The Hidden World of Fast Fashion

By Toryn Whitehead

The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well as consuming more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined. If we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, in line with the goal of the Paris Agreement on climate change, we must rapidly transition back to ‘slow’ fashion.

Fast fashion refers to ‘low cost’ clothing that mimics current luxury fashion trends. The production of these clothes relies on cheap labour, frequent consumption and short-lived garment use. Ultimately, this industry is exploiting millions of people in developing countries, promoting environmental degradation, and fuelling climate change. Approximately 90% of ‘fast’ clothes are made from either polyester or cotton. The problem with this is polyester is a synthetic material derived from oil, whilst cotton-based garments require a large amount of water. One pair of denim jeans for example, costs approximately 10,000 litres of water to grow the cotton necessary for production. To put this in context, it would take a person 10 years to drink 10,00 litres of water. Overall, 79 trillion litres of water is consumed every year. This rate of consumption is irresponsible, and it is not sustainable.

Fast fashion encourages consumers to view clothes as disposable, consequently clothes occupy approximately 5% of landfill space. Tomorrow is Black Friday, and every year this ‘tradition’ promotes waste, unsustainable levels of consumption, and a surge in vehicle emissions. Black Friday and fast fashion clearly represent a cultural shift, and this in part due to technological boom of the 21st century. Brands today are increasingly social media and Snapchat tacticians with a direct line to society – particularly to young people. It is simply too easy to ‘swipe up’ and purchase something worn by someone famous you follow and this culture unknowingly perpetuates unsustainable consumption. As yesterday’s fashion trend is thrown in the bin or discarded to the back of the wardrobe, today’s trend become the must buy item or collection. Only for the process to repeat itself until there is nothing left for us to consume.

Low-Middle Income Countries (LMICs) produce a significant portion of the world’s garments and employ 40 million workers around the world. The large majority of these clothes are manufactured in awful conditions by workers who are consistently exploited and put at risk. The health hazards that prompted the creation of labour unions in the United States and the United Kingdom in the early 1900’s have now shifted to work settings in LMICs. In LMICs, reported health outcomes include conditions such as lung disease and cancer, damage to endocrine function, adverse reproductive and foetal outcomes, accidental injuries, overuse injuries and death [1, 2, 3]. Moreover, international disasters such as the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse which killed 1134 Bangladeshi workers are stark reminders of the health hazards faced by garment workers.

Solutions, Innovation and Culture

Consumer Action: As consumers, we must start to be more conscious of the brands we are supporting when we next pop to the shops, since it is evident this industry does not care about the planet or its workers. ASOS offer a collection titled ‘Responsible Edit‘. These product are made from recycled materials, as well as sustainable fibres and fabrics which use less water, produce less waste and are basically ‘better’ for the environment. Although these products represent the best available fast fashion option on the market, they are not always as sustainable as they seem. H&M, one of the biggest producers of fast fashion and generator of an extraordinary number of sustainability initiatives, has run slap bang into the Norwegian Consumer Authority. Set up to police Norway’s Marketing Control Act, the NCA has concluded that H&M’s conscious collection gives consumers the impression that their clothes are more sustainable than they actually are.

‘Slow’ Fashion: We must move away from this disposable culture, and invest in higher quality clothes which have a longer lifetime. This will reduce unsustainable, irresponsible levels of consumption, and in turn help to tackle the mammoth carbon footprint of the fashion industry. Additionally, rather than throw our clothes into landfill, we must encourage a culture of reuse and recycle. Clothes can be donated to charities shops or disposed of via clothes banks. Most charity shops also accept rag bags, full of clothes that cannot be reused such as old socks and damaged goods that are unfit to resell. Charities benefit from this too as they receive money for rag goods if they are clearly labelled and not tossed in with other reusable clothes.

Another avenue, which also offers an opportunity to earn some extra cash, is to sell you clothes on phone apps like Vinted or Depop. On the flip side, buy your clothes from a blend of shops, including charity shops and online second-hand platforms. This extends the lifetime of clothes and you can get a better deal on an item you may have paid more for first-hand.

Industry Action: UN Climate Change, in cooperation with the Italian Ministry of Environment and other partners, regularly hosts an alternative fashion show called the Green Fashion Week. This clearly outlines that the infrastructure for large scale, eco-friendly clothes exists and it is scalable. Another example of how ambition to tackle climate change is growing in the fashion industry is a collaborative initiative called the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. This initiative supports brands transition to sustainable, ‘slow’ fashion and represents the increasing research and work within the industry to lower its carbon footprint and become less wasteful.

We have the technology, infrastructure and solutions. We can no longer redirect responsibility or only focus on the downsides of this necessary transition. The evidence is clear. We are in a fashion industry emergency, at risk of having to explain to future generations that we missed climate targets because we couldn’t resist environmentally, socially destructive clothes advertised during Love Island.

Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves.