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Words by Tara Stewart
I used to work with fast fashion brands but now I host a podcast on sustainable fashion called Dirty Laundry. When I was a teenager in my small town in the middle of the Australian Outback, I often spent my Saturdays rummaging through the very few shops we had. The two stores I would always visit were the charity shop and my local music store to listen to the new music that had just arrived.
I’d usually walk out of both stores with a vintage blazer, some jewellery and maybe a single CD depending on what I had enough money for. I would end up spending most of my money, but I didn’t care, as I knew that I would leave with something I would cherish for a long time. Something worthy of my money.
For as long as I can remember (and much to my detriment), I have prioritised buying clothes over the core necessities in my life, from food, phone credit and going to the dentist. I feel that not only can fashion improve my appearance but it also helps me feel better which in turn keeps me in a good mood.
This is a scientific fact, I looked it up. I was never into fast fashion before – I promise I am not saying this to be that person who listened to a band before they got famous. I’ve just always loved second hand clothes because I prefer the style of clothes from the 80s and 90s more than today.
I was first introduced to fast fashion through my music when about 5 years ago I set out to become a DJ and Radio Presenter. As I worked my way into the industry DJing at various club nights & raves, I started to get bookings for press events and product launch parties. I eventually got booked to DJ for brands that fall under the umbrella of fast fashion. I had never bought from them before but I did definitely consider them to be some of the biggest brands in the world so it was a major deal to get booked by them.
It was through DJing that I started to get offered free clothes from these brands and eventually I started to get paid by them to wear their outfits on my Instagram. I’d usually do about 4 posts a month and stories with swipe up links. The major fast fashion brands have fantastic marketing which can be seen through their size ranges, body positivity and diversity in models used in their campaigns, sharing posts and slogan tees on social issues like BLM and making branded clothes from Pride and International Women’s Day.
This was a big selling point for me and at the time I felt proud to be working with brands that seemed to have feminism and empowering values that aligned with my own morals. I remember at the time feeling like this was a dream come true, I was just so grateful that I was getting all these free clothes every few weeks and getting paid to wear them. I really never imagined I would be in that type of position in my life.
It wasn’t until later on that I learned clothing production is the third biggest manufacturing industry after the automotive and technology industries. Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined” (House of Common Environmental Audit Committee, 2019 via Good On You).
I also learned 93% of brands surveyed by the Fashion Checker aren’t paying garment workers a living wage (Via Good On You). But really, everything changed in 1 hour and 32 minutes for me when I watched a documentary called the True Cost (like many sustainable fashion advocates have said before me).
The documentary opened my eyes, mind and had my jaw on the floor. I was glued to my laptop afterwards googling more and more about the environmental and social impact of the industry, and honestly I felt really guilty. I felt bad and embarrassed that I hadn’t been aware of this information.
Throughout my life I’ve tried to stand up for what I believe in. I’ve marched streets for Gay Marriage and Abortion rights and for context I come from an Irish lawyer dad who protested in the 70’s and an Indian Malaysian immigrant mum who is a psychologist and still has to work extra hard to prove herself in life.
So yeah, I like to stand up for things, and this became one of them. The idea of me selling and encouraging my followers to buy clothes that were being made by people who were not being treated or paid fairly didn’t sit right with me. After this day of feeling like I was the lead in a Beautiful Mind, I remembered I was in the middle of a contract with a fast fashion brand and I had already been paid.
I was due to do another post in a new outfit that week and the thought of going ahead with it made me feel anxious. I was also conflicted by the fact that I was new to the media industry and I worried that backing out of the deal would hinder my career and give me a bad reputation. I took a deep breath and emailed the influencer department to explain why I felt it wasn’t right to work together anymore.
I couldn’t remain complicit and feign ignorance to what I knew now. I told them I couldn’t post the remainder of our agreed content and after some frankly curt back and forths they sent me their bank details, I paid them their money back and I haven’t looked back since.
Well… I did look back for about 2 weeks and wondered if I had just ruined my entire career, but apart from that I didn’t look back… Suffice it to say, my career wasn’t ruined, and instead, led to the creation of my podcast Dirty Laundry that is now on its second season. I wanted this podcast to be a useful resource for people wanting to learn more about ethical fashion practices by interviewing some of my favourite industry experts.
I also still get booked to DJ a lot. I never like to judge people for their lifestyle choices as I have made many mistakes myself when it comes to fashion, however something does have to change. When I look back to being that teenage girl in the outback walking into town with my small amount of savings, I remember the joy I felt from buying clothes that I knew I would love and appreciate for years.
I remember that these products had worth, not only to me but to the people who made and sold them. The concept of buying things at a cheap price or even consuming it for free is something we have become accustomed to and that is down to brands and the messages they are choosing to market to many impressionable, and none the wiser consumers.
So can we actually change anything as a consumer? In my opinion yes! There are so many resources out there to educate ourselves, from reading books and listening to podcasts, to following inspirational influencers online. Fashion is a topic I personally focus on because it is so important to me and I can use my platform to speak out about it.
It’s something everybody has an interest in so it’s an easier industry to change. We are now seeing more brands trying to make better and more sustainable choices, but there is so much more to it. We can support independent companies and creatives who pay their staff and suppliers fairly.
We can invest in local producers and shops that help give back to the communities that we live in. We can stop our reliance on massive companies who time and time again not only abuse workers but who also contribute to the destruction of our planet simply for our convenience.
None of us are perfect, we live in the 21st century and using or dealing with companies and services that are unethical is unfortunately part of our lives – I put myself in this behaviour as well. But if we can all make small changes in our life and vote with our wallets then I do believe that change will come. We will lead the future but it is up to us where we are going.