What’s Wrong With Fast Fashion? Our 5 Min Guide Will Catch You Up
Fast fashion: what’s wrong with it? What does the phrase mean exactly? And what can we do about it as consumers? Check out our simple guide to how fast fashion is destroying the planet, what needs to change and how you can play an important part in it.
Mon 9 Mar 2020
Are you a bit confused about fashion and just why so many are causing a fuss over it? We get so many questions on pebble about what is fast, slow and eco fashion, here's our take on the key five questions, with tons of stats and further reading to get you clued up about clothes when it comes to the environment.
1. What Is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion is the mass production of cheap, poor quality, disposable clothing. To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, the fashion industry churns out a gargantuan 80 billion garments a year - that's over 10 for every person on earth.
And 400% more than it produced 20 years ago.
According to clothes waste charity TRAID, the average garment is only worn 10 times before it is thrown away.
This diabolical disposable cycle is being fuelled because:
- Clothes are becoming cheaper.
- As their prices fall, so does their quality.
- While prices are dropping, fashion trends are accelerating.
This creates an incentive for people to buy more clothes to keep up with the trends.
Because people know that the next trend is right around the corner and their clothes will soon fall out of fashion, they lack an incentive to take care of them. This means they dispose of them faster.
What’s wrong with this fast fashion system is that the majority of items are neither recycled nor donated. Instead, they either go to landfill or get incinerated.
Every link in the fast fashion chain comes with huge environmental and societal costs, which I will go into below.
Our clothes can take as long as 200 years to decompose...so our planet is getting polluted by more and more unnatural material all the time.
2. How Is Fast Fashion Destroying The Planet?
Fast fashion is causing devastating damage to the planet in a number of ways:
Fast Fashion And Water
A byproduct from textile factories in countries that produce fast fashion items en masse is untreated toxic wastewater. What’s wrong with it? It contains substances like lead, mercury and arsenic that are extremely harmful to aquatic and human life.
- It tends to be dumped directly into rivers. In Bangladesh alone, 22,000 tons of toxic waste from tanneries goes straight into the waterways a year.
- It destroys the health of the people and the wildlife who live along the banks and eventually runs into the sea and pollutes that as well.
- It can take up to 200 tons of fresh water to dye and finish just one ton of fabric.
- The World Health Organisation and UNICEF report that 1 in 3 people do not have access to safe drinking water. That’s 2.2 billion people who are deprived of this scarce and essential resource.
- Extinction Rebellion and the UN have also found that 3.6 billion people, almost half the world's population, are at risk of water scarcity at some points during the year.
Fast Fashion Releases Microfibres
How can anything micro be a big deal? Microfibres are a key part of what’s wrong with the fashion industry.
- Microfibres come away from synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon, every time you wash your clothes.
- Each wash will shed 700,000 microfibres.
- These are consumed by aquatic organisms, which are eaten by fish, which are eaten by us! So these cheap clothes are one of the sources putting plastic into our food chain.
"The fashion industry churns out a gargantuan 80 billion garments a year - that's over 10 for every person on earth"
Fast Fashion Causes Greenhouse Gasses
According to The Ethical Consumer and Greenpeace’s Journal, ‘Unearthed’, if the demand for fast fashion continues to grow at its current rate, we could see the total carbon footprint of our clothing reach 26% by 2050. Here’s why:
- Producing, manufacturing and transporting the millions of garments produced each year uses a lot of energy.
- The synthetic fibres that most of our clothes are made of are generated from fossil fuels.
- China, Bangladesh and India are the countries that produce the majority of our clothing, and they are powered almost entirely by coal.
Fast Fashion Depletes Our Soil and Forests
Yet another thing that’s wrong with the fast fashion industry, is that it hurts soil, woodland, and our entire ecosystems
- Goats and sheep, raised for their wool, are overgrazed in pastures. Overgrazing leads to soil erosion, land degradation, loss of valuable plant species, food shortages and famine.
- Chemicals used in the production of fabrics like cotton also degrade the soil.
- Wood-based fibres, like rayon and viscose, cause mass deforestation.
- Thousands of hectares of endangered and ancient rainforests are felled every year. They are replaced by plantations of trees used to make wood-based fabrics.
- This harms indiginous communities as well as the earth.
The Toxicity Of Fast Fashion Clothing
So many chemicals go into every stage of textile production and manufacture:
- They are still very much present when we buy and wear our clothes! That even goes for garments that are ‘100% natural fibre’.
- Our skin absorbs all of these unnatural substances and endanger our health.
- The Greenpeace detox campaign discovered 11 chemicals that are commonly present in clothes production that cause cancer and disrupt our hormones.
- Other studies have found that chemicals contained in children’s pyjamas can be found in the children’s urine five days after they wore said pyjamas for just a single night.
We have focussed on the environmental factors here, but the conditions of fashion industry workers is another reason why fast fashion is totally inhumane. Unbearably long working hours, terribly low pay and extremely hazardous working conditions are just some of the issues. The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster is just one example of how unsafe it is to work in this industry.
Sustain Your Style has excellent, detailed and chilling information about the humanitarian crisis going on within the fast fashion industry.
3. Can Fast Fashion Ever Be Sustainable?
Given everything that’s wrong with fast fashion, can it ever become sustainable?
Since fast fashion is by definition the production of disposable, low quality and cheap clothing, it is by nature unsustainable.
Some ask this question with a view to finding out whether the biggest fast fashion brands on the market today can change their ways and become more ethical.
Whether it’s possible to continue to buy relatively affordable clothing from high street brands depends, to an extent, on each brand.
Check out our feature all about what it takes to makes a sustainable fashion brand for further info.
Lack of Transparency In The Fast Fashion Industry
Slow fashion and sustainable fashion are now becoming buzzwords and selling points, which is wonderful in many ways. However, it means that it’s becoming popular for major highstreet fashion brands to come out with ‘sustainable lines’, ‘green ranges’, ‘eco edits’ etc. Many of these are sustainable in name only.
Lots of popular fast fashion brands are vague about their eco credentials and actually have some totally unethical dealings going on below the surface. They sugar coat them in clever copy which woos consumers who want to be able to shop at them guiltlessly, so you need to do your homework.
Misinformation about clothing is prolific as well.
One common misconception within the fashion industry is that free returns are a harmless way to try on clothes bought online. Because this service is being abused so much, it actually has a huge carbon footprint. This means free returns are not free for the planet.
Our interview with MP Mary Creagh, head of the government’s Environmental Audit Committee delves further into why fast fashion brands must be held more firmly to account for their dirty dealings.
There are technically so many ways in which fast fashion brands can become more sustainable.
They can increase transparency, adopt circular economic systems, invest in better quality materials, use renewable energy, the list is long.
Essentially, however, the opposite of fast fashion is slow fashion.
This means consuming less, caring for the clothes we have and elongating their lives. It is not possible to continue buying swathes of new, cheap garments sustainably.
4. Fast Fashion Vs Slow Fashion: How Can We Transition?
Whilst we cannot continue to consume at our current rate, there are ways we can work towards undoing what’s wrong with fast fashion.
Here are 8 ways you can be a slow fashion shopper:
- Renting clothing is growing in popularity. This is a way of turning up to your next event in something new, of a higher quality and a lower price, without purchasing a new garment that will soon go to landfill.
- Clothes swishing or swapping is another great option. These events, which are fun and easy to organise, mean getting new garments for very little or no money.
- Taking better care of the clothes we do have has to become more common in order for us to embrace slow fashion. We need to wash our clothes less, since overwashing decreases their lifespan and contributes to the microplastics problem. The older generation knows more about this! Check out some sustainable fashion hacks by these mums and grans.
- Mending our clothing. If you are up for learning to sew, there are some great brands around, like Selkie Patterns, who have the resources to get you started.
- Activities like crocheting and darning are fun and therapeutic ways of elongating the life of your clothes.
- If you are not a natural crafter, then using clothes repairs services and ethical tailoring services is a great option.
- Shopping for vintage or second hand. We have some expert advice about how to successfully shop for vintage. There are also numerous brands who now recreate ‘new’ garments out of old materials and clothes too.
- There will be times when you do genuinely need a new item of clothing. When this rolls around, there are some fantastic ethical fashion brands out there now.
The fast fashion brands themselves have a huge amount to answer for and a lot of reforms to make as well of course.
Pretty much everything about the industry needs to be fully reimagined, and environmentally friendly alternatives to it do exist. For example, adopting circular economic systems in place of the linear ‘take-make-waste’ model would radically change fashion for the better. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a huge proponent of this scheme.
Our features on what makes an ethical fashion brand and which materials are the most sustainable contain more details about what the fashion industry should look like.
Speaking of Ellen MacArthur, making slow fashion fashionable is a great means of making it a more mainstream way of life:
- There’s a new generation of ethical fashion designers who are starting to cotton on to this.
- Check out Redress as well, the world's largest sustainable fashion design competition.
- Many celebrities, like Ellen MacArthur and Stella McCartney, are also making it their mission to popularise slow fashion.
- Fashion designer Mariana Jungmann combines traditional lace with modern laser cutting to create minimal waste fashion.
5. Which Fast Fashion Articles, Documentaries And Resources Can Teach Us More?
There are so many now! Here are just a few recommendations:
For buying clothes more sustainably, check out:
- Fashion For Good, a not-for-profit based in Amsterdam
- Anti-bad, a fantastic new online store for stylish sustainable fashion
- theredUP, the largest online thrift store
- Oxfam online, a huge online charity shop
- MAMOQ the ethical fashion comparison site.
- Gold Thrift Vintage - one our favourite vintage fashion stores on Etsy
To learn more about fast fashion vs slow fashion, have a look at:
- The Eco Hub
- The Devout
- Sustain Your Style
- Fashion Revolution
- The Good Trade
- Extincion Rebellion Fashion Action
If you’re after documentaries, get started with: