Fast fashion sustainability issues we can no longer afford
Updated: Jan 26
Is it worth bargaining your health for a good deal of junk clothes?
This post aims to shed some light on the dangerous implications of unconscious shopping to save our life in a timely (slow) fashion.
Does it sound too big of a statement to you?
Keep scrolling then (or jump to one of the sections below)!
What’s fast fashion in the first place?
Is it a sort of race where who buys more clothes in the least amount of time wins?
It seems ridiculous, but not far off from reality.
I would personally define it as a race where who produces (and sells) more clothes in the least amount of time (and with the least amount of money) wins.
Clearly, fast fashion brands are winning.
Who’s the loser, then?
Everyone else (I’ll explain why further down)!
So, when did fast fashion start? And which fashion brands are fast?
“So, why fast fashion is bad?” you’ll cry.
Brace yourself and keep reading!
The stains on the fast fashion apparel
It’s Saturday afternoon, and finally you’ve got some free time for yourself.
The plan is to go for a walk in the park, but for some reasons you hit the high street.
Maybe it’s an advertisement echoing in your mind, perhaps you just feel bored, or you simply need a pair of new shoes.
Next thing you know you’re in front of a cashier swiping your card and your bag is packed with clothes.
Quick, fair, therapeutic.
But is it really?
Stain #1: the faster, the more unjust
I can’t deny it’s quick. Though quick, in this case, is no good.
The fast fashion retailers’ winning strategy is to ensure a high throughput.
Now, put on your thinking cap. No need to be Einstein to appreciate that, if space (supply chain length) doesn’t change, a higher production speed necessarily means a piece of clothing to be ready in a shorter time.
“Well done, very efficient!” you’ll say.
Don’t speak too soon. Would you work in a sweatshop?
Sounds like a smelly place, right?
But a bad smell would be the least of your problems when working ridiculous overtime for a miserable pay in an unsafe environment!
Although resulting in (an apparently) lower cost for us buyers, the enhanced “efficiency” comes at a higher cost for garment laborers.
As Einstein explained, time is a relative concept. In the fast fashion scenario, a shorter lead time for fast fashion companies reflects into more (low-paid or unpaid) labor hours for textile workers.
And it’s not just about working longer hours.
Many clothing workers reported physical and verbal abuse to a human rights tribunal in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru.
As of 2018, the monthly minimum salary of garment workers in Bangladesh was only 8,000 taka (£73.85), which is well below their living wage. Not being greedy enough, to make more profit the fast fashion industry employs children as well.
Have you ever heard of the butterfly effect? Although it’s not true the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas, minor changes can actually affect the evolution of complex systems.
A similar effect can potentially occur in the fashion world. A 20-cent increase in the Australian retail price for a T-shirt made in India would raise Indian workers’ wage by up to 225%.
Also, does “Rana Plaza” ring any bells?
Rana Plaza was the epitome of a so-called sweatshop. An eight-storey clothes factory in Bangladesh, where workers provided garments for Western brands such as Primark, Benetton, Walmart. The run-down building collapsed in 2013, killing 1,132 people and injuring 2,500 more.
You know what’s even worse?
Before the building crumbled down, workers had flagged cracks in the structure to the management. Nevertheless, they were forced to return to work.
Pope Francis defined the working conditions in the Rana Plaza as "slave labour".
Rana Plaza’s disaster was a milestone in highlighting the covert wrinkles on the fast fashion dress.
Following the accident, the European Parliament issued a briefing, wherein it was acknowledged Asian labourers often work long hours in unsafe working environments, receive low wages, and have no regular contracts.
Over the last years, a series of companies, such as M&S, Next and others, jointly developed the UK programme Fast Forward.
The initiative’s major goal is to identify and prevent workers exploitation in the UK fast fashion industry.
This is definitely a first step, yet probably not enough.
Stain #2: cash is trash
“Ok, that’s unfair, but it’s so cheap to buy fast fashion clothes!” you would argue.
Go beyond the price tag!
You need to consider the environmental issues with fast fashion.
But don't worry as you'll appreciate them once I've shared some fast fashion pollution facts!
Have you ever wondered how come you’re paying peanuts for a piece of clothing made thousands of miles away from where you bought it?
As stated in the UK Parliament’s report Fixing Fashion, the “fast fashion business model is encouraging over-consumption and generating excessive waste”.
A small price on the tag obviously drives up consumption. The trouble is fast fashion retailers have made garments so cheap we now consider them as disposable items.
Globally, as of 2015, 87% of the clothing materials used every year gets lost, landfilled or incinerated.
This is an additional cost we pay, even if our account doesn’t get charged!
Stirred by the Rana Plaza’s tragic events, Andrew Morgan raised a fundamental question in his must watch fast fashion documentary: what’s The True Cost? In this unsettling yet eye-opening movie, Morgan reveals the ethical problems with fast fashion and the enormous invisible waste this industry creates.
“Though fast fashion companies talk about sustainability in their adverts.” someone might say.
True, but pay attention to facts rather than words. Fast fashion brands are the wolf in sheep’s clothing! Don’t let them greenwash you!
Let’s talk about the fast fashion environmental impact by considering a simple T-shirt.
If you check the label, you’ll be able to see which material(s) is made of. There’s a high chance one of those materials will be polyester, which is contained in 60% of our clothing.
“Doesn’t sound good...” I hear you comment.
It’s actually worse than you could possibly imagine. Polyester is a petroleum-derived fiber, in other words plastic! It takes over 200 years to decompose, and nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used each year to meet its global demand.
A polyester shirt has more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt.
Also, plastic microfibers, also called microplastics, shed from our synthetic apparels into the water supply, ending up into the ocean.
As displayed in the enlightening yet disturbing documentary A Plastic Ocean, for fish, seabirds and other marine animals plastic has not only become a poisonous staple but also a deadly trap.
“Hang on a sec. How on Earth are my clothes ending up into the ocean?” you might wonder.
Simple. You do your laundry, right?
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the largest global release (ca. 35%) of primary microplastics in the ocean comes from the washing of synthetic textiles. Based upon a study financed by the European Union, on average, more than 1900 fibres of microplastics can be released by a single synthetic garment during one wash.
Awaiting washing machine filters to upgrade, there are some tools we can use to capture the plastic fibers eroding from our clothes when doing our laundry.
You can put your plastic-containing clothes in a Guppyfriend bag. Alternatively, you can use Rozalia Project’s microfiber-catching laundry ball.
Stain #3: toxic shopping
“Right, I get it. Fast fashion is neither fair nor cheap. Though filling up my closet feels so satisfying!” the most hard-core fast fashion fans might say.
Sorry, but to me that sounds a lot like an addiction. And it’s indeed!
As explained by psychologist Carolyn Mair in her book The Psychology of Fashion, shopping boosts the level of a “feel-good” hormone, i.e. dopamine, in your brain. That means you’re in a good mood for a while, until you want to buy more and more.
Fast fashion can be detrimental not only for consumers’ mental health but also for textile labourers’. For instance, several Indian garment workers committed suicide mostly because of job insecurity and low pay.
What about our body?
Do you still remember microplastics, right?
They don’t hurt only animals.
To be precise, as much as on credit card a week. Perhaps the same card we swipe when frantically buying clothes in one of the fast fashion stores.
Let’s call it “fast fashion food”.
“Yuk!” I can see your disgusted face.
To make it worse, it’s not only revolting but could be dangerous too!
In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) claimed there was no evidence microplastics in drinking water are harmful to human health. However, WHO called for more extensive research on the topic given the limited amount of data available.
A year later, at the Plastic Health Summit, the University Medical Centre (UMC) researchers revealed microplastics are toxic for human immune cells.
On top of that, toxic chemicals cling to microplastics particles, which then end up into our body.
“Then let’s just buy 100% cotton clothing! Problem solved!” someone might suggest.
I would argue on that.
First, cotton is not that eco-friendly, as a single T-shirt requires 2,700 litres of water to be manufactured. Besides wasting loads of water, the intensive non-organic cotton farming dictates the extensive use of pesticides, which adversely affect farmers’ health.
Organic cotton would be a greener alternative, yet, as of 2019, it accounted for only the 0.7% of the global cotton production.
“Let’s all wear good old leather!” someone would exult.
“If nothing less, fast fashion is not causing climate change.” the most optimistic of you could think.
Sorry, not quite correct.
Based on the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates, textile production accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions. And this figure is bound to soar by more than 60% by 2030 according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Fast fashion frantic pace will definitely help achieve this target.
The fashion industry’s huge footprint is mostly due to the production of raw materials like polyester (see above), non-organic cotton and leather, and to the round-the-world trips garments do, like this Zara’s dress (see also giddy image below). Transport-related environmental impact becomes even more significant whenever we carelessly abuse of free online returns.
In short, when indulging into fast fashion shopping we do our part to cause apocalyptic storms, catastrophic floods, prolonged drought, wildfires rage, species extinction.
Oh, forgot to mention. All these unpleasant side-effects can easily kill us!
How can we slow down the fast fashion pandemic?
Ok, by now I hope you would have realized how dangerous fast fashion is and that stuffing your wardrobe with more clothes is unsustainable both for us and for our planet.
“But I still wanna look trendy!” I hear the fashionistas cry.
Don’t despair. You’ve got a bunch of alternatives to fast fashion. Just choose the one(s) fitting you like a glove.
Strip your wardrobe down
Rule no. 1: reduce, reduce, reduce. Give a break to your bulging closet!
Focus on the clothes you’ve already got and take good care of them.
Wash them less often and at a lower temperature, and air dry them if possible. This will also cut down your release of microplastics in the ocean and your energy consumption.
Instead of burning a hole in your pocket, mend the holes in your clothes (DIY or let a tailor do it) rather than just binning them.
The documentary Minimalism, which I highly recommend watching, questions what really matters in life. Our society's materialistic model stimulates us to accumulate things which don’t really add any value to our existence.
Why not starting from our wardrobe to detox from consumerism?
Join Extinction Rebellion Fashion Boycott and buy only secondhand, upcycled or recycled for a year!
Get into the virtuous fashion circle
If being minimal is not your thing, enter the circular fashion world and make your shopping more sustainable.
How does sustainable fashion help the environment?
By shrinking the amount of textile waste fast fashion produces.
For instance, you can buy vintage and second-hand.
Also, if you’ve got clothes you don’t wear anymore for whatever reason, don’t throw them away! Rather, donate them to sustainable fashion charities!
Nowadays we rent a ton of things. Houses, cars, bikes, books. Why not our clothes?
Here are a few companies offering clothes rental services:
Sustainable fashion can also be an excuse to have fun and socialize if you opt for clothes swapping.
Instead of swapping new clothes at Christmas, why not swapping used clothes all year round? It’s cheaper and more eco-friendly!
How does clothes swapping work?
● Start swapping with whom you know. Siblings, friends.
● Use apps like Nuw. Once you’ve subscribed, you can make a list of clothes you wanna give out. In exchange, you will receive virtual credit to “buy” pieces of clothing from other people.
● Visit websites such as Swopped.co.uk. Same concept as the Nuw app.
● Set up your own clothes swap hub. How? Visit this website to find out. Make sure to watch this awesome video too, which will give you an informative and entertaining summary of how clothes swapping can save us and our planet from the fast fashion plague.
Those above are all reusing or recycling practices. Though, if you want to test your creativity, you can play fashion God and give your garments a new life by upcycling them! There are plenty of videos giving you tips on how to refresh your wardrobe without shopping.
Put on green clothes
“Wouldn’t it be boring to wear the same colour over and over again?” I hear you moan.
That’s not what I meant, of course.
Regardless of your favourite colour, if you are desperate for brand new stuff, at least shop from sustainable fashion companies.
Also, try to opt for clothing made of greener materials, such as:
Wear your detective’s hat
Curiosity is the key to knowledge, which is the driver to growth.
Let’s investigate on the journey our clothing has taken to get onto our backs.
How can we do that?
Also, there are some websites which will help you check on fashion brands:
● Eco-age has been actively pushing retailers to adopt an ethical and sustainable fashion model.
● Good On You rates fashion brands based on their sustainability credentials and gives plenty of information on how to shop consciously.
● Join the Fashion revolution and take action to put a brake on fast fashion. This inspiring portal provides loads of resources on how to be more aware of your shopping and to take part in the struggle against fast fashion. For instance, they developed a tool, the Fashion Transparency Index, to see how much information brands share about their suppliers' human rights and environmental objectives.
To wrap up
The fast fashion environmental impact is damaging us and the entire Earth’s ecosystem and must be controlled.
We, as responsible consumers, have to roll up our sleeves and demand transparency and sustainability principles to be applied when manufacturing clothes.