Firstly, let’s start with - what is fast fashion? It’s when brands churn out high quantities of clothing at an unnecessary and alarming speed for very low retail prices. This way, trends from fashion weeks across the globe can be replicated and arrive in store within a matter of weeks at an affordable price, instead of the usual six-month wait and high price tag. It is long reported that Zara delivers new items twice weekly to stores and can expedite the development of a product so that it only takes 15 days to go from design to shop floor.
To achieve attractive, rock-bottom prices, brands look to reduce the cost of the garment through a number of ways including cheaper labour or using cheap fabrics such as acrylic. We are now so used to these prices that it’s difficult to know how much a t-shirt should cost if every part of the manufacturing process was fair and green. According to a recent survey from McKinsey two-thirds of consumers said it was important to limit climate change and 88% want to see a reduction in pollution while 57% have made changes to lessen their own impact. So, things are changing, but it’s not an easy challenge to sort the green from the greenwashing. There are big brands who over promote their sustainability initiatives to score points without incorporating real systemic change into their total supply chains or embedding sustainability into their full collections.
If you’re thinking about breaking up with fast fashion here are some of the reasons why you should and for good.
Fast Fashion Impacts the environment
It is estimated that every year the fashion industry produces around 10% of the global green-house gas emissions. According to Dana Thomas in her book Fashionopolis, consumers are snapping up a staggering 80 billion items of clothing every year globally. Fast fashion is produced quickly with lesser quality fabrics meaning they’re more likely to pill, fade or maybe even fall apart after a few washes. This, along with the conveyor belt of new arrivals and trends into stores, feeds a throw-away culture with 85% of textile waste in the US discarded. It’s not only used clothing and shoes that ends up in landfill, it’s estimated that products returned by online shoppers make up 5 billion pounds of waste each year. Not all of these items thrown away are faulty or damaged. In some cases it’s reported the price of the product is so cheap it’s not worth the effort to process and get it back for sale. Valuable resources are wasted without ever being used.
Water & Microplastics
It’s not just carbon emissions that wreak havoc on the environment, fashion is also a huge consumer of water. It’s estimated that up to 2,700 litres of water is used to produce a single cotton t-shirt. On top of this water usage, the UN estimates that 80-90% of wastewater is untreated when returned to the environment. Water is also heavily polluted with microfibres. Approximately 60% of garments are made with synthetic, fossil fuel-based fabrics such nylon, polyester and acrylic. These fabrics are cheap and are a go-to for fast fashion brands. Every time clothing made with these materials is washed, microfibres are shed and seep into the water system. Some studies have shown approximately 700,000 fibres can come off these types of fabrics in a single wash. Microfibres are so pervasive they’ve even been discovered in the deepest parts of the ocean, in the Mariana Trench. 84% of microfibres found there by researchers originated from synthetic clothing. These fabrics are ubiquitous and can be difficult to avoid, whether already in our wardrobes, or if we’re buying an item new or second-hand. While we need the industry and governments to tackle the expanse of this issue either for example through new technologies that mitigate shedding or improved waste systems, there are still some ways we can limit our impact. We can opt for natural fibres when we can. If that’s not possible relooking at how often we need to wash our clothes and reducing the frequency can help. This can also extend the life of our clothes in general. When it is time for a laundry load washing garments made from any synthetic fabrics in a Guppyfriend bag can help to prevent these microfibres from escaping into the water system.
Fast Fashion exploits Workers
While improvement has been seen following the outcry for better conditions and a safer supply chain in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, there is still more needed. According to Labour Behind The Label, there are still workers in garment factories at risk of losing their lives. Workers can be confronted with a range of dangers from fires and use of hazardous chemicals to long term injuries such as back pain or respiratory problems among others. There can also be a lack of transparency around how brands negotiate pricing with suppliers or what percentage of each garment price goes into the production of it. The race to offer the consumer the lowest price possible drives the cost of the garment down. This devaluing of a product creates a snowball effect where it’s now expected that a t-shirt should only cost €5. But, if an item of clothing is priced that low someone somewhere is paying the true cost. It has been reported that 2% of workers making our clothes earn a fair living wage.
Then there is the issue of sales. McKinsey estimates that only 60% of garments are currently sold without markdown. This is a lot of clothing left over to be sold at a slashed price. Brands need to account for this within their starting margins, pushing already low costs even lower.
While systemic change must come from within the fashion industry, we can look into ways of reducing our individual impact. A good place to start is checking our shopping habits and before buying an item question if we really need it or try a no-buy challenge altogether. By taking the time to dig into the depths of our own wardrobes we might rediscover some gems that are almost certainly hiding in the back. Wrap UK suggests that by keeping our clothes in use for an extra nine months we could reduce their footprint by 20-30%. We can change our laundry habits by lowering the temperature we wash our clothes at or give up tumble drying which can help keep garments looking newer for longer. Lastly, shop from labels who have committed to sustainability since their inception and have ethical practices at the core of their brand.
Thomas, Dana, Fashionopolis, 2019, Page 3