Fast fashion, sustainability, and eco-friendly clothing ... what does it all mean?
It seems everywhere we turn these days there seems to be a new green term.
Fast fashion seems to be one that I hear about a lot.
With spiraling mass consumption and a thirst for the latest trends now at the click of a button, in the past 30 years the fashion industry has experienced a boom like it has never seen before. Trends can now be created on one side of the globe and be available on the other within weeks. But who really benefits from all this and more importantly, who pays?
When my partner took on the task of starting a sustainable fashion brand for children’s clothing, I quickly realised how little I knew. So I set about trying to correct this, and in the process try to gain some sort of grasp of what exactly is fast fashion, sustainability and eco-friendly clothing.
WHAT IS FAST FASHION
Fast fashion itself is a literal term. It is affordable clothing that is driven from its first conceived idea to store fronts as quick as possible to respond to the latest trends. It is about producing with little regard for the people woh produce, and little regard to the impacts on the environment in which it came from.
The idea is that speedy mass production combined with cheap labour will make clothes cheaper for those buying them, thus allowing these fast fashion trends to maintain economic success.
If you are like me, you probably don’t know who made your clothing. Sure, we know the brand, but high street clothing typically has over 100 people involved to take it from inception, to a finished product you can hold in your hand.
Fashion itself is a 3 trillion-dollar industry. The world bank estimates the global workforce in its entirety to be 3.4 billion people. 430 million people are thought to work in fashion and textile production. This means roughly 1 in 8 workers are involved in the fabric and apparel industries.
As our appetite for fast fashion and the latest tends has grown, so has the gap in equity between high street fast fashion brands and retailers, and the individuals who ultimately make, and pay for our vast consumption and clothing.
Since the mid-1990s overall consumption has increased by over 500% fueled by our throw way culture. The price for all consumer goods combined has grown by 70% since the mid-1990s. Yet the price of clothing, aided with the acceleration of fast fashion has decreased by 6%. Amid this we see sharp declines in the lengths we keep our clothing before disposal.
As mentioned before one of the key factors driving all of this has been globalisation. Now I’m not saying that this is all bad. If anything, globalisation has been a good thing, and as always, the true effects are far more nuanced.
The positive effects have rippled through many countries and economies aiding in the expansion of education, trade and technology, injecting much needed investments and capital flows, increasing employment, and helping to grow culture and organization structures.
But with Globalisation came a promise... that consumers in the rich world would get cheaper goods, and people in the poorer parts of the world would get jobs, with these jobs leading to opportunity, and the ability to work their way out of poverty.
Unfortunately, as the distance from production location to purchase location has grown, what has decreased is the amount of accountability and transparency in our supply chains.
WHERE DOES IT ALL COME FROM?
The vast majority of our clothing is made in the developing world. As stated above, roughly 1 in 8 people in the workforce works in the apparel industry. Of this, 80% are women, and 98% of them are not receiving a living wage, locked into a cycle of poverty.
Take Bangladesh as an example. They are the second largest individual country for apparel manufacturing in the world only to be beaten by China. Over 80% of its exports come from the RMG industry (Ready Made Garment)
As of 2019 the legal minimum wage for garment workers in the country is 8,000 taka (€82) a month. That amount was increased by 2,700Tk (€27.67) a month last December, but campaigners say workers need 16,000Tk (€164) per month to live a comfortable existence. During the current pandemic these monetary problems are exasperated with most workers maintaining minimal rights and support as the pandemic ravages markets worldwide, fueling a collapse in consumption and work within the RMG industry.
It is argued that the government in Bangladesh has strategically kept their minimum wage at a low place to attract foreign investment form apparel companies. But it’s relationship with fast fashion and sustainability remains complicated. With the apparel industry expected to increase by 65% before 2030, large brands asking manufacturers in places such as Bangladesh to be ‘more aware’ of sustainability is not really enough.
WHAT ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT?
Often times our products are cut in one location assembled in another and have to cross multiple oceans before they end up in our hands. The fashion industry itself is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions - more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined - and is the second greatest pollutant industry only to be beaten by oil.
The textile industry is also the second greatest polluter of local freshwater in the world. Some of the main factors that contribute to this pollution are the vast overproduction of fashion items, the use of synthetic fibers, and the agriculture pollution of fashion crops.
Globally 200 million tonnes of textiles go to landfill each year and only about 1% of textile waste is truly recycled.
One of the main contributors to this cycle within the fashion industry is polyester, a synthetic fiber mass produced as a cheap alternative to natural fibers.
Currently over 60% of garments contains polyester and since its boom and take over as the fabric of choice for fast fashion around 2000, production has soared to over 60 million metric tonnes of the stuff each year.
Polyester is derived from a chemical reaction involving petroleum, air, and water. This artificial fibre is a thermoplastic, meaning it can be melted and reformed, and in clothing’s case this is usually a fibre.
There are 4 primary things to think about when dealing with polyester:
- Its non-bio-degradable
- The microplastics they shed into our oceans and food chain
- They are non-breathable (which is why you sweat so much while wearing it)
- Its energy intensive which means a large carbon footprint
There are 150 billion new pieces of clothing added to the planet every year. Every piece of polyester material ever made is still here on the planet.
The energy required to make polyester is over 8 times that of linen and is often produced in areas of the world which are still using the dirtiest energy.
With apparel creating 10% of the world’s carbon footprint – 5 times that of air travel - we can begin to see the scale of the problem that's been created.
It is hard to think of any other sector that owes quite so much to the planet as fashion does. Put simply the environmental footprint is vast, and fast fashion is a huge contributor.
WHERE DOES SUSTAINABILITY AND ECO-FRIENDLY FASHION COME INTO THIS?
So where do we go from here, how do we unpick this complex problem, and what can we do to help?
Sustainable approaches are one of the keys to answering these questions. The easy option would be to vilify every day consumers create a polarised argument implying everyone needs to be on one extreme or the other. As mentioned above, life doesn’t operate this way and the same way we got ourselves into this situation will be the way we work ourselves out of it. One small step at a time.
for you and me, fast fashion makes us feel like we are saving money. but we are buying and wasting more because the value of our products have gone down.
Sustainable fashion is thus partly about producing clothes, shoes and accessories in environmentally and socio-economically sustainable manners, but also about more sustainable patterns of consumption and use, which calls for a shift in individuals’ attitudes and behaviour.
Put simply - consume less, consume responsibly, and try to ensure you support low impact businesses who’s aim is to provide you with great products that last, and give you true value for money.
if we care about cost per ware, the environment, workers’ rights ... then we must choose better.
How can we do this?.. Stay curious and check the clothing you buy.
Check your tags for production location and fiber content.
Check the seems to make sure your receiving something of real quality.
Ask brand questions...
Has it got GOTS certification (Global Organic Textile Standards) and is it organic?
Is it OEKO-TEX Certified and safe?
And most importantly ... love what you buy.
What we choose to purchase dictates the way the industry goes. if we use our money to control the direction of these industries, we'll feel better in our clothes and about the impact we have.
We must make sure the impact is positive instead of a zero-sum approach where someone must pay for the gains we get, bringing fashion back to what it once was - an industry about people, art, and where we value the producer and the planet as much as we value ourselves the end consumer.