Fast fashion is pretty much the opposite of sustainable fashion, it’s clothing that is produced cheaply, usually at relatively low quality and on mass without much consideration for anything other than product turnover, profit margins and sales volume. The idea behind fast fashion is to sell as many on-trend items as quickly as possible, using runway-inspired looks, creating ongoing demand for the next big trend. Fast fashion brands want to keep selling new stuff to their customers consistently.
The supply chains of these operations work like well-oiled machines and catwalk looks can be turned into highstreet fashion rapidly. New products are usually brought into the store weekly and stores can have up to 52 micro seasons, yes that’s right 52.
The industry has changed massively over the last 15-20 years, I remember as a fashion student that runway looks took a season or so to trickle into high street stores, these days it’s in-store not too long after that season’s runway shows and it’s refreshed at an insane rate. Fashion forecasting was a long term science that happened in four seasonal cycles, but the industry has turned this into a fast track runway-inspired sales machine.
How to Identify Fast Fashion
Most brands in your local mall or high street can be classed as fast fashion, especially chain type stores. Those who claim to be ethical are usually greenwashing. Think about brands such as H&M, Topshop, Primark, Boohoo, TK Max, GAP etc. When evaluating a brand ask:
- Where and by whom is the clothing made?
- What materials are they made from?
- How transparent is their supply chain? Do they have information readily available on their website?
- How often does the stock in store change?
- Is the clothing following the latest trends?
How Did This Happen? A Brief History of Garment Production
The whole mess started after the industrial revolution when people made less of their own clothing as ready to wear lines were sold in stores. Moving on to the mid-20th-century designers created lines for four seasons and often produced items in the country they were based. But with fast growth and a rise in competition many brands started to move production to third world countries where labour was cheap, practices were unregulated and little were known about the working conditions in the factories.
Moving on to the 21st-century brands started to increase production even more by increasing demand through lower prices and compromising on quality so that you need to buy more often. All of this in order to chase shareholder value and inflated profits. Unfortunately, this came with other costs.
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The Cost of Fast Fashion
Fast fashion might be cheap and easy on your pocket, but it comes with a wider cost to the planet and to garment workers often halfway around the world. The problems started when companies moved production offshore to low-cost countries where labour practices are poor and environmental issues can easily be brushed under the carpet. It’s an out of sight out of mind scenario.
As consumers, we did not have the foggiest clue of what brands were up to in their factories abroad, often the brands themselves didn’t even know what was happening in their factories until stories of child labour started to surface. With the increased media attention things started to come to the fore very quickly, but consumers still aren’t given all the facts when it comes to the cost of their latest pair of trendy jeans.
The biggest cost of fast fashion is the environmental and human cost of production and disposal. A great documentary to watch around this topic if you’re interested is True Cost.
Because factories are located in third world countries who are open to bribery and desperate for economic stability, it is very hard to patrol as regulation can be difficult to enforce if it even exists. Cutting corners is easy and acting without environmental consideration is common.
Greenhouse gas emissions:
Since 2000 clothing production has more than doubled and the average person keeps an item for about half the time they did 20 years ago. That is a lot of production and a lot of waste! According to Quantis, the fashion industry contributes roughly 8.1% of global carbon emissions every year. That is more emissions than international shipping and aviation combined.
Textile production and microplastics:
Cotton production is a water and pesticide intense operation. When grown in third world countries as it often is, the pesticide run-off contaminates local drinking water and our oceans causing irreparable damage to marine life, coral and human health.
Fabrics like Rayon, which are made from wood pulp, can be traced back to deforestation, read more about it here.
Most stretchy fabrics contain some level of plastic yarn, that is what makes them stretchy with the most popular being polyester. To give you an idea of scale around 70 mil barrels of oil are used for the production of polyester annually.
Unfortunately, every time you wash a plastic containing fabric it will shed microplastics into the water unless you are using a filter like this on your washing machine’s outlet pipe. Otherwise, the plastic fibres from clothing will flow back into the water supply system as bulk water treatment filters can’t filter out microplastic, the fibres are simply too small. This means you are drinking fibres from swimsuits, spandex, underwear and someone’s favourite socks, gross right? Microplastics have also been found in the arctic snow so it’s literally everywhere.
Water pollution from textile dying:
To get vibrant and rich textile colour the fashion industry uses synthetic dyes and most of the water used to dye fabric in third world countries is then pumped back into the waterways without treatment. Around 17-20% of global water pollution comes from textile treatment and dying,
If you’d like to know more about this subject watch the documentary River Blue.
With increased production, there is bound to be an increase in waste. Where do all the unsold stock, unused deadstock fabrics (overbought fabrics that aren’t used) and our discarded clothing items go?
Well, it either ends up in landfill or gets incinerated. Burberry was burning all their unsold stock as recently as 2017, and it’s common practice across the industry. Some items are sent to be sold in third world countries where a big portion of it ends in poorly managed landfills. It is estimated that 5-7% of landfill content is discarded clothing or textiles.
Around 80% of garment workers are women and working conditions for them aren’t pleasant by any means. Making clothing is hard work, even for me in my comfortable home as sitting in front of a sewing machine all day takes a toll on your body.
For the women who make our clothing, it can be a living hell, quite literally where they are expected to work at an incredible pace with extensive overtime. They are often subject to physical and mental abuse and there is little to no chance for career advancement as those positions are reserved for men.
Child labour is common in garment factories, child labour in third world countries is a complex issue. For many of these children the choice isn’t between a happy childhood and forced labour, it’s one of survival, it’s a life or death kind of choice rather than a happy childhood choice. This will leave them open to exploitation.
Girls are often lured into the textile industry by false promises of decent wages, comfortable accommodation and three meals a day. This is when parents will allow their girls to start work at a young age, but the reality is usually terrible working conditions for very low pay.
To keep the cost of garments down workers are expected to work 6-7 days a week covering 14-16 hour days (in peak season) for very low pay, some earn as little as a third of the recommended minimum wage for that country.
What is the Alternative? Sustainable and Slow Fashion
Sustainable and slow fashion focuses on the ethics of their entire supply chain and they produce fewer high-quality items every year.
To create sustainable fashion it?s important to consider the entire supply chain from where raw materials are sourced or grown, the production of textiles, the garments themselves, transportation, the marketing and sales of items right to the use and waste management when products come to end of life. Sustainable fashion must have a whole lifecycle approach, cradle to grave. This particular point makes it hard to distinguish truly sustainable fashion brands from their greenwashed counterparts.
There are many exciting brands emerging that put their focus in the right place, looking after people and planet while making reasonable profits.
For a list of sustainable fashion brands to consider read my previous post: 10 Sustainable Fashion and Accessory Brands You?ll Luve
How You Can Make a Difference
If you’d like to help make a difference, you can work to make your wardrobe more sustainable going forward. I wouldn’t recommend throwing anything out to start with as using what you have. Going forward you can:
- Buy a filter for your washing machine or use a microfibre washing bag for synthetic materials
- Buy fewer items and classic styles that won’t go out of fashion so quickly. Think Audrey Hepburn, not Kim Kardashian
- Buy good quality items that will last
- Support sustainable and ethical fashion brands
- Rent occasion wear instead of buying
- Upcycle, repair and repurpose old clothing
- Buy second hand
- Donate old clothing or take to a clothing bank for reuse or recycling, don’t chuck it in the bin