The production is frequently shifted to developing countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, and Vietnam, which have the least regulations for workers and the environment, and where workers are offered the lowest wages.
This business model continued to develop through the relentless pursuit of producing more and more clothing for cheaper and cheaper prices at even faster rates in order to increase profits. Over the past few years, fuelled by the growth in direct business-to-consumer online shopping and social media influencer marketing, there are now 52 “micro seasons” a year with almost a new collection every week vs two seasons (Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter) that were common long time ago.
As we continue to encourage the industry to move towards a more sustainable and ethical future, it seems the correct thing to do is to avoid fast fashion as much as possible. The fast fashion business model is not sustainable as it promotes over-consumption and excessive waste. The exploitation of resources cannot be continued indefinitely.
High consumptions and underutilization
As new products keep arriving at stores, consumers have come to expect a constant stream of new items. In fact, the global clothing consumption “almost doubled” from 74.3 billion items of clothing and footwear in 2005 to 130.6 billion items in 2019. Moreover, data suggests that the global annual retail price of clothing and footwear has “decreased” from $16.47 per item in 2005 to $13.60 per item in 2019. This means we are paying less on average than we did 15 years ago but buying more often.
This uber-fast pace at which clothes are now manufactured, worn, and discarded has made the clothes more disposable than ever. On average, the number of times a garment is worn “has decreased“ 36% compared to 15 years ago. Furthermore, it is estimated that “more than half” of fast fashion clothing produced is disposed of in under a year.
Because fast fashion products either wear out or go out of style quickly, we are throwing a lot more. About 73% of the clothes that we wear and discard “end up in incineration or landfill.” This is the equivalent of “one garbage truck" full of clothes dumped in a landfill every second. The clothes we dispose of rarely break down. Instead, they sit in landfills and release toxins into the air. Furthermore, only less than 1% of pre and post-consumer textile waste is “recycled into new textile.” Throwing away clothes that we could continue to wear has resulted in “an annual loss of USD 460 billion.”
Environmental Impact & Human Rights Violations
Author and journalist Lucy Siegle quoted in the documentary called True Cost, “Fast fashion isn't free. Someone somewhere is paying”. From the start of the garment production to the end of its lifetime, fast fashion, while cheap on our wallets, has a huge environmental and social cost. Some of the biggest environmental and social impacts are:
1. Carbon Footprint
Clothing production requires a considerable amount of energy and resources. Overall, the industry is responsible for “10 percent” of the global carbon emissions. This is more greenhouse gas emission than “international shipping and aviation combined.” If we don’t do anything about this, the global temperature will increase by “1.5 degrees Celcius by 2040,” which will flood our coastlines, intensify droughts, and lead to food shortages.
2. Water Usage
One of the problems with overconsumption is due to the fact that the fashion industry relies heavily on large amount of water during production. In fact, the fashion industry is the “second-largest” consumer of water worldwide. Textile production uses around “93 billion cubic metres of water annually,” enough to fill 37 million Olympic swimming pools. It takes about “10,000 litres” of water to get from the cotton cultivation stage to the final pair of jeans produced, and “2700 litres” of water to produce a cotton t-shirt. This contributes further to the problems in some already water-scarce regions.
3. Water Pollution
The production of clothes uses a lot of synthetic dyes on garments. The dyeing process uses enough water to fill 2 million Olympic-sized “swimming pools” each year. Most of the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into rivers and streams, changing the colours of the river, and devastating the local ecosystem. In fact, textile dyeing, and treatment are responsible for “20%” of water pollution in the world making the fashion industry the “second-largest” pollutant of water after agriculture.
4. Intensive Use Of Synthetic Fertilizer And Pesticides
Most fast fashion brands source cotton from India and China. It is one of the most pesticide-heavy crops in the world. Although the cultivated area of cotton covers only 2.5% of the planet’s agricultural land, it uses “16%” of the total pesticide usage. The large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides can contaminate freshwater sources, harm ecosystems, and affect the health of farmers.
5. Biodegradability Issue And Huge Co2 Emissions Due To Increasing Use Of Polyester
More than half the garments we wear contain Polyester which is one of the most common materials used in fast fashion. Polyester is derived from fossil fuels. Each year it takes about “70 million barrels of oil to make polyester fibers.” As such, the carbon emission from polyester production is much higher than other fibre. It is estimated that a polyester shirt releases two to three times “more carbon emissions” than a cotton shirt. Furthermore, polyester fibers can also take more than 200 years “to decompose,” which leads to further accumulation of waste on our planet.
6. Microplastic Pollution
Every time you wash your synthetic textiles (materials made of polyester, nylon, and acrylic) they shed about “700,000 microplastic fibers” (plastic fragments less than 5 mm in length) into the water system. Each year, about half a million tonnes of microplastic, the equivalent of more than “50 billion plastic bottles” are released into the ocean as a result of washing. The impact of microplastic pollution is not fully understood yet, but it has the potential to cause harm to marine life and “poison the food chain.”
7. Social Aspect
Fashion is an extremely labor-dependent industry. Fast fashion is affordable because it relies on the exploitation and mistreatment of women in low-income countries like Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The increasing pressure on manufacturers to deliver on shorter lead times and lower pricing contributes further to poor and unsafe working conditions such as working in badly ventilated buildings with limited access to water, due to the manufacturers wanting to cut down costs. They often work long hours with low pay. Although the apparel industry is worth USD 1.3 trillion, only about 2% of fashion workers around the world are “paid a living wage” enough to cover their basic needs. While the local community benefits from employment in this industry, they suffer from poor environmental practices such as the release of untreated wastewater from textile production to the rivers and streams preventing their safe utilization for fishing, drinking, and bathing.
How to be more fashion-conscious
Now that you have read about the huge toll of fast fashion on the planet, it is time to slow down on our consumption and change our shopping habits for the better. The more we buy the more we end up throwing away. At the same time, the more we demand, the more fast fashion brands cut corners to produce.
We need to start thinking differently about the clothes we buy and wear. How nice would it be if instead of valuing the clothes because of their trendiness, we treasured them for the beautiful stories behind these clothes. If that were true, we wouldn’t dispose of them mindlessly.
If you are to looking to be more fashion-conscious, here are some ways you can get started:
1. Take Care Of The Clothes You Already Own
Always check the care labels and follow the instructions, whether it is to hand wash or wash in cold water. Clothes that are well-taken care of will last longer and need to be replaced less often.
2. Use A Filter System Or Microfibre Bag During Washing
3. Repair And Alter Your Clothes Instead Of Throwing Them Away
A rip, missing button or a hole should not stand in your way. Instead, give them a fix. Learn to mend them yourself or visit your local tailor for alterations. Check out our IGTVs for mending and upcycling tips.
4. Swap Your Clothes
Host a clothes swap party (post-covid) or trade with friends and family. This is a fun activity to get your friends and family together and an easy way to update your wardrobe without spending a penny.
5. Rent Special Pieces
Whether you are finding the perfect outfit for a night out with your girlfriends, for a date night, or an anniversary dinner; consider renting instead of purchasing. This certainly beats buying pieces for just one or two wears.
6. Shop Your Own Wardrobe
Instead of buying new outfits each season, think about how you can make what you already have to look new again. Style them differently than you usually would. Be creative and have fun with it.
7. Buy Second-Hand Clothing
Not only is it good for the pocket, but the majority of the clothing that you find is also completely unique. This is akin to a treasure hunt experience.
8. Consider Why Before You Buy
Will you really wear it? If you really must have it, ask yourself how versatile is this item? Do you already have similar items or have at least 3 items that you can wear with them? Can you at least have 30 wears out of it? If not, do not take it home.
9. Choose Quality Over Quantity
Spending more on a well-made garment will ensure it sticks around longer. It may cost more at first, but it’s a long-term investment that you will wear over and over again.
10. Support Local And Ethical Brands
If you are still yearning for a new purchase, then how about buying from ethical brands that have sustainable practices? When we buy from brands that have a positive impact, we are supporting their causes with our purchase.
All photos sourced from Unsplash and Canva
Written by Shufen Lee