Clothing retailers like Zara, Forever 21, and H&M make cheap and fashionable clothing to satisfy the needs of young consumers. Yet, fast fashion has a significant environmental impact. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for about 10% of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Unfortunately, fast fashion problems are often overlooked by consumers.
What is Fast Fashion?
The term ‘fast fashion’ has become more prominent in conversations surrounding fashion, sustainability, and environmental consciousness. The term refers to ‘cheaply produced and priced garments that copy the latest catwalk styles and get pumped quickly through stores in order to maximise on current trends’.
The fast fashion model is so-called because it involves the rapid design, production, distribution, and marketing of clothing, which means that retailers are able to pull large quantities of greater product variety and allow consumers to get more fashion and product differentiation at a low price.
The term was first used at the beginning of the 1990s, when when Zara landed in New York. “Fast fashion” was coined by the New York Times to describe Zara’s mission to take only 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores. The biggest players in the fast fashion world include Zara, UNIQLO, Forever 21 and H&M.
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The Dark Side of Fast Fashion
According to an analysis by Business Insider, fashion production comprises 10% of total global carbon emissions, as much as the European Union. It dries up water sources and pollutes rivers and streams, while 85% of all textiles go to dumps each year. Even washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibres into the ocean each year, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.
The Quantis International 2018 report found that the three main drivers of the industry’s global pollution impacts are dyeing and finishing (36%), yarn preparation (28%) and fibre production (15%). The report also established that fibre production has the largest impact on freshwater withdrawal (water diverted or withdrawn from a surface water or groundwater source) and ecosystem quality due to cotton cultivation, while the dyeing and finishing, yarn preparation and fibre production stages have the highest impacts on resource depletion, due to the energy-intensive processes based on fossil fuel energy.
According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, emissions from textile manufacturing alone are projected to skyrocket by 60% by 2030.
The time it takes for a product to go through the supply chain, from design to purchase, is called a ‘lead time’. In 2012, Zara was able to design, produce and deliver a new garment in two weeks; Forever 21 in six weeks and H&M in eight weeks. This results in the fashion industry producing obscene amounts of waste.
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Fast Fashion and Its Environmental Impact
The environmental impact of fast fashion comprises the depletion of non-renewable sources, emission of greenhouse gases and the use of massive amounts of water and energy. The fashion industry is the second largest consumer industry of water, requiring about 700 gallons to produce one cotton shirt and 2 000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans. Business Insider also cautions that textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water, since the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams or rivers.
Furthermore, brands use synthetic fibres like polyester, nylon and acrylic which take hundreds of years to biodegrade. A 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics – tiny pieces of non-biodegradable plastic – in the ocean come from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester.
According to the documentary released in 2015, The True Cost, the world consumes around 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year, 400% more than the consumption twenty years ago. The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year. The production of leather requires large amounts of feed, land, water and fossil fuels to raise livestock, while the tanning process is among the most toxic in all of the fashion supply chain because the chemicals used to tan leather- including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives and various oils and dyes- is not biodegradable and contaminates water sources.
The production of making plastic fibres into textiles is an energy-intensive process that requires large amounts of petroleum and releases volatile particulate matter and acids like hydrogen chloride. Additionally, cotton, which is in a large amount of fast fashion products, is also not environmentally friendly to manufacture. Pesticides deemed necessary for the growth of cotton presents health risks to farmers.
To counter this waste caused by fast fashion, more sustainable fabrics that can be used in clothing include wild silk, organic cotton, linen, hemp and lyocell.
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The Social Impacts of Fast Fashion
Fast fashion does not only have a huge environmental impact. In fact, the industry also poses societal problems, especially in developing economies. According to non-profit Remake, 80% of apparel is made by young women between the ages of 18 and 24. A 2018 US Department of Labor report found evidence of forced and child labour in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam and others. Rapid production means that sales and profits supersede human welfare.
In 2013, an eight-floor factory building that housed several garment factories collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1 134 workers and injuring more than 2,500. In her project, An Analysis of the Fast Fashion Industry, Annie Radner Linden suggests that ‘the garment industry has always been a low-capital and labour intensive industry’.
In her book, No Logo, Naomi Klein argues that developing nations are viable for garment industries due to ‘cheap labour, vast tax breaks, and lenient laws and regulations’. According to The True Cost, one in six people work in some part of the global fashion industry, making it the most labour-dependent industry. These developing nations also rarely follow environmental regulations; China, for example, is a major producer of fast fashion but is notorious for land degradation and air and water pollution.
Is Slow Fashion the Solution?
Slow fashion is the widespread reaction to fast fashion and its environmental impact, the argument for hitting the brakes on excessive production, overcomplicated supply chains, and mindless consumption. It advocates for manufacturing that respects people, the environment and animals.
The World Resources Institute suggests that companies need to design, test and invest in business models that reuse clothes and maximise their useful life. The UN has launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion to address the damages caused by fast fashion. It is seeking to ‘halt the environmentally and socially destructive practices of fashion’.
One way that shoppers are reducing their consumption of fast fashion is by buying from secondhand sellers like ThredUp Inc. and Poshmark, both based in California, USA; shoppers send their unwanted clothes to these websites and people buy those clothes at a lower price than the original. Another solution is renting clothes, like the US-based Rent the Runway and Gwynnie Bee, the UK based Girl Meets Dress, and the Dutch firm Mud Jeans that leases organic jeans which can be kept, swapped or returned.
Other retailers like Adidas are experimenting with personalised gear to cut down on returns, increase customer satisfaction and reduce inventory. Ralph Lauren has announced that it will use 100% sustainably-sourced key materials by 2025.
Governments need to be more actively involved in the fashion industry’s damaging effects. UK ministers rejected a report by members of parliament to address the environmental effects of fast fashion. On the other hand, French president, Emmanuel Macron has made a pact with 150 brands to make the fashion industry more sustainable.
The best advice on reducing the environmental impact of fast fashion comes from Patsy Perry, senior lecturer in fashion marketing at the University of Manchester, who says, “Less is always more.”
Featured image by EO Photographer Chin Leong Teo
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What Can I Do?
1. On A Personal Level
Ways to approach climate action within our personal lives (hint – it evolves personal action but is not focused on small behavioural changes, which whilst worthwhile will not get us there):
- Joining a community can be one of the best ways to increase your impact.
- First, it can enable you to make hundreds of connections in one go.
- Second, a group of people working together can have more impact than individuals. If you are not already, take action by becoming an EO Member to support our mission to encourage a billion climate activists.
- If you’re a younger read ask your parents to take action by bringing your whole family on board as a Family Member.
- Reflect on the concept of Effective Altruism, a project that aims to find the best ways to help others, and put them into practice.
2. On A Professional Level
Ways to approach climate action within the workplace:
- Maintain your career path but consider donating a portion of your income to organisations that are focused on achieving meaningful & impactful goals and call out your boss if the company or organisation you work for does not have clear policies that will result in reduced harm to the environment and a pathway to Net Zero.
- Ask your boss to support EO by bringing the whole team onboard with EO company membership – and take action together.
- Reconsider your career path, with excellent advice here.
3. On A Political Level
Ways to approach climate action as a voter or political actor (even if you can’t vote):
- Protest – make your feelings known – become a vocal and passionate advocate with friends and family (without being over pushy) of the need for climate action. We need a billion activists to turn this ship around.
- Join organisations that are organising climate actions and protests locally, whether in your city, district, or even at school.
- Vote (if you can) for politicians who will champion effective climate action by governments.
- Vote for parties or organisations that espouse self-reform and the adoption of ‘Ministers of the Future’ into government.
Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas
The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth L. Cline