What is fast fashion?
The term “fast fashion” refers to the speed with which a design, trend, or idea goes is from being in, to being out of fashion. It is generally a term that embodies the pace with which designs move from the idea stage to products in a store, in fast fashion this happens in less than 30 days – in today’s widespread fashion industry it all moves incredibly fast. The term also refers to cheap clothing, as the low cost is one of the reasons why the fashion industry is able to move so fast. So what brands are fast fashion? Well, most of them. As in, most chains shops and bigger brands that you can think of. If it is in a mall, it is probably fast fashion, if they have shops all over the globe, then it’s probably fast fashion, if you watch a good ol’ fashion haul on YouTube (aka not my thrift hauls lol), then the brands are often fast fashion. It is a big issue, also for a video, because the brands that qualify as fast fashion are all around us. And for a lot of people, it is the only available way of buying clothes. However, this relatively cheap, so widely available, way of consuming clothes comes with an impact, and it is in no way, shape, or from small.
also check out: THE IMPACT SERIES, click here to go to the playlist
I would also like to point out before moving forward, that this video is not meant to shame anyone whose only option is to purchase cheap clothing. I am not here to do that. I am here before overconsumption of goods, especially in rich Western countries, like my own, has to be addressed. I speak from my own position of privilege, and I would like to acknowledge that before moving forward. Although the fast fashion industry, to a large extend, caters to people in my demographic, and with my privilege (lol which is why I choose to speak up) other consumers of the industry do not have any other choice. I would like for us to take a moment and agree upon the salient difference between “need” and “want, between “necessity” and “hyper-consumerism”, because this video is not a critique of buying what you need – but more so how the industry has gradually nudged consumers to buy so much more than that. Ok? Ok.
Environmental impact: The clothing industry is among the five biggest polluters in the world (fossil fuels being number one and animal agriculture being number two.) The fashion industry produces 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply. This is perhaps because one cotton shirt takes 2700 liters of water to make, and the world consumes about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year. That is 400% more than the amount we consumed 20 years ago. One of the reasons why is because fast fashion brands produce new seasons and collections of clothing all the time. While some brands put out between 15 and 25 new collections a year, others produce 50. And this fast-paced exchange of styles has contributed to the short-lived lifespans of trends. It is the artificial and constructed idea that clothes can be “untrendy”, and it is achieved to make consumers feel forced to update themselves to keep up. It is truly an industry that has created a problem, and then simultaneously created a solution for us to consume.
Cotton is still the single most used material for clothing, although the use of several synthetic materials is collective bigger. So let’s talk about both. Actually, I already have a full impact video about cotton specifically, so I am just going to say this: Cotton production is the biggest consumer of pesticides and insecticides in the world. They are responsible for 18% of the global pesticide use, and 25% of the total insecticide use. Synthetic materials are often made from plastic, aka based on crude oil, so directly related to the most polluting industry on the planet. Producing polyester actually requires much less water and land than cotton, there is less wastewater and no need for pesticides either. However, in 2015, polyester produced for clothing emitted 282 billion kg of CO 2 – nearly three times more than for cotton, because the energy required to produce polyester (125 MJ of energy per kilogram produced) and the greenhouse gas emitted (14.2 kg of CO 2 per kilogram produced) make it a high-impact process. In 2015, more than 330 million barrels of oil were used to make polyester and other synthetic textiles – the equivalent of more than 21,000 Olympic swimming pools, which is a weird comparison but surely puts it into perspective.
In terms of trash, the production, shipping, and displaying new clothes also come with a lot of plastic waste, some of which quite hidden from the consumer. When clothes are shipping from the factory to the store, which individual piece arrives in its own plastic bag, which is discarded before the clothes head out into the shops. Furthermore, the impact of disposables hangers is also something to consider. Each individual new pieces of clothes are also shipped with its own plastic hanger, and when the clothes are unpacked at the store, those hangers get tossed. As a result, 85 billion hangers are trashed every year, in volume, that’s the equivalent of dumping 294 Big Bens into landfills. Again odd comparison..
I would like to talk more about water because the fashion industry has a huge impact on the world’s water supply. Now only 3% of the world’s water is drinkable, however, 2/3 of that is frozen and inaccessible. This leaves the world with only 1% of our water drinkable and accessible, and the fast fashion industry is polluting it. The documentary Rive Blue did a brilliant job uncovering the extent to which the fashion industry is destroying water, they actually called it “hydrocide”. That’s because the fast fashion factories have no wastewater management, and flood toxic chemicals out into people freshwater supply through anonymous pipe systems that can never be led back to them. The fashion industry uses a ton of chemicals and dyes to give the clothing the right look. These dyes are flushed out into rivers, oceans, and lakes, and as result harming plants, fish, and humans.
Human rights: But it is not just the environment who are suffering the consequences of the fashion industry, people are as well. To keep production costs down fast fashion has outsourced their production of clothing to areas and countries affected by poverty, and where wages are generally lower. The most common are China, India, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. The industry is notorious for its sweatshops. A sweatshop is a factory where workers are paid very low wages and are working in very poor, and often dangerous working conditions. In 2013 the building known as the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, a factory used by several fast-fashion clothing brands, collapsed and killed 1134 people. There are many other instances where workplaces have malfunctioned or collapsed, primarily because of poor construction, lack of regulation, and falsified building permissions.
also check out: 10 ADVANCED ZERO WASTE TIPS // important & non-basic swaps
The fast fashion industry is also notorious for forced labour, and forced child labour. The average wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is $25 a month, while the average living costs are far more, workers are not paid enough to provide shelter, education, and food for their families. To put it into perspective, in four days a fast fashion CEO earns a garment worker’s lifetime pay. Only 2% of fashion workers around the world are paid a livable salary. Workers at some factories work up to 140 hours of overtime each month, working until 2 am, they are not additionally compensated for overtime, or provided with healthcare. These workers are some of the lowest-paid workers in the world, and there are roughly 40 million of them. Moreover, the majority of garment workers are women, about 85%. Furthermore, sexual assault, discrimination, and sexually humiliating punishments are not uncommon in sweatshops, and socio-economic structures in place in these areas where fast fashion brands have built their factories make it intensely difficult for garment workers to fight for their rights, to quit or to discuss salary or work hours. To put this into perspective, the CEO’s of fast fashion companies have made billions of dollars of selling cheaply made clothes, much more than we realistically need, and that no only harms the environment but also actively keeps garment workers in a state of modern slavery. Current side note: because of Covid lots of brands have postponed the payment of their workers completely, this started back in March and is still going on, and all in all, just shows the priorities of these companies.
This part is going to focus on the impact of clothes once we have bought it, thus the impact of clothes not from the brands, but from how consumers use their clothes today. One of the things that come to mind is laundry. Because such a large part of your clothing today contains synthetic materials, it releases microplastic every time we wash it. Every time we do laundry, an average of 9 million microfibers are released into the wastewater treatment plants, and not all of them are filtered. Microplastic particles are estimated to make up 31% of plastic ocean pollution, although it does not exclusively come from clothing. Furthermore, using an electric dryer can actually double the carbon footprint of a laundry load.
Here I would also love to talk some more about trends. The documentary The True Cost, which I recommend everyone to watch, puts it so brilliantly by pointing out that it has never been the consumers demand that has turned the fashion industry into one of the most polluting and wasteful industries in the world – the industry itself has nudged consumers into gradually buying more and more, by constantly renewing styles and producing new trends faster and faster. It is not something that has happened overnight, but if you look at the consumption of clothing 20 years ago and now, you’ll see that our consumption of clothes has massively increased.
Then there is clothing maintenance. One of the reasons why we bought so much less clothing in the past, is because previously, repairs were much more normalized. Before the age of fast fashion clothing was often more expensive, but the materials lasted much longer, and because clothes were not as readily available as they are today, we fixed them when they broke. Even socks and underwear with holes or tears were fixed. And pursuing a more sustainable consumption of clothes means learning these traits, and prioritizing repairs. Today, clothes are almost never repaired. It is so cheap and easy to purchase new clothes that a large part of the population is able to do so. As a result, clothes have become disposable, and combined with cheap and poor quality, tons of clothes do not last two seasons before they are discarded. And what happens to the clothes we throw away?
The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year. That adds up to more than 11 million tons of textile waste from the U.S. alone. Historically, clothing has been something we have held onto for a long time, but with cheap clothing now abundantly available we are beginning to see the things we wear as disposable. In total, up to 85% of textiles end up in landfills each year. That’s enough to fill the Sydney harbor annually. While a mere 20% of garments ending up in the recycling system. In landfills, the clothes won’t ever decompose, because more garbage is piled on top, making decomposition impossible because there is no air. Instead, the garbage will slowly start to release methane. Then there are recycling scams, like the one promoted by H&M where they exchange your old clothing for gift vouchers with the promise that they’ll be recycled, however, H&M own sustainability department estimated that 30-35% of the clothes they collected ends up being recycled, other sources say it’s below 1%. This difference might be because H&M sends most wearable clothes to charity shops.
So clothes that get donated to charity shops, they are not wasted, right? Ehm… With the rise of fast fashion, more clothes are bought, worn, and discarded super-fast, and a lot of clothes are being donated to thrift shops and charity shops, much more than they can handle. Therefore, a lot of clothes still end up being discarded, even when donated to thrift shops. This might also be because clothes of bad quality do not last long, and simply cannot be resold. So yeah, still landfill.
What to do about it?
So there nothing we can do to break this cycle? Well of course there are things the individual consumer can do, but the change in the fashion industry is likely to not only come from consumers, but also through regulation, certification, and policies that ensure the safety for both the environment and the people producing our clothes. That being said there things we can do to create more sustainable fashion habits.
- By doubling the life of clothing from one to two years, we can help reduce emissions from clothing production and disposal by as much as 24%.
- Boycott the big fast fashion brands, and communicate to the brands that you want them to change
- Support ethical and sustainable brands that build up communities rather than exploit them
- Use what you already own, and repair your clothes when it breaks
- Support causes and charities that fight for garment workers’ rights – like War on Want
- Engage in online campaigns like #PayUp to put pressure on brands to pay their workers
- Acknowledge your role as a consumer, and talk to people around you about fast fashion
- Shop second hand, vintage or pre-loved
- Avoid trends, or interpret them without buying new
- Invest in timeless and good quality pieces that can be repaired and can last for many years
- Arrange clothing swaps with friends or family to avoid buying new