Vestiaire Collective.
Vestiaire Collective.
Image: Supplied

The news of French second-hand fashion marketplace Vestiaire Collective’s recent decision to ban fast fashion on their platform has generated debate as many question whether this only adds to some of the problems they highlight as reasons for the ban.

The story begins with a visit to Ghana, where some of Vestiaire’s staffers went to learn more about the consequences of fashion. “I stopped buying fast fashion a few years ago, and I wanted to know more about why I was doing so,” says Fiona, a member of the site’s commercial team, in a video posted on Vestiaire’s social platforms. “What I wanted to learn more about is how our consumption habits affect the rest of the world,” adds her colleague Oriol (neither Oriel’s nor Fiona’s last names are given in the video).

At Ghana’s famous Kantamanto Market they witnessed the “eye-opening” effects on people and the environment. For the local traders who buy and receive fast fashion sent to Ghana from the West, much of what they receive is in such bad shape that they cannot resell it to anyone. This stock ends up in landfills, the sea, and rivers, contaminating drinking water.

A few weeks ago, I got to attend the TYWG Sustainable Fashion Awards, where keynote speaker Renee C Neblett spoke about how this phenomenon has affected the lives of local people. On her first trip to Kokrobitey in more than 30 years ago, Neblett said she thought she had arrived in a “paradise” with the Atlantic Ocean crashing onto pristine beaches and an abundance of sea creatures. There were no corner stores in sight. She had arrived in a small, self-sufficient fishing town. She further explained the subtle but tangible changes to the town’s culture over the years, most notably, the people’s way of life and style of dress.

The latter perhaps seems negligible, but on closer inspection, one realises that the dress of a people holds a lot of history. Changes to it upends cultural norms and local economies when the locals who had previously been the artisans making those clothes can no longer do so.

Fast fashion is a systemic problem that left even delegates at the recent COP27 climate summit with more questions than answers

Thirty years later, all of this is gone. The self-reliance this community once had has been affected by the abundance of waste, which has affected fishermen and their ability to provide for their families. Many, who had been able to live off the land and sea, are now fast-fashion traders. The kind Vestiaire’s Fiona and Oriel say they observed arriving at markets like Kantamanto before sunrise, only to leave after dark, having made close to nothing.

It is a bit of a conundrum — to buy fast fashion or not? The truth is that as much as many of us have become increasingly aware of the many adverse effects of fast fashion on society and the environment, only a few can afford to practise ethicality in their purchases. Sure, you can buy less, buy from second-hand clothing retailers or purchase only custom or luxury fashion, but the effort and cost of these options are some of the biggest hurdles that we are yet to overcome.

Whatever argument one may put forward to support the case that we should stay away from fast fashion, accessibility and price mean it is challenging for many people to move away from it in a way that could be considered substantial.

Some have argued that Vestiaire’s decision does not address the problem. It may lead to even more waste landing up in landfills, the sea and rivers. “Banning fast fashion sends it to landfills sooner,” model and sustainable fashion advocate Scott Staniland said on Instagram.

As Vogue Business and other outlets have reported, fast fashion is a systemic problem that left even delegates at the recent COP27 climate summit with more questions than answers. Whatever anyone may argue, the likes of Vestiaire are doing what they believe may provide solutions — recycling, upcycling and other strategies are all part of what they may consider. Highlighting the real-life consequences is something we need to do more of to bring more people — and ideas — to the table.

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