Warnings about the devastating impacts of climate change were sounded again last week by global experts, reminding us how everyone needs to play their part by changing their eating, travel, and shopping habits.
But despite the dire warnings, the appetite for fast fashion shows no sign of abating, especially among a particular demographic. Cork provided a stark reminder when Chinese online retailer Shein opened a pop-up shop, and more than 600 enthusiasts waited in line to snap up the ‘bargains’. Some had been queuing since 4am.
The term ‘fast fashion’, which has now entered our lexicon, refers to garments produced and sold cheaply but which can have wide-ranging and long-lasting impact on the environment. The fashion industry is to blame for between 8% and 10% of all global carbon emissions — more than the aviation and shipping industries combined — according to the United Nations.
It contributes 20% of all wastewater, while 85% of all textiles end up in landfill each year. Most of fashion’s environmental impact comes from its use of raw materials. Synthetic material such as polyester requires an estimated 342m barrels of oil every year, while clothes production processes such as dying require 43m tonnes of chemicals annually.
Shein is the ultra-fast fashion compy, and it adds 2,000 new items a day to its site. However, in addition to allegations of worker mistreatment, it has been accused of exacerbating the climate crisis due to its use of cheap, synthetic fossil-fuel fibres; toxic dyes; plastics; and microplastics to make clothes, sold at low prices.
A report published by Greenpeace last year, a month after the Channel 4 documentary by Iman Amrani, highlighted how the company’s business model was based on “hazardous chemicals and environmental destruction”.
The report criticised Shein’s “careless attitude towards environmental and human health risk associated with the use of hazardous chemicals.”
When asked, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said he is not “familiar” with Shein, and defended the company opening its European headquarters in Dublin. This is despite the fact the climate minister previously told thethat future generations will be horrified by fast fashion, given its wide-ranging environmental impacts.
When asked if he was concerned about Shein opening in Dublin, Mr Ryan said he was “not fully familiar with the company”.
“I was making the general point, which is true, that in that waste action plan that we are implementing and our whole green procurement, fashion is probably the most difficult,” he said.
“It does need to be tackled at source in terms of European and national regulations.”
Someone having a new European headquarters here doesn’t impact our ability or our intention of regulating and introducing the waste management measures.
“I’m not fully aware of all the details of that company, I’m just being honest about that,” said Mr Ryan.
“But because someone has a shop… Well, firstly, you can’t completely restrict and say: ‘One retailer, yes, another no’.”
He said this will not stop the Government from implementing some regulations and other mechanisms.
“It’s very hard when the global fabric industry is based around an unsustainable model,” he said.
The European Union has said it plans to counter the polluting of fast fashion, by calling for a mandatory minimum use of recycled fibres by 2030 and banning the destruction of many unsold products.
The European Commission rules also seek to contain the release of microplastics and improve labour conditions in the garment industry.
But for shoppers, what are the alternatives to the like of Shein? Second-hand shopping is one, whether for clothing, furniture, or even electronics and has seen huge growth in the last decade.
A growing number of environmentally conscious consumers now wear clothes sourced from second-hand, pre-loved, or vintage stores with pride. A refurbished phone from the likes of CEX or refurbed.ie is no longer something to hide. The statistics back up this appetite for second-hand.
According to the Irish Charity Retail Impact Report 2022, 7.3m garments were sold across partnered charity shops in Ireland which helped bring in a total of €43m in revenue last year.
The report also shared that charity shop members were able to stop 17,300 tonnes of items from going into landfills or being incinerated to produce energy. Reusing textiles is now at the top of the waste hierarchy with landfills and incineration at the bottom.
In addition, through selling items second-hand, charity shops have been able to avoid producing 62,230 tonnes of carbon equivalent emissions in 2022.
Cork Environmental Forum co-ordinator Bernie Connolly believes that buying clothes second hand has “become much more mainstream”.
“I know from charity retailers that they have lots of shoppers coming in,” she said.
“In the past, I guess it was a money concern, or it was just economic circumstances, but now it’s very much across the board. There are some people you know shopping for the environmental group.
“Also I think people realise that there’s really good bargains to be had there, and really good quality, and think the shops have changed how they present themselves.”
So who are these second-hand shoppers, and what drives them?
“I don’t need expensive clothes to make myself happier” says 61-year-old Lynda Wong, a Hong Kong native living in West Cork.
Lynda says she has reached a point where she’d rather spend money on good doctors, dentists, and supplements rather than splurging on new clothes.
Lynda says she finds “great simplicity” in life and loves shopping second-hand.
The animal welfare activist says she would rather pay less than €10 for something stylish than get something too extravagant.
Lynda told the: “I would prefer to put more money on good doctors, dentists, supplements, and health insurance.
“I would rather spend maybe €10 or €20 on items, if I have a function or whatsoever, and most of the stuff I’d find would still have the labels on, with the prices, and you know that it’s not been worn before.
“When you are at my age, you would like to age gracefully, so I would prefer you know to get good supplements and live longer, healthier and happier.
Lynda says her favourite charity shops are St Vincent de Paul in Bantry, where she knows she can always find some great items for either a party or an event.
Mother-of-two Fiona O’Neill says she loves second-hand shopping, especially in charity shops.
Fiona, who works part-time at an optician and is setting up her own family carers recruitment business, says her love for second-hand stores comes from her experience of family caring, in regard to making a difference.
Whether it be clothes, a pair of heels, or even furniture, Fiona says the quality in second-hand stores is “an awful lot better” than before.
Speaking from her home in Mullinahone, Co Tipperary, the 42-year-old says if she “had a wedding or a communion coming up, and there is something that I need to buy, like an outfit, I would first shop in a second-hand store before I’d go into a traditional retail store”.
She said: “One of the reasons would be supporting charities, like cancer support for example — you’re giving back then as well, even though it’s helping your own pocket. And it’s putting something nice in your wardrobe, you’re supporting a good cause as well.”
Fiona said she started shopping second-hand five to six years ago due to her budget.
“Things started getting more expensive, and I started looking at the budget side of things, and realised I needed to start looking after the pennies here,” she said.
“For example, I got a pair of high heels at a charity shop, and I live in them. I wear them to corporate events, and I wear them to weddings and things like that, but there were untouched.
“And now I’m benefiting from someone else throwing them away. I paid €20 for them.”
Fiona said she prefers being able to go into physical stores and buy the items instead of shopping online.
“Going down to these stores and seeing the items with your own eyes so that you can judge is important,” she said.
“You can make a judgment before you commit to the item.”
UCC law student Erin O’Leary believes second-hand shopping has influenced her sense of style.
“I think definitely my sense of fashion has become a lot more defined and personal since starting shopping second-hand,” she said.
“Before I started, I definitely kind of just bought whatever was trending at the time, whereas now I definitely have much more of my own personal sense of style.”
Erin said she started going into charity and vintage shops, and using Depop and even DoneDeal since 2019.
“It was first the environmental impact that made me look into it, and then it really got me to commit more to sustainable shopping,” she said.
“The ethical implications of fast fashion, particularly the production methods in the global south, got me to commit more.
“It’s well within my budget which, as a student, is not very high. Shopping for clothes is not a necessity — a lot of the time it’s a luxury.
“I wouldn’t be buying clothes, like, every month, but I’d buy a few items — four or five — every three months and spend maybe €50 on it.”
Erin said one of her best purchases was a real leather jacket that she got in a vintage shop for €35, and she has had it for a least three years. She says it’s a staple piece in her wardrobe.
Another good find for Erin was a double bed for €35 on DoneDeal.
“I was trying to get rid of my old bed, and I found this, and it was a really good wooden bed, of good quality. And there was no way I would have gotten something like this for anywhere near that price, even from IKEA,” she said.
“It’s probably from the 80s or 90s, but it still worked perfectly well, and it’s a good sturdy bed.”