The 20th century saw the rise of modern day consumerism. Originating from the US, it quickly spread throughout the industrialised world. Essentially consumerism is a theory, which assumes that constantly increasing consumption of goods and services is a key condition for achieving growing levels of welfare (through economic growth). The more we spend, the bigger the economic growth, which, as far as the consumerist point of view is concerned, is an inherently positive thing. But is it?

While economic growth did indeed raise standards of living, this rise has been incredibly disproportionate. While the majority of people living in industrialised countries are indeed living in better conditions than ever before, wealth inequality is rapidly growing, not to mention the environmental degradation and human rights violations that are directly connected to irresponsible production practices.

Photo by Tom Fisk on

The majority of people living in industrialised countries live an excessively materialistic lifestyle, which is centred around wasteful, often obsessive overconsumption. At the core of the problem is the fact that unfortunately most of us are unaware of the real cost of our purchases, and we let our money go to companies whose activities are directly linked to global issues such as environmental degradation, climate change, armed conflicts and human right violations including modern slavery and child labour. One of the heaviest contributors to these issues is the fast fashion industry. While there are many ways in which this industry is guilty of worsening these problems, here are only three of these, to give you an idea of what’s going on in the background, behind the idyllic picture that fashion adverts allow us to see.

Plastic waste
Did you know that almost half of all the material used by high-street fashion brands is new plastic (Guardian Article, 2021)? And while it’s becoming more and more popular for fast fashion brands to try and reduce their impact through making clothes from recycled plastic bottles, unfortunately this is not more than another attempt of greenwashing. The reason for this is that, while plastic bottles can be recycled into new plastic bottles multiple times, in order to make the plastic soft enough to be made into fabric, it has to be downcycled (which means that the quality of recycled material is lower than that of the original material). This means that this recycled plastic cannot be further recycled as its quality is too low.  Because of this, once the clothes can no longer be worn, all of that plastic will end up in landfill or will be burned. Considering that every second a truck’s worth of clothing is thrown away, that’s a lot of plastic waste, just from the clothing industry alone.

Water pollution
The majority of fabric dye used in textile production are synthetic. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, “textile dyeing is […] the second largest polluter of water globally”, accounting for roughly 20% of global wastewater, and approximately “93 billion cubic metres of water, enough for 5 million people to survive, is used by the fashion industry every year”. Most of this water is released as wastewater at the end of the production process, containing residual fabric dyes and toxic chemicals. This not only pollutes the environment but it also contaminates the rivers and oceans that provide us with safe drinking water.

Exploiting people living in developing countries
To be able to sell products for a low price, high street brands such as Zara, H&M, Topshop, etc (the list goes on endlessly, practically all the fast fashion brands) outsource most of their production to factories in developing countries such as India and Myanmar, where wages are lower and human rights and employment laws are less developed. Workers in these factories often work long hours for small wages, often in appalling conditions. Unfortunately, the workers in these factories often have no option but to accept the terms dictated by the company, as they would struggle to find another source of continuous income if the company decided to move elsewhere, leaving these people extremely vulnerable to exploitation. What’s more, many companies are purchasing from suppliers who engage is modern slavery and/or child labour. According to the International Labour Organisation for example, an estimated 160 million children (roughly 1 in every 10) are in child labour, many of whom are making the textiles that are then turned into the very clothes we’re wearing.

The takeaway
The sad reality is that most of us want to buy clothes (and everything else) for the lowest price possible, but we fail to realise that someone has to cover the production price either way. If it’s not us the consumers who pay for it, then it’s the workers, the environment, and communities that live near the ‘dumping sites’ where the toxic waste is released.

To avoid being a part of this problem, ask yourself every time before buying a new product: 1) “Do I actually need this?” 2) “If I buy it, would my money go to irresponsible companies?” Do your research into the selling company’s traceability records. Websites such as Ethical Consumer provide you with information on each brand, scoring them on matters such as environment, human rights and animal rights, helping you make an informed decision. If there is not much information available anywhere on the internet regarding a company’s supply chain and employment practices, it is often an indicator that they engage in irresponsible activities. In which case it’s better to steer clear of buying their products if you want to keep your conscience clear.

4 thoughts on “The case against consumerism: Part 1 – The real cost of our everyday purchases

  1. Thanks Zita this is such an important thing that we can all help with! Shopping second hand at charity shops is also a great way to give items a new lease of life and support charities at the same time!

    Liked by 1 person

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