The phrase “fast fashion” has been in the news a lot recently. It is becoming increasingly harder for consumers to love clothes and wear them the same way. The harsh insights into the way the clothing industry produce on-demand clothing and the landfill textile waste of discarded clothes which do not biodegrade. We all love a bargain, but is this at the detriment to the environment? Is zero-waste fashion the answer or can the fast fashion industry ever be sustainable? Is consumer demand shifting towards ethical clothing and sustainable fashion?
What is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion has two meanings in the industry. It is referred to in the sense of the fashion retailer ordering process for seasons. In the fast fashion industry, it is common for the season to be designed and produced in the months before launch. In slow fashion, this is done by working on the seasons well in advance.
In the correct terminology, Fast fashion is essentially the accelerated rate at which trends appear in retail stores, including the approach to design, creation and marketing of the product. Each process is sped up to ensure new trends can be received by consumers as quickly and as cheaply as possible in order to react to high consumer demands. It allows for smaller quantities to be ordered, with repeat orders for high-selling items. This streamlined production means quick design stage and manufacturing and provides for cheap current clothing styles at low prices for the mainstream consumer. And who does want the on-trend styles for a fraction of the price?
This quick and affordable manufacturing philosophy transformed the high street with retailers such as Topshop, New Look, H&M, River Island, Zara, and the ultimate bargain clothing of Primark bringing out cheap items matching current fashion trends. Suddenly online shopping was able to offer the consumer dresses for £15 that they could buy for a night out and leave in the bottom of the wardrobe. It became cheaper to buy new socks rather than wash them.
It also opened up opportunities for big logo bedroom brands like Sik Silk and Scar Tissue Clothing to enter the affordable designer clothing market tailored to the younger generation on the back on Geordie Shore stars influencing. Boohoo and Missguided took it to a whole new level targetting the devoted Love Island crowd, snapping up the Reality stars for exclusive promotions.
What’s Wrong with Fast Fashion?
Although all of the excellent, inexpensive finds might seem easy on your budget, the world is paying a high price for fast fashion purchases. Some brands like Hera and Gym King even purposely make their products so cheaply they don’t last long before needing to be binned, going from influencer to the landfill in record time. The number of clothes bought in the EU between 1996 and 2012 went up by 40%. Sustainable clothing brands usually offer to recycle and build their clothes to last, avoiding landfill. And if your clothes laster, does that also mean better value for money?
Prints, vibrant colours and fabrics are the latest appeal of most fashion garments today, yet so many of these effects are achieved through the use of toxic chemicals. The dyes used to colour such materials is the second largest water polluter globally, not far behind agriculture.
Polyester is the most popular fabric used by fast fashion brands. When these polyester garments are washed in washing machines, tiny microfibres come loose and end up adding to the increasing levels of plastic in our waterways. These microfibres are so small that they easily pass through any water treatment plants and aren’t biodegradable; posing a severe threat to aquatic life.
A 2019 European Parliament report of the textile and clothing industry impact on the environment showed the fashion industry as one of the world’s leading polluters. Clothing accounted for 2%-10% of the environmental impact of EU consumption.
According to the environmental group Extinction Rebellion, it takes 2,720 litres of water to make a T-shirt, the equivalent of 3 years of drinking water. They state the carbon emissions from the fashion industry create 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emission to be the second-largest cause of global greenhouse gas emissions. And modern recycling technology cannot help the fast fashion industry, estimating it would take 12 years to recycle what is created in just 48 hours. Eco friendly clothing aims to manufacture in a more efficient way, with clothes built to last or to recycle the fabrics.
Exploits Overseas Workers
In order to produce clothes so quickly and keep up with a two-week turnover, fast fashion brands subcontract manufacturing overseas to the lowest bidder to countries that have the leanest production costs on earth. Rather than having long term relationships with such countries, fast fashion brands are comfortable with abrupt breakups – so if they want something done faster, the factories have to keep up or lose their contracts.
The non-profit Fashion Revolution state that in Guangdong, China, workers face 150 hours of overtime each month. In Bangladesh, India, garment workers earn a quarter of the living wage, at £44 per month. The Rana Plaza in Bangladesh saw the deadliest garment-related accident in world history when it collapsed in 2013 killing at least 1,132 people and injuring more than 2,500. The price for your garment may be a lot more than on the swing-tag.
The Pressures On!
The fast fashion industry reflects the demand for speed in retail trading. Over the past three years, the movement of styles from fashion shows to consumers has increased by 21%. There has been a noticeable consumer shift to affordable non fast fashion brands.
As the demand for sustainability continues to grow, fast fashion brands have started putting ethical practices in place.
PrettyLittleThing has introduced a clothing range made from recycled materials and fabrics. The popular online womenswear retailer will launch 151 products in the new range, which will include cycling shorts, joggers, crop tops and skirts.
ASOS have created their own vintage line from unusual finds and recycled products, as well as sourcing their favourite items from vintage stores around the world.
Businesses are also beginning to renew their packaging methods to come up with more sustainable choices.
Cosmetic brands have begun thinking about ways they can reduce plastic waste pollution. Biodegradable cosmetic glitter is a popular trend amongst the beauty world this year, particularly as it comes into holiday and festival season. Such glitter is made from cellulose which is entirely compostable and breaks down naturally after use, so you don’t have to worry about holiday back on the sparkle.
What Can Shoppers Do?
There are always ways that shoppers can choose eco-friendly fabrics, but there are pros and cons to different fibre types. Some garments, which are labelled as being made of natural fibres, are not always more beneficial than synthetic fibres, although this only makes up one part of a complex cycle. But affordable ethical clothing is out there, and sustainable materials and ethical manufacturing should not be a wild dream.
When shipping products, companies emit lots of damaging gases into the air and waste natural resources. If you buy products that were made or harvested locally, you can eliminate this issue which will have a significantly positive impact on the environment.
Whenever possible, try to buy products that are in recycled packaging as this will decrease the demand for the production of harmful packaging manufactures.
You can also buy second-hand or pre-loved clothing to help refresh your wardrobe on a budget and help make the fast fashion industry more sustainable.
In a nutshell, the most that shoppers and brands can do is to buy smarter, care and repair items where necessary and keep using our clothing for longer.
- Buy fewer clothes to reduce the carbon footprint from manufacturing and transportation.
- Buy better quality clothes that last longer. Check the stitches and pull the material to see if it retains it’s shape.
- Buy second hand or swap clothing.
- Don’t bin old clothes. Repair or donate them instead.
- Wash your clothes at a colder temperature.