Fast fashion is a multifaceted problem that not only threatens the environment, but also poses ethical concerns. As the global community starts moving towards a more sustainable approach in all aspects of life, the clothing industry appears to be following suit with consumers leading the charge. We take a look at some sustainable alternatives to fast fashion. 

What’s Wrong with Fast Fashion?

The amount of resources required and waste produced by the fashion industry is inarguably massive. According to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water that generates roughly 20% of the world’s wastewater. The industry is also responsible for a massive 8 to 10% of global carbon emissions, which is more than maritime shipping and international flights combined.

Part of these emissions come from unsustainably grown and harvested cotton— from the irrigation water required for irrigation to oil-based pesticides and machinery used for harvesting. According to the estimates published by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, fashion industry emissions are expected to increase by 60% by 2030.

On top of that are emissions generated from transportation of these products all over the world as well as the fact that so much of it ends up being thrown out as people try to keep up with trends.

According to the study by researchers at Finland’s Aalto University, the textile industry produces more than 92 million tonnes of waste per year globally, while the Global Fashion Agenda forecasts that by 2030, a figure that will skyrocket to 148 million tonnes per year.

Kirsi Niinimäki and other authors of the Finish study have concluded that slow fashion is the solution to this alarming problem. However, they have also emphasised that it takes the consolidated effort of all stakeholders, from designers and manufacturers to end consumers, to ensure this new framework is effective and sustainable in the long term.

On the workforce level, the fast fashion industry also raises ethical concerns related to the workers’ rights to a fair living wage and safe working conditions.

When a shirt costs just $2 to make, it is almost certain that the people engaged are exploited and underpaid, and such production is guaranteed not to be environmentally friendly as well. 

As society has begun to take stock of the problems that fast fashion poses, more clothing brands and consumers are seeking sustainable alternatives to fast fashion offerings. 

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Alternatives to Fast Fashion: What is Sustainable Fashion?

In simple terms, sustainable fashion refers to clothing produced with social, economic and environmental factors kept in mind. This includes fair wages to the workers throughout the supply chain, providing safe and healthy working conditions, and monitoring the environmental impacts of the products made.

These alternatives to fast fashion can look like sourcing and using materials that are grown and harvested in a sustainable way, produced with fewer resources with less toxic materials, and minimising the carbon footprint of a product.

The term “sustainable fashion” is sometimes interchangeably used with other terms like “ethical fashion” or “eco fashion”, with the latter bringing the environmental aspect to the forefront.

In an interview published by Vox, Dana Thomas, the author of Fashionopolis has emphasised that the onus for a real shift to take hold in the way we consume fashion today lies with consumers pushing brands to make effective and sustained choices.

 “So for shifts to happen, it has to be really strong-minded changemakers like Stella McCartney poking people with a stick, it has to be economically viable, or it has to be put down in law. But it’s on the brands,” Thomas explains.

“And the poking can come from consumers; it can be something as simple as a boycott – ‘We’re not going to buy this stuff anymore, this stuff is terrible, change it up.’ Look how quickly we got rid of plastic straws. It shows that consumers can push brand new companies and businesses to change very fast if we put our minds to it.”

What Can You Do as a Consumer?

Whether you’re an avid fashionista or just treat clothing functionally, there are several things you can do as a consumer to help steer the fashion industry towards a more ethical and environmentally friendly model. In short, give up fast fashion for sustainable fashion instead.

One of the ways to do this is to be aware of where your clothes come from. A quick and easy step is to start shopping for clothes from brands that use sustainable materials like ethically grown and harvested natural materials, reclaimed fabric or even recycled materials.

Pact is a Colorado company that sells clothing made out of certified organic and fair trade cotton, ensuring that the entire supply chain is as sustainable as possible. In fact, the company also reuses old clothing to create many of its garments, ultimately reducing the amount of textile waste that ends up in landfills. Other brands like H&M and Nike have also released lines of clothing and footwear made from recycled materials. Though H&M is still very much a fast fashion brand, it has taken steps towards becoming more sustainable.

Another great indicator of whether a clothing brand is actually sustainable is to look out for certifications from third party organisations like Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which sets a global standard for organic textiles, or Fairtrade, which is an internationally recognised and trusted label for sustainability.

Brands that are certified by these organisations are generally proud of the fact and would showcase those certifications, telling consumers that they have adopted a sustainable model. A quick check on a brand’s website or social media will show you all you need to know.

On that note, a brand’s transparency about where they source their materials, where the products are made, and who makes them also clearly indicates that their sustainability claims are credible. The importance of a clothing brand’s transparency in regards to their supply chains cannot be understated.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of companies out there that are greenwashing their brands to appear sustainable and eco-friendly, when it is often not the case. A quick check of their certifications and claims is a simple way to figure out where a brand stands on the sustainability scale.

For example, Everlane openly shares the production costs of each item and states where their products are made. The brand has cultivated strong relationships with the factories to ensure that the HR and production processes are up to their high ethical standards.

Moving on, one of the many other alternatives to fast fashion is to adhere to the slow fashion approach. Suggesting a solution to our overconsumption of clothes, Fee Gilfeather, sustainable fashion expert at the Oxfam charity, said to BBC: “Secondhand clothing is giving clothes a second life and it’s slowing down that fast-fashion cycle.”

As mentioned, fast fashion thrives on the rapid trend cycles, coming up with new collections on a weekly basis and relying on consumers, who keep purchasing new items with the intention of throwing them out or donating after just a few wears. In fact, this has become the norm to a point that clothing is made with poorer quality that is not meant to last long, necessitating regular purchase of newer items to replace the ones that wear out quickly.

On the contrary, slow fashion is about buying clothes that are meant to last and using them for a long time. This also includes buying second-hand or pre-used clothing, which essentially extends the product lifecycle, therefore reducing its overall carbon footprint.

Another useful approach to extending a garment’s lifecycle would be to mend old clothes instead of replacing it because of a broken zip or a torn seam. There are even brands that have adopted this philosophy.

Patagonia charges a small fee from its customers to repair their clothing instead of making them buy new ones, while Red Wing Boots offer resoling and re-stitching services to breathe new life into worn out footwear.

As a consumer, there are many alternatives to fast fashion but more importantly, consumers have the power to create lasting and meaningful shifts in the fashion industry – moving it from the nightmarish fast fashion to a sustainable and ethical model through more conscious choices about how and where you shop. With joint effort, the fast fashion problem can be overcome.