Fast fashion has become an integral part of our consumer culture, offering trendy and affordable clothing at a pace that seems too good to pass up. However, beneath the surface of this seemingly convenient trend lies a host of environmental and social issues.
In this blog post, we’ll explore the reasons why fast fashion is harmful to the environment and explore an alternative approach known as slow fashion. Additionally, we’ll discuss whether completely abstaining from fast fashion is necessary and provide practical tips on how to minimise its impact.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion, characterised by its rapid production and mass consumption of trendy, cost-effective clothing, has become a dominant force in the fashion industry. According to a report from the French Agency for Ecological Transition (ADEME), over 100 billion items of clothing are sold annually worldwide, marking a 60% increase in the past 15 years.
As a result of such huge sales, the industry’s emphasis on constant turnover and quick adaptation to trends has led to significant environmental and social consequences.
Fast fashion’s popularity endures despite the environmental issues. This phenomenon reflects a societal inclination towards conspicuous consumption, particularly among younger generations who prioritise staying on trend rather than considering the ethical and environmental implications of their clothing choices.
The unfolding reality of fast fashion underscores the need for a more sustainable and mindful approach to fashion consumption, prompting the exploration of alternatives like slow fashion.
Why is Fast Fashion Bad for the Environment?
The allure of fast fashion lies in its ability to provide a large quantity of clothing at a fraction of the cost of sustainable alternatives. Unfortunately, this emphasis on quantity over quality contributes to a detrimental cycle of excessive consumption. The environmental toll of fast fashion is staggering. The negative environmental impacts of fast fashion are multifaceted. There are three ways fast fashion affects us negatively:
- Non-Biodegradable Materials: Most fast fashion items are made from synthetic fibres like polyester, nylon, and acrylic, which do not biodegrade. These materials contribute significantly to the issue of microplastics in the ocean, accounting for one-third of such pollution.
- Resource Depletion: The production of fast fashion demands extensive use of non-renewable resources, leading to higher greenhouse gas emissions and increased water consumption. For instance, it takes nearly 700 gallons of water to produce just one cotton shirt, and the dyeing process further pollutes water resources.
- Social Impact: Fast fashion’s relentless pursuit of trends encourages consumers to prioritise staying in fashion over considering the environmental and social consequences. This perpetuates an unsustainable business model that exploits both people and the planet.
To further break the above categories, here are very specific ways fashion affects our environment negatively;
Water and Pesticide-Intensive Industry
Cotton, prized for its quality and absorbency, is one of the most consumed textile fibre globally. However, it is also the most environmentally damaging crop. A quarter of the world’s pesticides are dedicated to safeguarding cotton from external threats, leading to health risks for workers and pollution of soil, water, and biodiversity.
Moreover, cotton cultivation demands significant sunlight and a vast amount of water. It is estimated that 10,000 litres of water are necessary to produce 1 kg of cotton, 33% of which is drinking water.
This water-intensive process makes the textile sector the third-largest consumer of water globally, following wheat and rice production. The ongoing washing of garments post-purchase, a practice that accounts for 12% of annual water consumption by French households, further exacerbates the environmental impact.
Fast fashion is a major contributor to the pervasive issue of plastic pollution, primarily through the prevalent use of synthetic materials like polyester. Polyester, a thread made from plastic, constitutes over half of today’s clothing production.
Unfortunately, these synthetic materials, including polyester, do not readily break down and pose challenges for recycling. This action is now responsible for an extensive plastic waste problem.
Surprisingly, 70% of synthetic fibres used in the textile industry, including polyester, are derived from oil, necessitating a staggering 70 million barrels of oil to produce 40 million metric tonnes of polyester annually. The carbon footprint associated with oil extraction for these fibres is 2.5 times higher than that of a cotton T-shirt.
The environmental impact extends beyond production as synthetic clothes release microscopic plastic microfibers when washed. These tiny fibres, escaping sewage treatment plants, contribute to an annual release of up to 500,000 tonnes of plastic particles into the oceans. This invisible form of plastic pollution poses a severe threat to marine life, accumulating in various ecosystems.
The fast fashion industry’s reliance on virgin plastic production further exacerbates the problem, with approximately 63% of clothing materials in 2015 being virgin plastic. The demand for plastic-infused clothes, driven by the fast fashion sector’s rapid style turnover, lower prices, and increased collections, highlights the industry’s role in escalating plastic pollution.
Moreover, the disposal of more than half of fast fashion clothes within a year adds to the environmental impact, while the process of making clothes introduces plastic additives that contribute to wastewater pollution.
High Carbon Footprint
The fast fashion industry has become a major contributor to the global carbon footprint, emitting a staggering 1.2 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gases annually. With this number, it surpasses the combined emissions of international flights and maritime transport. This alarming statistic accounts for 2% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, with projections indicating a potential surge to 26% by 2050 if current consumption patterns persist.
The carbon impact is not limited to manufacturing alone; the transportation of goods, often covering vast distances from production centres in Asia to retail outlets, further intensifies the industry’s environmental impact. For instance, a single pair of jeans can accumulate a travel distance of up to 65,000 km, significantly contributing to carbon emissions.
The negative consequences of fast fashion extend beyond emissions, encompassing issues such as clothing and textile waste. A shocking 57% of discarded and unsold clothing ends up in landfills, releasing harmful greenhouse gases like methane as garments degrade.
The prevalence of synthetic fibres, particularly polyester, adds another layer to the industry’s environmental impact, with the production process contributing to carbon emissions and the subsequent release of microplastics into the oceans.
To address these concerns, a shift towards carbon neutrality and sustainable practices is imperative within the fashion industry. It is crucial for the sector to adopt renewable energy sources, reduce reliance on materials with high environmental costs, and implement measures to mitigate the overall carbon footprint. Without such transformative changes, the fashion industry’s contribution to carbon emissions is poised to escalate, posing severe consequences for the planet’s climate.
Slow Fashion: Alternative Measures Can Be Taken
Considering the above concerns, a natural approach will be to suggest a complete boycott of fast fashion. However, there are instances, such as holidays like Halloween, where the convenience of fast fashion may still be appealing. As such, the key is to approach fast fashion like any indulgence—moderation is crucial. While it might not be realistic to completely avoid fast fashion, being mindful of your choices and considering sustainable options can make a significant difference.
But a sustainable alternative measure to take is slow fashion.
Slow fashion encourages a shift in consumer behaviour, emphasising the importance of thoughtful and ethical choices in clothing consumption. This approach prioritises eco-friendly materials such as organic cotton, hemp, or linen and advocates for the purchase of high-quality, timeless pieces over trendy, short-lived fashion items. By posing critical questions to potential buyers about the necessity of new purchases and encouraging an understanding of the clothing supply chain, Slow Fashion aims to promote a more conscious and responsible approach to wardrobe management.
One practical way to engage in slow fashion is through the support of brands that adhere to sustainability standards. Furthermore, thrift shops offer an accessible and eco-conscious alternative by providing second-hand clothing options, allowing consumers to extend the life of garments, reduce waste, and minimise the social and environmental impact associated with fast fashion.
Here are three things we can do to reduce the impact of fat fashion on our environment.
- Thrift Shopping: Embrace the concept of second-hand fast fashion by exploring thrift stores. Not only is this a budget-friendly option, but it also reduces textile waste, promoting a more sustainable approach to fashion.
- Donation: Conduct regular closet cleanouts and donate clothes that you no longer wear. [This not only prevents textile waste but also ensures that someone else can benefit from your unused items.]
- Ensure the Piece Will Be Worn: While owning fast fashion items, focus on ensuring they are worn regularly. Quantity over quality may not be ideal, but if these pieces have a prolonged lifespan in your wardrobe, they become a form of sustainability in their own right.
Fast fashion’s impact on climate change is undeniable, with far-reaching consequences for both the environment and society. However, by promoting sustainable alternatives like slow fashion and thrift shopping, encouraging recycling, and holding brands accountable for their practices, we can collectively work towards mitigating the environmental footprint of the fashion industry. It’s time to make informed choices and embrace a more responsible approach to fashion for the well-being of our planet.
Photo Credit: Sustainableclothing.au
Found it interesting and would like more in the mail?