How Fast Fashion is Destroying the Planet

IlaydaBy IlaydaApril 17, 2020

In the fashion marketplace, the retailers are taking every possible means to increase sales, and through fast fashion at ever shorter intervals, the clothing business is following a disposable culture. Today, the majority of clothing is produced under this paradigm of fast fashion, with items so cheap to become single-use purchases. Every year, the fashion industry, one of the most profitable but also one of the most polluting in the world, produces hundreds of billions of garments. It requires enormous amounts of raw materials, leaves a significant carbon footprint, and generates an alarming amount of waste. According to the WWF, 20,000 liters of water are needed to produce one kilogram of cotton. 

Fast fashion is produced at the expense of the environment, climate, and human rights. It’s crystal clear that something needs to change. But where to start in a complex and globalized industry? Who are the key stakeholders and how can they contribute to a transformation of the fashion industry?

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion is characterized by the transformation of the trendy design into articles that can be bought by the mass. The concept of fast fashion originated in the 19th century and started to become fast during the industrial revolution. With the first introduction of factories equipped with new textile machines and the idea of ready-made garments, the manufacture in bulk in different sizes and colors rather than custom-made to order. In the 1960s, the fast fashion business model as we know it slowly took shape: young consumers started to prefer cheaply-made, trendy apparel rather than the classic, outdated sartorial tradition of their parents. Being dressed in cheap clothes became not only acceptable but also desirable. Quoting the New York Times “Chic to pay less” shows how fast and especially cheap fashion became more and more popular. The fashion industry aims to attract customers into stores as frequently as possible to increase the frequency that they purchase a fashionable style. Textiles and clothing play an important role in anyone’s everyday life and represent a valuable sector within the global economy. In the last fifteen years, production has almost doubled. Due both to the growing expansion of the middle-classes and to the increased level of sales per capita concerning developed economies. Overall, fast fashion has four key components;

1. Quick response policy intended to reduce lead times to better match consumers’ volatile demand and retailers’ supply;

2. Ever-changing assortment with newer products being released at ever shorter intervals;

3. Items’ ever shorter life span;

4. Enhanced product design capable to fit market needs and fashion trends at once.

The consequences of fast fashion

Large quantities of non-renewable resources are employed to produce garments that are often worn a few times before ending up in the environment, incineration, or landfills. Some estimations report that more than half of fast fashion production is thrown away in less than a year. According to Drew and Reichart (2019),

[…] one garbage truck of clothes is burned or sent to landfills every second […] discarded clothing made of non-biodegradable fabrics can sit in landfills for up to 200 years.

It largely depends on non-renewable resources and substances such as oil, fertilizers, and chemicals, which in many cases contaminate the environment and causes health diseases to factory workers, farmers, and local residents. For example, 20% of industrial water pollution worldwide is due to textile processing and dyeing. It employs on average 93 billion cubic meters of water per year, which exacerbates problems related to water scarcity in those regions already affected by the issue and bears a large share of the responsibility for micro-plastic pollution. Approximately half a million tonnes of plastic microfibers end up in the ocean every year after washing garments made of polyester, nylon, or acrylic. Fast fashion is combined with poor working conditions, low wages, and unpaid overtime, with evidence, in some cases, of modern slavery and child labor.

How fast fashion can be sustainable – Stakeholder perspective

Fashion Industry

Regulatory and certification organizations such as Fair Trade America and the National Council of Textiles Organization provide assessment and auditing tools for fair trade and production standards. While some companies choose to be certified in one or more of these independent accreditation programs, others are involved in the “greenwashing” process. By exploiting the emotional appeal of environmentally friendly and fairly traded goods, companies market their products as “green” without adhering to any criteria. To counter these practices, industry-wide internationally recognized certification criteria should be adopted to promote environmentally friendly practices that support health and safety throughout the supply chain.

Politics and Authorities

While fair trade companies can try to compete with fast fashion retailers, the markets for fair trade and environmentally friendly textile manufacturing remain small, and ethically and environmentally sound supply chains are difficult and expensive to audit. High-income countries can promote workplace safety and environmental health through trade policies and regulations. Although occupational safety and environmental regulations are often only enforceable within a country’s borders, there are several ways in which policymakers can mitigate the global environmental health risks associated with fast fashion. For example, the United States could increase import taxes on clothing and textiles or limit the annual weight or quantities imported from LMICs.

The role of the consumer

Trade policies and regulations will be the most effective solutions when it comes to bringing about major changes in the fast fashion industry. However, consumers in high-income countries have a role to play by supporting companies and practices that minimize their negative impact on people and the environment. While certification attempts to raise industry standards, consumers need to be aware of “greenwashing” and critically assess which companies actually ensure high standards compared to those that make sweeping, sweeping claims about their social and sustainable practices. The fast fashion model thrives on the idea of “more for less”, but the age-old saying “less is more” must be adopted by consumers if issues of environmental justice in the fashion industry are to be addressed. Consumers in high-income countries can do their part to promote global environmental justice by buying quality clothing that lasts longer, shopping in second-hand stores, having clothing that they already own repaired, and buying from retailers with transparent supply chains.

How fashion can be sustainable – Slow fashion movement

Companies that place more emphasis on sustainable practices form the slow fashion movement that values craftsmanship, good management, and quality products. The slow fashion movement emerged in response to fast fashion cycles and “unsustainable” business growth. It promotes sustainability through more ethical sourcing and production techniques and the use of organic, recycled, or more durable materials. The workers involved in the production of such garments receive higher wages and greater protection than their counterparts in the fast fashion industry supply chain. The key to the slow fashion movement and sustainable fashion is a balanced approach to fashion production that promotes long-term relationships, builds local production, and relies on transparency. It estimates that the global economy could benefit from nearly 160 billion euros by 2030 if the fashion industry as a whole moved to a more sustainable and recycling-oriented model. Seidman (2007: 58) notes,

Sustainability is about much more than our relationship with the environment; it’s about our relationship with ourselves, our communities, and our institutions.

Many of these changes must be implemented by large companies and trade policymakers who control the fashion industry. But as consumers, we can play our part in promoting global environmental justice by buying quality clothing that lasts longer, shopping in second-hand stores, repairing clothing they already own, and buying from retailers with transparent supply chains. We must take responsibility for our daily choices. We can all make a difference if we are more attentive as consumers.