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Eco-action Environmental humanitarian Social Sustainability Well-being

Fast fashion needs to slow down

The fashion industry saw a huge boom in the 21st century with production doubling and consumption increasing by 60%. That means we are buying a lot more clothing than we did in the past. But we’re also throwing it away earlier. Enter “fast fashion”. 

Fast Fashion refers to the low-cost mass production of garments, accessories, cosmetics, and shoes, as brands respond to rapidly changing trends. The idea is to get the newest styles from catwalk to market in as short a time as possible so we, the consumer, can be seen wearing the latest fashions as soon as they appear.

A store with a rack of clothes on coat hangers with red Sale 20% off signs
Fast fashion enables consumers to buy new items cheaply and often. Canva.

The term “fast fashion” was first coined in the 1990s when one retailer made it their mission to have a garment go from concept to consumer in just 15 days. But when the new styles appear, the “old” are discarded; we now only keep our purchases for half as long as we used to. 

The fast fashion concept enables and indeed motivates consumers to continually purchase cheap clothing just to throw it away again when it’s no longer on trend and we are onto the next “latest” fashion. These clothes are generally made to be worn only a few times, and not designed to last.

So, what is the problem with fast fashion?

The competition to produce clothes quickly and cheaply requires energy intensive production. The fashion industry now contributes up to 10% of global carbon emissions—double the combined emissions of the aviation and shipping industries.

2019 study by Oxfam found that, in the UK alone, over two tonnes of clothes are bought every minute. Those two tonnes produce more carbon emissions than a car driving around the world six times. 

A field of white cotton growing under a blue sky with white clouds.
Growing cotton for one pair of jeans requires 100000 litre of water. Canva.

In addition, the textiles industry is also a significant contributor of ocean plastics, and it uses huge amounts of water and pesticides—to grow and create materials like cotton, polyester and nylon—along with damaging chemicals for dying and printing. 

According to the UN, the manufacture of one pair of jeans requires one kilogram of cotton, which uses 10000 litres of water to grow—equivalent to ten years’ worth of drinking water for one person. 

Moreover, an article in nature journal reported that almost 60% of all clothing produced is thrown away (to landfill or incineration) in less than a year. That equates to one full rubbish truck per second.

A truck load of clothing is dumped in landfill or incinerated every second. Canva.

However, arguably the most significant problem with the fast fashion phenomena is its use of low-cost labour to work long hours. While it’s important to note that the fashion industry provides over 75 million jobs globally, this workforce often comprises garment workers from the world’s poorest peoples, most of whom are not paid the living wage and work under extremely harsh conditions.

The impact that the fashion industry has on the world’s vulnerable and on the health of our planet should drive us to ask questions before buying something new: 

  • Do I really need it or do I already have something that will serve the same purpose? 

It’s often worth checking your wardrobe before purchasing something new. Quite possibly there’s something in there you forgot you even had. Researchers for Earth Action Research Plan for fashion emphasise that, to be sustainable, we need to reduce the amount of clothing we buy by at least 75%.

  • Can I buy it second-hand? Could I rent it? 

Do you realise that we can change our wardrobe and, at the same time, decrease our carbon footprint by buying pre-loved clothing? Charity shops have seemingly been around for ever and are great because they are local, supporting local communities. Swapping clothes with friends and family is also a fun, easy way to give yourself a new look. But, if you are longing for that special designer outfit, there are a vast array of online stores specialising in selling and/or renting pre-loved designer items. 

  • Can I fix what I already own? 

Learn to sew. While you may not necessarily want to learn to sew your own clothes, even knowing how to replace a button or zipper, or fix a hem or patch a hole can save an item of clothing and save yourself money. It can also be surprisingly rewarding. But if you’re time poor, take your mending to someone who sews for a living … or your mother. 

  • Is this exactly what I need? 

Purchasing online can often be hit and miss. While it may be easy to return something that doesn’t fit or suit, research found that, in 2020, returns of online purchases contributed to an estimated 2.6 million tonnes of landfill. That’s 2.6 million tonnes straight into landfill without being worn.

  • Does the retailer pay their workers a living wage, do they source sustainable fibres, do they take climate change seriously?

The 2022 Ethical Fashion guide, recently released by Baptist World Aid, ranks the biggest fashion brands on exactly these issues. Motivated to create change, the organisation conducted research and scored the brands on their efforts to protect workers and the environment. This guide is a useful resource when considering our purchasing power.

The spotlight is on the fashion industry. By choosing thoughtfully, we can send the message that companies need to change their practices and become more sustainable.

Rather than seeing ourselves as consumers, we can be change-makers by being more ethically conscious in our purchases.

Sources:

Earth Logic Fashion Action Research Plan. https://katefletcher.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Earth-Logic-plan-FINAL.pdf

Ethical Fashion Guide. https://baptistworldaid.org.au/resources/ethical-fashion-guide/

Fast fashion produces more carbon emissions per minute than driving a car around the world six times – Oxfam. https://oxfamapps.org/media/press_release/fast-fashion-produces-more-carbon-emissions-per-minute-than-driving-a-car-around-the-world-six-times-oxfam/

Returns Report: Powering Resilient Retail in 2020. https://www.optoro.com/returns-blog/returns-report-powering-resilient-retail-in-2020/

Sustainability in the Fast Fashion Industry. Long, X., Nasiry, J. https://doi.org/10.1287/msom.2021.1054

The price of fast fashion. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-017-0058-9

To make our wardrobes sustainable, we must cut how many new clothes we buy by 75%. https://theconversation.com/to-make-our-wardrobes-sustainable-we-must-cut-how-many-new-clothes-we-buy-by-75-179569

UN Alliance aims to put fashion on path to sustainability. https://unece.org/forestry/press/un-alliance-aims-put-fashion-path-sustainability

UN Helps Fashion Industry Shift to Low Carbon. https://unfccc.int/news/un-helps-fashion-industry-shift-to-low-carbon

What is fast fashion. https://earth.org/what-is-fast-fashion/

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