Fast Fashion vs. Food Security

Originally published March 13, 2012

Food security has definitely become a hot topic and with good reason. As I've been reading about the issue for the past year, it dawned on me - the idea of sustainable fashion is starting to enter into the stream of consciousness of mainstream society. Whether people fully understand it or not, most associate natural fibres with environmental friendliness. Even if you don't take into consideration the influx of sustainable fashion, natural fibres have become quite popular in the past 20 years; there has been a steady increase in demand especially for cotton. Natural fibres are generally associated as more luxurious than their petroleum based counterparts such as the ever popular polyester (where the 60's & 70's did not help its reputation). 

So the luxury association coupled with decreased costs in manufacturing due to exploitation of labour in developing nations, has not only allowed the industry to democratize fashion but it has been able to democratize luxury fibres as well. I can't be the only who's noticed that everything now has 5% cashmere added to it for that extra softness and allure. Since most of these fibres are grown in developing nations and there has been an increased consumer demand that has lead many farmers to switch from food crops to fibre crops. 2011 saw the highest cotton prices to date enticing farmers across the globe to cash in on this, well new cash crop. We all know how supply and demand functions - 2012 will see a surplus of cotton causing prices to crash. Good for the fashion capitalist creators, not so good for the farmers, not so good for food security. 


While food security is not an immediate threat to those of us lucky enough to live in the Western world it is an unfortunate reality for many in developing nations. Not only are they the farmers who are losing land to fibre (trying to make some sort of living). If there is not enough food produced, well, somebody's not eating. These nations are also not big importers of food as they are usually the producers. Also, if crops fail (both fibre and food), there is no income, no income - no food. It's a pickle all right.


The other consideration that seems to often get swept under the rug - burgeoning economies and middle class expansion in nations such as India and China. The more the citizens of these countries get a taste for fashion, the more they want to take part in it too, and who can blame them. Fashion is all about the allure and glamour. That's what made it into this lustful trillion dollar industry. The question is, how are we going to fashion all these people?? The planet already has more acres dedicated to fibre crops than food crops. Not to mention food crops like corn and soy are being used to make eco-textiles for fashion. It's taking the whole 'starving for fashion' saying maybe a little too far. 


The US, China and India alone account for more than 50 million acres or 42% of all agricultural arable land ( never mind other major regions like Africa and South America) while global food crops only come in at 40 million acres. And then there's the biofuels, what about land for biofuels?? Currently it stands at about 32 million acres. Then we have to find room for the ever increasing global population. It's amazing, fashion right now is beating out food, fuel and living space for people. 


Maybe this will be the slow death of cheap fast fashion. Fashion retailers will only be able to undercut so far before cost increases for fibres will translate to the consumer. Truth is, we really don't pay the true cost of our clothes in the first place. Once we do have to start paying true costs, maybe we'll think a little bit more about what and how much we buy. Iggy Pop said it well, 'lust for life'

anika kozlowski