A shop's eco-friendly mission to put breaks on fast fashion habit

In a small shop along one of Sydney's busiest streets, Sarah Freeman is encouraging Australians to slow down and break their addiction to fast fashion.

In a small shop along one of Sydney’s busiest streets, Sarah Freeman is encouraging Australians to slow down and break their addiction to fast fashion.

Shocked by the speed at which Australians buy and throw away cheap garments, she is trying to harness an ancient concept— libraries — to persuade shoppers to rent instead of purchase clothes.

“Today’s society just seem to wear clothes like condoms. They wear them once and they throw them away,” said Freeman. “That’s not how clothes are supposed to be designed.”

Globally, clothing production doubled from 2000-14, with the number of garments bought each year by consumers soaring by 60 percent, says consulting firm McKinsey & Company. 

A booming part of the industry is fast fashion, which quickly turns catwalk designs into apparel sold at low or ultra-low prices and easily accessible via online sites.

In Australia, where the demand for textiles is one of the highest per capita in the world, the fast fashion sector grew by 19.5 percent over five years to A$1.8 billion (US$1.4 billion) in 2017-18, research firm IBISWorld reported. A recent YouGov survey also found that almost a quarter of Australians have thrown away an item of clothing after wearing it just once, and four in 10 admitted they had binned unwanted garments, adding to landfill.

“They don’t always see it as something that is a valuable product to keep in your wardrobe,” said Alison Gwilt, a sustainable fashion expert and researcher at the University of South Australia. “So already the mindset from the very beginning when you buy that type of product is that you think of it as something that’s short-lived.”

The rock bottom prices for consumers contrast with the high cost paid by the environment. Tons of cheap clothes are churned out every year in developing countries using up copious amounts of energy and resources and polluting waterways with toxic chemicals.

The materials used are often synthetic and non-biodegradable, meaning even washing can be hazardous with some textiles shedding plastic micro-fibers that make their way to water catchments and oceans.

In recent months, the devastating impact of waste has made headlines after China, Australia’s biggest market for recycling waste, cracked down on imports of foreign waste.

Beijing’s restrictions on “contaminated” recycled materials including fabric has forced Australians to think about how much waste they produce and galvanized efforts to explore more sustainable approaches.

Retailers including major player Cotton On are pledging to make their manufacturing chains more ethical.

Freeman is convinced that if concepts like hers, allowing shoppers to borrow and return quality secondhand clothes for a small monthly subscription fee take off, people power can make a difference.

“Hopefully it will catch on and people will start being more conscious and just make an effort to not go out and purchase the fast fashion items,” she said. “I mean if we stop demanding it, then they (retailers) have to stop supplying it.”

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