Each year, more than 100 billion garments are made and around $450 billion worth of textiles are thrown away around the world. With the emergence of fast fashion, that figure is set to rise in the coming years to unimaginable levels. As with almost all industries around the world, the fashion industry has transitioned from an economy that was once circular, meaning there was no waste produced, to a more linear model where only 1% of textile waste is currently being recycled into new clothing.
So how did an industry that was once so almost completely circular end up as one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases and producers of waste, and how is fast fashion going to compound these problems in the future?
Integrating Fashion into the ‘Throwaway Society’
The ‘throwaway society’ we live in today started during the Industrial Revolution. Before the entire industry became mechanised, clothing was produced by hand, at a slow speed and fashion was for the richest in society. Clothes that were made for the majority of the population was designed to last and when it could no longer be used it was repaired, repurposed or burnt.
However, as the mechanisation of industry began, what could be produced in a month could be produced in a week, then in a day. Clothing could be produced at a greater speed for much cheaper price, introducing fashion to the masses. Expensive garments that were typically only worn by the highest in society could be worn by everyone at a fraction of the price.
Through the 20th century, population grew at an almost exponential rate, creating an incredible level of demand. Levels of poverty fell across Europe and North America – and have since continued to fall across the world. The fashion industry went global.
This globalisation has played an important role in developing the troubling situation we find ourselves in. As workers rights and the costs involved in producing clothing in much of the developed world went up, companies looked to developing nations to reduce their expenditure and increase profit margins. Factories moved overseas to China, India and south-east Asia where clothes could be produced at an even cheaper price for an even larger marketplace. Cheaper, synthetic materials also became more abundant – and this was all done regardless of the social and environmental impact.
Fast fashion is the the next chapter of this story.
The exclusivity of luxury brands and the designs that we once only saw celebrities and socialites wearing are now much more widely available in the form of knock-offs. Fast fashion brands can take these designs, change them slightly and bring them to the high street or to our phones in a matter of weeks. However, unlike the luxury brands that produce that same style at a much greater quality, fast fashion brands produce it at a much lower quality and basically design it to be disposable – just to make sure we’re always buying more.
Not only that, as technology advances and our world moves online, costs for brands to produce clothing reduce even further. The decline of the typical town or city high street should come as no surprise; brands no longer need to rent or own shop space to display their products – it’s now all online. People can buy clothes without having to leave their homes and it comes direct to their doorstep – it’s incredibly convenient!
As fast fashion grows at an incredibly rapid rate, high street brands are looking at their business models and changing them to replicate the fast fashion model. Rather than sell clothes of a higher quality at a slightly higher price, brands will reduce the cost and quality of their clothing and encourage shoppers to buy more with them, thus generating an increasing amount of waste.
Economically, fast fashion means continued growth for brands. If we’re always buying clothes that don’t last us long and making us throw away more, there will always be a demand which they will be more than happy to supply and generate increasing profits. All this advancement, however, creates a huge amount of waste and is becoming incredibly disastrous for the environment.
The Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion
We might not consider clothing to be particularly intensive when it comes to emissions – after all, it’s just small pieces of clothing that we wear. However, the production of these clothes on such a mass scale can have a huge impact on emissions, water consumption, pollution and waste generation.
In 2015, the production of clothing and textiles produced more total emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping put together. As a total, the textile industry contributes to about 5% of global emissions, but that could well rise with the growth of fast fashion and an increasing demand for cheap clothing. Take the example of synthetic materials – polyester, nylon, spandex, etc. – that are commonly used for many different types of clothing; each year, 342 million barrels of crude oil are used to produce these synthetic fibres.
As supply chains have gone global, so much of our clothing is now made overseas in factories powered by fossil fuels before being shipped back to Western marketplaces by plane or by boat. This is another huge contributor of emissions within the textile industry. There are a number of fashion brands that are helping to clean up their supply chain to be more responsible, but fast fashion is doing very little.
Water Use and Pollution
Whilst more natural fabrics like cotton have a much smaller carbon footprint in comparison to clothing made from synthetic, oil-based fibres, they are often much more water-intensive. Using cotton as an example, producing just one cotton-based jacket can consume more than 10,000 litres of water – just for one item of clothing! Not only that, but materials like denim also require huge amounts of water consumption, which, as we enter a hotter, drier period of this planet’s life, will increase the water stress on countries and regions that are already struggling to meet their own needs.
The consumption of water in textile production is a huge problem in itself, but it isn’t the only negative impact this industry has on water. Pesticides used on crops that are grown for clothing can dramatically reduce the quality of soils on many of these farms as well as contaminate water sources.
Dyes and chemicals used in the textile-dying process can also have very detrimental impacts on our health and on the environment. A lot of the fabric-dying processes take place in countries that have weak environmental regulations, allowing many to get away with contaminating local water sources – often leading to poor health of local residents.
It is these same harmful chemicals and the synthetic materials being used that mean clothing cannot be burnt and recycled into the biosphere as they used to. These chemicals, whilst they may cause no, or very little, damage whilst being worn, can be activated when burnt, creating toxic gases and allowing harmful chemicals to leach into the ground and soils.
If fast fashion continues to grow, as is predicted, then we will continue to produce more and more waste. Where it used to be made from natural fibres, waste clothing was biodegradable or could easily be recycled. However, the introduction of synthetic materials into the production of clothing makes this impossible. Clothing is no longer made to be recycled and so will often end up in landfill because there is simply nothing else that can be done to repurpose or recycle it in any way.
Some fast fashion brands have been attempting to market themselves and their clothing lines as sustainable, but this is often greenwashing (the use of language to make the brand or company sound a lot more sustainable or environmentally-friendly than they actually are). Fast fashion brands are becoming a lot more transparent with their supply chains, but still nowhere near where they need to be to even begin to think about calling themselves sustainable.
Change Behaviour, Change the Industry
The purpose of this is not to shame anyone or make people feel bad about buying clothes, but to reconsider our buying habits and the importance of each individual action in reducing the amount of clothing waste that is produced. These are just small actions, but small changes can absolutely drive change at a higher level. We still have to rely on the fashion industry to change the way factories are powered, the materials they use and how much is recycled, but there are still several simple things that we can all do to reduce our consumption of fast fashion and of fashion overall.
If you need to buy new, then buy quality. That doesn’t mean it has to be luxury brands that you go out and buy, but avoiding the lower quality clothing that fast fashion brands produce means that what you do buy lasts longer. By wearing the clothes we buy for 9 months longer, we can reduce the carbon footprint for that piece of clothing by 30%.
Look at buying used clothes. Charity shops, pop-ups and online services like DePop and eBay all give us an opportunity to buy and sell second-hand clothes that are still good quality. If everyone in the world bought just a single used piece of clothing, rather than something new, it would reduce carbon emissions by the same amount that taking half a million cars of the road would in a year. Also, a bit of a throwback to when many of us were younger, handing down child’s clothing to family and friends that is still good quality but too small is also a great way to reduce the amount of clothing bought for younger children!
It is also possible to rent clothes. Right now, fashion services like Rent the Runway make up just a tiny fraction (>0.1%) of the fashion industry but are growing very quickly. These services allow you to choose from an online catalogue of clothing and rent an item, or items, for however long you need them – something that is particularly great for events and occasions where you may only need to wear something once!
It may not seem like much, but each action adds up.