the table.
That’s why China let altruism out of my closet. Every time we buy clothes – especially the cheaply produced clothes pushed out in sales – we are peddling a polluting cycle elsewhere in the world. That’s why my closet – and my conscience – will never be the same again. My bike ride changed the way I dress and gave my ethical pulse a much-needed shot of adrenalin. Except for my underwear and shoes, I’ve made a lifelong commitment never to buy anything made using new – aka virgin – fibres so as to reduce my directly-controlled waste footprint and to divert my cash into economies and businesses that are producing more sustainable products.
So now, my closet mainly contains second-hand (or third-hand – who’s counting?) clothes. These help to stimulate enterprises involved in the circular economy – which seeks to reuse materials and not let them end up in landfill. My closet also includes clothes created using textile-waste reducing materials and methods. So some are made using recycled fibres -many of them manufactured in China – or from up-cycled fabric waste. The beauty of buying recycled textile clothes or up-cycled clothes that I’m still buying ‘new’ and am therefore still contributing my pound of flesh to the economy.
My journey both on and off the bike showed me that a more sustainable fashion industry – through being more conscious over what we buy and essentially buying less and buying better – is completely possible. However, November’s sales do little to help this shift in behaviour. The November sales simply remind me how urgently we need a revolution in values, which starts with letting altruism towards those who suffer behind the environmental and social impact of our consumption out of the closet.
Dr. Christina Dean
Dr. Christina Dean is a sustainable fashion advocate who founded Redress, the environmental NGO reducing waste in the fashion industry in 2007. She co-authored the up- coming book, ‘Dress [with] Sense’ and hosted Frontline Fashion, the documentary about positive changes in fashion. Previously, she was a journalist and practicing dental surgeon.
Photo credit: Luke Casey