Fast fashion. You’ll undoubtedly have heard all about it in the news or on TV. Maybe you’ve been made aware of the scale of it simply through the constant bombardment of fashion advertising on our newsfeeds, billboards, ad reels and the like. The term ‘fast fashion’ refers to the rapid-cycle consumption of clothing with trends changing all the time, meaning cheaply manufactured clothing, sold at rock-bottom prices and in vast quantities.
Ultimately, there’s a strong link between personal expression and fashion, and it’s unlikely that our ever image-conscious western culture is going to shift away from this behaviour any time soon. What cannot be ignored, however, is that fashion is one of the most polluting, wasteful industries on the planet. So how do we address the balance?
What is the real issue?
Fashion is a USD $2.4 trillion industry according to a report by Mckinsey in 2018. In the UK, less than 1% of all clothing is recycled. Instead, more than a million tonnes of textiles are thrown away every year. That’s a lot of clothes.
It’s incredibly damaging to the environment: 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide are produced annually by the industry, and an impossible-to-imagine 79 billion cubic metres² of water is used every year – that’s 2% of the entire planet’s fresh water, and 10% of every global industry’s total water usage combined. This number is set to double by 2030.
To put this into perspective, the amount of water it takes to make one cotton t-shirt is 2,700 litres. If you drank 2 litres of water a day, this is the amount of water you would drink in around 3 and a half years. Even worse news for jeans, which can take as many as 11,000 litres for the production of some brands. This is without counting the amount of water which is spoiled through the shedding of microplastics and fibres when you wash your clothes. These microplastics are incredibly difficult to filter out of the system and cause our water supplies to become toxic, often ending up in our oceans where they don’t ever degrade, causing untold damage to wildlife.
It’s not just water that’s the problem. Last year it was reported that Burberry burnt almost USD $40 million of unsold products in order to protect their exclusivity. For an industry which is one of the word’s most polluting, to pump additional carbon into the atmosphere is a practice that can’t be afforded.
As if this wasn’t enough, there’s also the issue of labour standards across the industry. It’s barely deemed ‘news’ anymore, instead viewed as a fact of life that the supply chain is tainted with forced labour, prison labour, child labour and other abuses. It should not be ignored. To treat these issues with complacency or as ‘out of our control’ whilst buying tainted products is ultimately funding and endorsing these practices.
What can I do?
The first point of action is to simply buy less. Investing in higher-quality clothing made of natural materials is a great first-step to a simplified wardrobe, and one less funder for the fast fashion business. You could also look to recycle clothes at end of life by giving clothing away to your friends or donating it to charity shops, instead of throwing it away for landfill. For the craftier among us, repairing clothing or repurposing it (cardigan lampshade anyone?) is a great option. You can end up with something completely unique, and potentially a fun project for you – or your kids – to work on.
What else is being done?
Levi Strauss have recently manufactured 100,000 pairs of jeans using 100% recycled water, and adidas have been producing trainers made from recycled ocean plastic for a few years now. Stella McCartney and her eponymous brand have been active campaigners for a sustainable and eco-friendly supply chain, promoting the idea of a circular economy which benefits everyone.
A report produced by the UK Government’s Environmental Audit Committee this month has also recommended a number of initiatives to try and combat the trend. One of those initiatives is to implement a ‘penny-per-garment’ fee for textiles producers whose products are sold in the UK, which would recuperate funds which would be redirected to power a textile recycling programme.
UK-based organisation, WRAP, have created a consumer campaign as part of their Sustainable Clothing Action Plan. The Love Your Clothes campaign aims to educate consumers on the value of their clothes, as well as how to handle clothes that are no longer wanted.
There’s a long way to go. But there’s something that everyone can do to contribute, to educate, and to place pressure on the companies responsible.