S.O.S to ASOS, by Justine Ching

Justine Ching

It’s 10am, slightly overcast with a brisk chill sweeping across campus. It’s still summer yet autumn is impatiently knocking. You shiver, take out your phone, open your browser, type in “aso-” to which your phone responds with an auto suggestion: www.asos.com.au. You scroll past khaki puffer jackets, Steve Jobs-esque turtlenecks, and Teddy bear coats that’ll be out of style before you graduate. Add to cart. Spent over $125? Express shipping it is. You close your phone, go to your lecture, and open your laptop. More browsing for the next two hours. Maybe you can find some matching boots.

Clothing consumption is at an outrageous high with fashion being the third most polluting industry globally. In 2017 alone, Australians were estimated to have bought an average of 27kg of textiles per person. The business of fashion perpetuates a cycle of making, selling, and dumping, with a majority of consumers engaging in only buying and disposing. In both the creation and disposal of clothing, there is always an environmental cost.

Consider your favourite pair of Levi’s. To make a pair of jeans, the denim consumes 3,781L of water, produces 33.4kg worth of greenhouse gases, and leaves tangible waste in the form of plastic packaging. The jeans are a global citizen, they’re travelling internationally and releasing CO2 before arriving domestically at your door after your friendly courier drops them off. You rip open the plastic, try them on, wear them for two seasons, before donating them to Vinnies, where an overflowing rack of identical jeans hang forlornly.

The environmental costs of constructing, transporting and even disposing clothing are exorbitantly high. In such a wasteful industry, how do we disengage from this cycle of disposal? Firstly, we need to recognise the dominance of fast fashion over its rival of sustainable fashion. Then we need to begin reforming our buying behaviour.

Sustainable fashion revolves around transparency and traceability. It requires a humane and environmentally-friendly supply chain where garments are constructed from natural fibres, waste is decreased, and factory pollution is minimised. US retailer Reformation practices sustainability through purchasing carbon offsets, categorically recycling wastage, and using biodegradable fibres for a majority of their products. To shoppers, sustainable production must sound like a perfectly logical answer to the fashion industry’s pollution, yet most popular retailers do not reflect these standards.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is fast fashion. Fashion in the 21st century is a fast-moving consumer good. With the internet broadening the possibilities of the shopping experience, new retailers are entering the market offering indistinguishable goods that are cheap, current, and trendy. The garments often consist of synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon that are easily acquired and inexpensive to produce. In addition to pollution from production, when washed, clothing made of synthetic materials release micro plastic debris that eventually enter the ocean, resulting in even more damage.

A simple search of Australian retailers such as Princess Polly or Glassons would reveal a majority of products being synthetic. Biker shorts, a festival staple found in almost every fast fashion retailer, tend to contain 85% Nylon. “Satin”, an imitation of silk and the fabric used in that midi skirt that everyone from your great aunt to your cousin owns, is 100% polyester. As consumers, we hastily devour these trends.

I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it. Consumers demand clothing that is affordable yet high quality, stylish yet timeless, and they want it with next day delivery options. For brands to stay competitive in the digital age, they require international shipping for a global market, a cheap supply chain, and an intuitive sense of what is current. In their effort to minimise costs, supply chains lack full transparency regarding the environmental impact of their products’ production and distribution. They proliferate “instagrammable” trends such as leopard print blouses at unimaginable speeds to incite FOMO and activate impulse purchasing behaviour.

The market is over-saturated by identical items marketed by suspiciously similar retailers. Popular brands such as Missguided need only one week to ideate, produce and distribute a “fashionable” concept. And in the marketing of these trends, they will utilise a range of social media platforms, collaborating with influencers and generating sponsored posts, in order to incite a buying frenzy in their customers. I am sure we have all fallen prey to accidentally liking that rose-tinted post on our feed; almost impressed at how seamlessly the algorithms have integrated the advertisement into our online psyche.

However, once the trend’s season has ended, this miraculous product becomes obsolete in our eyes and in those of the retailer as they slash the remaining stock at half price to make way for another trend. These brands not only fuel an unsustainable pattern of production but encourage unsustainable consumption on the consumer’s behalf – they nurture a shopper’s desire for instant gratification and can form foundations for needless purchasing that takes a toll on both the environmental and our wallets.

Despite consumers becoming increasingly concerned with the imminent effects of global warming, sustainable fashion has still failed to gain mainstream traction. There exists a cognitive dissonance between the buyers’ desire for environmentally-friendly products and their actual clothing purchases. This is likely due to numerous factors including un-affordability, inaccessibility, and a perception that sustainable fashion is not a feasible norm for the average shopper’s closet. But eco-friendly fashion can be seamlessly integrated into a consumer’s life.

As time-poor, coffee-craving students, buying from brands such as Everlane—that ensure sustainable suppliers—isn’t always an option. But there is potential for us as consumers to shift the fashion industry to a progressively greener place:

Shop Smarter

We need to start taking sustainability seriously. Shopping smarter doesn’t necessarily mean splurging $200 a month on purchasing all of Elk’s essentials range. Shopping smartly and sustainability should be about bridging the gap between our theoretical support for environmentalism and that of our purchasing behaviour. As smarter shoppers we need to approach fashion with a future-oriented mindset – this means buying pieces for their longevity and universality as opposed to their sole aesthetics. Sustainable clothing is constructed to remain enduringly relevant both in a design and a physical sense. In recognition of our environmental concerns, we should purchase sustainable clothing as long-term investments into our wardrobe and the Earth. Alongside this, spending less time trawling fast fashion retailers and even shopping locally can aid in reforming our habits. We don’t need to feed the wasteful cycle of fast fashion – but we can change it. Any action that reduces excessive wasteful production and consumption is already forging better purchasing habits.

Buy Second-Hand

It is fortunate that thrifting has been revived as a trend in recent years. But, instead of treating the practice as a fad, integrate it into your buying habits. An inescapable fact is that a portion of the donated clothes will be made of synthetic fibres. Whilst you can spend most of your days checking the labels for natural fibre origins, buying synthetic fibres from an op-shop isn’t a cardinal sin. If you’re already living by step one and shopping less frequently, you are inadvertently influencing the reduction of fast fashion production. As for the treatment of your new second-hand garments, buying something that you know will be wearable for you in the long term is always a smarter option. Although washing synthetics releases microfibres into the oceans, disposing of them in landfills has an even greater environmental cost due to the release of toxic pollution and only 1% of the materials being recyclable. Thus, in saving your new op-shop finds from even greater environmental wastage, try washing them less and altering them over time to ensure maximum usage.

Demand Brands Make Harder Commitments to Sustainability

Basic economics will teach you consumer demand drives supply. If consumers are able to urge massive retailers to employ sustainable practices, they could trigger an industry-wide transformation that mobilises towards a greener planet. The fashion industry is already predicted to trend towards sustainability as consumers, especially young adults, are more engaged in social and environmental causes than previous generations. Now, big brands just need a push.

ASOS currently has a team of 11 sustainability experts who advise the brands suppliers on environmentally friendly production practices, and also manage ASOS’ Eco-Edit, a sub-brand which sells sustainable products from notably eco-friendly suppliers. They have also created a 2020 agenda that is dedicated to initiating a circular fashion economy that avoids disposal by rehabilitating fabrics for future releases.

However, this is only a minor fraction of the behemoth retailer’s product offerings. It is extremely difficult for large multinationals such as ASOS to adopt sustainable practices due to the rigidity of their business structure that relies on fast fashion principles. These retailers need to remain competitive but if loyal consumers can convince industry leaders that a competitive brand can also be a sustainable one, other companies, large and small, would follow suit.

The fashion industry has many years of restructuring ahead until sustainable practices become an unquestionable standard. A potential and promising future is one with a global body performing annual audits to ensure suppliers comply with human rights and environmental standards. A universally recognisable symbol labelling all sustainably produced garments is an idyllic prospect. But for now, all we can do is take baby steps towards better purchasing behaviour for a healthier Earth.


Bio: Justine Ching is a perpetually tired Commerce/Arts student always in need of a coffee despite her growing lactose intolerance. With a goal of writing more this year, she hopes to offer fresh perspectives on popular culture, the perils of reading too closely into astrology, and the (mis)use of the Oxford comma.