Fast fashion: What is it and what can I do?
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed” — Mahatma Gandhi.
As the climate emergency and its effects are becoming more and more part of our everyday lives, it can be overwhelming to try to keep up with every new issue that comes to light, all the information and climate-related definitions out there, what our future on Planet Earth looks like, and what you as an individual can do to help. One of these issues that we cannot ignore is that of the fashion industry and fast fashion in particular. In this article I will provide an explanation of what fast fashion is and why it’s so problematic, what people are trying to do to combat this, and what you as an individual can do. Though the topic of fast fashion and the environment is a mammoth one with many complex layers, I hope to at least leave you with a new-found regard for how some of your everyday actions affect the world, along with a list of practical advice that you can take with you next time you go clothes shopping.
“Fashion should never and can never be thought of as a disposable product” — Lucy Siegle, The True Cost
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion can be defined as clothes that are made and sold cheaply to meet consumer demand for ‘of-the-moment’ items, without the expensive price tags. The term “fast fashion” can be traced back to the early 90s around the time fashion giant Zara opened its first store in New York City. Fast fashion companies take ideas from high fashion houses (amongst other places) and churn out mass-produced versions of these that are incredibly cheap for the consumer but also seemingly deliberately designed to fall apart, shrink in the wash or go out of style quickly. Many consumers wear these items a couple of times before discarding them and going back for more. ASOS.com, another giant in the industry, now offers something called “ASOS Instant” where you can get same-day delivery — basically designed for people wanting a last minute outfit for a night out that will probably only be worn once or twice. Sadly, this has been completely normalised in today’s society — it is not cool to wear the same outfit more than a handful of times for many people, especially those who like to share their lives on social media. Our “wants” are now being mistaken for our “needs” and we are in a dangerous territory of mindless consumption that is producing catastrophic amounts of waste and helping to fuel the climate emergency we find ourselves in today.
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Unfortunately this cycle is not unique to the fashion industry. “Planned obsolescence” (products that are designed to fail or become obsolete after a certain period of time) can be seen across many industries from automobiles to electronics, from software to school textbooks. Companies design these planned obsolescence cycles to reduce the time between consumers’ repeat purchases simply to make more money.
The statistics around the fashion industry and its impact on the environment are sobering. Some key figures to know are that the fashion industry is responsible for about 10% of global carbon emissions and 20% of global waste water. It takes 3,781 litres of fresh water to produce one pair of jeans. 35% of the microplastics in our oceans are from synthetic textiles such as polyester, nylon and acrylic. Each time you wash a synthetic item of clothing, hundreds of thousands of microscopic fibres end up in the ocean, which are eaten by sea life and ultimately may end up back on your plate. Recent studies have shown that humans now ingest about a credit card’s worth of plastic each week. This is made even more frightening when you consider that more than 60% of fabrics are now synthetic, 3 out of 5 fast fashion items end up in a landfill, and synthetic materials take hundreds of years to decompose, emitting harmful amounts of methane during this time. This means that your clothes may negatively impact the environment before, during and after their lifetime.
Something really important to also consider is cotton and its sources. Cotton is a natural fibre, is worn by most people worldwide, and may be considered a good alternative to synthetics. But consider this: ~96% of the cotton grown in the world is genetically modified (GMO — also referred to as Bt cotton) and over one quarter of the world’s pesticides are being used to grow this genetically modified cotton — with the main pesticide used containing an active ingredient called Glyphosate, which has been labelled as “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organisation. It’s a worrying statistic.
The environmental impact of the fashion industry, fast fashion in particular, is a complex topic and this is by no means a complete or comprehensive summary of its effects. If you want to learn more, I encourage you to start by watching the documentary “The True Cost” which explores and exposes the impact of fashion on people and the planet.
All of this information is a lot to take in. However, the good news is that this generation is waking up to these issues and now cares more and more about how their actions affect the world they live in. Fast fashion has come under scrutiny as we move towards more ethically minded consumerism and, though not new concepts, two new fashion movements have become more popular: slow fashion and circular fashion.
Let’s slow down — What is slow fashion?
The idea of slow fashion has emerged as a reaction to fast fashion and its effects. Where fast fashion giants like Zara, H&M and Topshop have around 20–50 fashion cycles per year, slow fashion has around 2–3. Its focus is on creating and celebrating more thoughtful and environmentally conscious products, reducing waste and carbon footprints, and producing well-made items that are designed to last. Slow fashion aims to change consumers’ relationships to clothes by making them think more carefully about what they are buying, where it comes from and how it affects the environment. You may be put off by the higher price tags of slow fashion items, but consider how much longer these items of clothing will last you and how much more value they will hold for you as your mindset shifts away from fashion as a disposable product. An added bonus is that you will be helping to support more ethical companies and growing the demand for slow fashion.
The future is circular — What is circular fashion?
Another movement that has emerged as a reaction to fast fashion is circular fashion. Circular fashion aims to change consumers’ mindsets and reduce the impact on the environment by creating pieces that exist within a never ending cycle of being reused. This stands in direct contrast to fast fashion’s linear business model that almost always ends in a landfill somewhere. Circular clothes and materials are designed, sourced, produced and sold with the intention that they will not ultimately end up in a landfill. This may be achieved by creating a product that is timeless in the first place or by repairing, redesigning or recycling items that are no longer of use. I encourage you to look for circular fashion brands next time you go clothes shopping. One company that I admire is Patagonia and its post-consumer recycling and upcycling policies. Here is a link to another resource to also help you get started.
Next time you want to go clothes shopping
- First think: “Do I actually need new clothes?” If not — go do something else or spend your money somewhere else!
- Wait a while — this will help you determine if it is a want or a need.
- Consider whether you only wear a small fraction of your current wardrobe — learn to appreciate what you already have.
- Challenge yourself to not buy any clothes for a fixed amount of time. My mum recently challenged herself to not buy any new clothes for an entire year and has since realised how little of her wardrobe she was actually wearing.
- Repair damaged clothing. Some clothing brands / stores now offer after-care services to encourage customers to restore rather than replace purchases (e.g. Patagonia and Nudie Jeans).
- Swap clothes with a friend.
- Redesign items in your wardrobe that have gone out of style — maybe you’ll find that you enjoy sewing or knitting!
- Consider renting clothes. Here and here are a couple of lists of clothing rental services you should check out.
Where to shop:
- Think carefully about where you will buy your clothes from. Though fast fashion houses like Zara, TopShop, H&M, Primark, Uniqlo etc. sell cheap clothes, consider how much this is actually saving you in the long run — how long will these clothes last and/or stay in style?
- Buy vintage or second hand clothing — there are so many great options out there from online markets to curated second hand clothing stores to weekend flea markets.
- Shop locally (and avoid shipping costs). This is especially important during COVID-19 where many small businesses are struggling to survive.
- Look online at where different companies’ clothes were made and under what conditions. The Fashion Transparency Index is a great resource for this. There are even some apps out there that can help you, like Good On You in which you can check ethical brand ratings and Buycott which helps you understand how the companies you are buying from align with your values.
- Learn how to spot greenwashing. Greenwashing is when companies market themselves as sustainable in order to mislead consumers who prefer to purchase environmentally friendly products. Greenwashing is a really easy trap to fall into, especially in the food industry. In the fashion industry, this is also hard to spot but there are some articles out there that provide tips on how to do so — here and here are a couple of examples.
What to look for when shopping:
- Avoid synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon, rayon, spandex and viscose — these fabrics will not decay in a landfill (nor will they decay in the ocean). Instead, opt for natural fabrics like organic cotton, linen, hemp and organic wool. Side note to consider: Organic cotton biodegrades and isn’t GMO (organic cotton only makes up 0.7% of global cotton production but still takes a lot of water to produce). There is a lot of information out there about different types of fabrics and their advantages and disadvantages and it can be difficult to wrap your head around it — Moral Fibres has created a good guide for this.
- Avoid leather or buy second hand leather. Cows need a lot of land, food and water — 80% of the current deforestation within the Amazon is caused by cattle ranching.
- Buy clothes made using natural dyes. This is an aspect that doesn’t often get as much consideration even though around 20% of industrial water pollution is from fabric dyes and treatments which are highly toxic to the environment and people. I imagine this topic will gain more traction in the near future, but there are now some smaller brands who are leading the way in natural dye or dye-free techniques, such as Harvest & Mill, Hara and Danu Organic.
- Ask yourself whether what you’re buying truly fits your style.
- Ask yourself how many times you realistically will wear this item of clothing.
- Consider whether the item of clothing you’re buying is easy to repair or will it just be thrown away once you get a hole in it?
- Lastly — buy less clothes! Break the stigma around outfit repeating.
The topic of fast fashion, and the fashion industry as a whole, and its environmental effects is extremely complex and multi-layered. I hope in this article I have taught you a bit about this industry and its problems, piqued your curiosity to learn more and armed you with practical guidelines next time you decide to go shopping for clothes.
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