In a world of fast fashion, is sustainable retail possible or even desirable?

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By Dr Sarah Montano and Dr Inci Toral
Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham.


We have passed the threshold of ‘leaving this to governments’, it is now everyone’s responsibility

NBC’s The Good Place, helpfully illustrates the key issues that we face when trying to live an ethical life. Sadly, we don’t have the option of going back and redoing it all over again. The world today is complicated and difficult, it’s not just a case of simply buying a tomato. Is the tomato organic? What about food miles? Can I afford to pay more for pesticide free? What about the packaging? Do I as a consumer, even want so much packaging? I don’t want 40 cherry tomatoes, but they are only provided in a pack of 40. How has life become so complicated? In fact, we may recall that not long ago, our grandparents were perhaps more sustainable e.g. using cloth nappies, saving the ends of soap to make new bars and turning elderly veg into a great dinner.

We lead busy lives. The majority of us are trying to work full time, look after children, care for our parents and clean the house all at the same time. In particular, for women there is often a ‘mental load‘ whereby they are worrying about children’s school attainment, have they eaten enough vegetables, why is the ironing pile so big and why do I need to buy the children new pyjamas yet again? At times, the convenience of plastic packaging/ready meals/popping into Primark is a basic need to enable life, despite the knowledge of the apparel industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, which account for 10% of global carbon emissions.

So, the media and governments are urging us as citizen consumers to live a more ethical and sustainable life while also urging us to consume more. How can we balance these demands, and even become a better citizen by doing the right thing, in today’s modern society? Most, if not all, agree that we do need to think about our ethical responsibilities to the planet. We have passed the threshold of ‘leaving this to governments’, it is now everyone’s responsibility.  COP26 and the Duke of Cambridge’s EarthShot prize are focussing our minds, as consumers, on what we need to do to effectively save the planet. In particular, the EarthShot prize is focussed on incentivising creative solutions to our issues and lives, rather than focussing on the pessimism that is often associated with punitive changes. Sometimes it can feel like just another job to add to the list – save the planet as well!

Given life is complicated and we are leading busy lives, what can we do? One good and fun way forward is to think about small changes rather than changing the world. What we can do is:

  • We can buy what we need and buy what we want less often
  • In Primark etc. we can look to buy from their sustainable ranges
  • Upcycle/recycle or sell clothing that no longer fits. Apps like Vinted make it easy to sell on clothing and make some money! There are also brands that do not carry any stock and make your clothes once you order from them
  • Food waste is a big challenge with the average family spending £470 per year on food that is binned. Products do often come in large packages that are more than we need, so while we also need supermarkets to act on this, we can love our leftovers
  • We can urge businesses to donate their excessive products (food and everything else)
  • Eat less meat – maybe go veggie once a week, make an easy dinner to save time that is also veggie
  • Shop locally where we can and enjoy the seasonal offers. It adds fun to our experience when we wait for the offer to be in the market rather than find everything anytime we want them
  • Remember to take our reusable cups and bags with us when we go out
  • Grow a few things at home, be it in the garden or on the window ledge, and teach young ones how to grow them

We can have fun, create new memories, and feel proud about ourselves while contributing to our planet. In summary, it is about small collective change rather than huge changes. In a world of fast fashion, we can all be a bit more sustainable and bring about incremental change but also balance change within our busy lives.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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