Fast fashion: Why you should care even if you haven’t bought a new t-shirt since 1988
Fast fashion: a term used to describe a business model based on producing masses of clothes extremely quickly and at a ridiculously low cost.
This post was written by one of our students, Megan James, taken from an essay she wrote reflecting on fashion and simplicity.
I love clothes. Always have.
I have memories of growing up and driving into town to go clothes shopping with my mum, while my dad begrudgingly sat and read a book in a coffee shop (he hates shopping).
It wasn’t until years later that I realised these shopping trips were full of thoughtless consumption and that I’d been unknowingly supporting the huge exploitation machine that is the fast fashion industry.
Last year, I began studying at WTC and I wrote an essay on the links between Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (1906-45) concept of simplicity and our shopping habits which contribute to sustaining the monster that is the fast fashion industry. Bonhoeffer is a hugely influential theologian and more than 70 years after his imprisonment and execution during the Second World War both his testimony and his story are incredibly popular. For the purpose of both my essay and this blog post I took Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on simplicity from one of his many works: The Cost of Discipleship. After some encouraging feedback on the essay I wrote and a suggestion that I might do some more work on the subject, I have continued to research and think about the issue of fast fashion and how we as Christians might respond.
This topic is vast and complex in nature meaning I cannot go into any great depth, but for the purpose of this short blog I wanted to share with you a summary of my main thoughts so far.
Fast fashion impacts two key things that Christians should care about: The environment and people
The impact of the fashion industry on the environment is devastating. The fashion industry consumes 79 trillion litres of water per year and produces around 92 million tonnes of textile waste per year, much of which goes to landfill or is burnt. This is the environmental price of fast fashion. Furthermore, it is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. In light of the current growing climate crisis these figures alone should cause us to question our clothes shopping habits.
Initially, my attention had been specifically drawn to the impact of fast fashion on garment workers who are paid very little and are forced to work in poor conditions, in order that brands can sell clothes at a low and competitive price. However, through researching the full impact of fast fashion, it became apparent that the negative impact extends far beyond those literally stitching together the clothes you are wearing right now. Those affected include cotton farmers, inhabitants of villages surrounding cotton fields and factories, and people who live in countries with huge second-hand clothing markets. These clothing markets are booming off the back of receiving our cast offs and have got so big that their first-hand clothing industry is disappearing, leading to loss of jobs and skills.
In my research, when confronted with the truth of this awful reality, I felt an overwhelming sense that God’s heart breaks at such injustice, that his heart is full of compassion for his people, and that ours should be too. And this duty of Christian care for people and the environment isn’t simply a concept I’ve made up. Rather, I am convinced that the Bible is clear that we should care for both these things (Genesis 1:28; Amos 5:24; Matthew 25:35-40; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 3:11; Acts 2:42-47).
I think it would be good to round up this section by reminding the reader that abstaining from fast fashion means that we are abstaining from harming other people and the environment.
Christians have another dimension to consider: spiritual formation
Buying second-hand clothing or buying from better brands are great alternatives to buying from fast fashion brands. It’s also worth saying though, that we should still be aware of how much we’re buying even if we’re making more sustainable choices. This is for a number of reasons, but the one I want to touch on here is our relationship with God.
Our relationship to our material possessions: the problem
We so often believe the lie that the more we have, the happier we will be. We believe the lie that happiness is one t-shirt away. When the truth is, in John Mark Comer’s words, ‘the life you’ve always wanted is fully available to you right where you are through Jesus’. In terms of my own consumption, as soon as I was aware of the alternatives to fast fashion – like buying second hand or buying from better brands – I quickly returned to my old clothes shopping habits, as far as my bank account would allow, just in a different, ‘more ethical’ way. I was believing the lie. In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer poses the challenge, ‘What are we really devoted to? That is the question. Are our hearts set on earthly goods?’. Upon reading Bonhoeffer’s work I realised that I hadn’t considered the impact of my relationship with material goods on my discipleship to Jesus – only on people and the planet. In Comer’s words, ‘the earth isn’t the only victim of our overconsumption’.
The spiritual discipline of simplicity: the solution?
So, how might we address our flawed relationship with our possessions? Something I have found extremely helpful, and upon researching have become increasingly convinced is relevant here, is the discipline of simplicity.
At the heart of this discipline is, well… the heart. Bonhoeffer writes in detail about our tendency, put simply, to love our possessions more than we love God, he writes ‘worldly possessions tend to turn the hearts of the disciples away from Jesus’. Furthermore, he challenges this detrimental habit, writing that as disciples we should love God above all things, for example he writes ‘everything which hinders us from loving God above all things and acts as a barrier between ourselves and our obedience to Jesus is our treasure, and the place where our heart is’. The outward reality of this discipline can look like many things. Practicing simplicity when it comes to our wardrobes could mean refraining from impulse buying, only buying new garments when it’s completely necessary, and buying from better brands, where possible, when you do.
Practicing simplicity in every area of our lives helps us to grow in being devoted to God above all else, including our things. Practicing simplicity when it comes to our wardrobes is not only helpful in our discipleship, as it helps our hearts to be fixed on Jesus as opposed to the next Zara haul we’re going to indulge in, but by extension it also helps us to develop more sustainable habits when it comes to fashion.
Ethical Consumerism vs. Consumer Activism
Lastly, I think it’s helpful that we make an important distinction in our response to fast fashion. Namely the distinction between ethical consumerism and consumer activism. I became aware of this distinction through reading a thought-provoking article. The writer explains that ethical consumers change their shopping habits, whereas consumer activists hold corporations and governments accountable. Second, ethical consumers believe we are the cause of the problem, whereas consumer activists believe companies are at fault and have a responsibility to society. I do not agree with the entire contents of the article, but my main takeaway from her piece was that becoming an ‘ethical consumer’ is not enough if we want to address the problem of fast fashion. Instead, we must also become ‘consumer activists’.
In researching what this might involve, I discovered numerous organisations campaigning for change in the industry, all explaining how to get involved, for example through signing petitions. This is an area in which I intend to do more research, but it is clear to me already that it is not enough to simply rely on being an ‘ethical consumer’, extremely important though this is. We must do more in the way of activism, too. This approach of activism means that you can do something about fast fashion, even if you haven’t bought a new t-shirt since 1988. Because it’s not only about how we shop – it’s about how we use our voices and our position to engage in the conversation. And anyone can do that.
This is an area of great complexity yet great importance and I’m currently exploring developing a resource for churches, praying that the Church would be educated and stirred into action on this issue.
If you want to find out more, here are some recommendations:
Learn more about the problem:
Podcast – Good Influence with Gemma Styles – Season 1 Episode 7 – Venetia La Manna on Sustainable Fashion – Listen here
Podcast – Remember Who Made Them – Listen Here
Documentary – The True Cost – Watch Here
YouTube video – Fast Fashion – Who Cares? With Amelia Dimoldenberg – Watch Here
Instagram – @venetialamanna
Simple ways to be a consumer activist:
Brands doing things differently:
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. SCM, 2001.
Comer, John Mark. The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World. WaterBrook, 2019.
Mawson, Michael, and Philip G. Ziegler. The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Oxford University Press, 2019.