Fast fashion has a minor impact on our wallets, but a massive impact on our world. Discover the true impact of fast fashion and the alternatives that are out there.
This year, Covid-19 has spotlighted just how much damage fast fashion inflicts on both people and planet. Clothes have never been cheaper and companies like Boohoo and Shein continue, despite lockdowns and social distancing, to drop thousands of styles weekly for less than the cost of a meal. From overproduction and textile waste to the need for garment workers to earn proper living wages, scrutinising and changing the way our fashion industry is run has never been more important.
What’s more, many don’t understand how fashion is connected with our climate crisis. Some aspects of environmental damage are easier for us to see, like grey smog covering cities or single-use plastic floating in our oceans. But fashion’s impact is much less obvious, sometimes invisible. When we hear claims like “fashion is the second most polluting industry after oil” (a statement that isn’t actually true) it falls a bit flat; its not immediately clear how we fit into the equation, or how our penchant for trendy clothes contributes to the mess. Instead, we see what fast fashion brands want us to see; celebrities and influencers showing off their latest hauls, brightly lit shop windows and bargain prices.
If this is all news to you, don’t beat yourself up. Getting to know how the industry really works is the first step to becoming a more mindful and knowledgeable shopper. Read on to learn more about the true impact of fast fashion and how we can change our habits.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion is a term used to describe catwalk trend-inspired clothing that is churned out cheaply and quickly to stores. Instead of waiting months to buy a designer runway look, fast fashion brands enable you to ‘get the look’ for much less money and within weeks (sometimes even days). But how did the industry come to produce so speedily in the first place?
Until the 1960s, people shopped for clothes just a few times a year — to change seasons or replace clothes they had outgrown. Before the 20th century, ready-made clothing was a foreign concept. Tailor-made garments were reserved for the middle to upper classes, while women of lower incomes continued to make their own clothing. After the Second World War, with exciting industrialised innovations like supply chain management, polyester and outsourced labour, fashion took on a new identity and became accessible to a larger group of people. Tailoring became ringarde, and youngsters wanted nothing more than to embrace cheaply-made clothing that represented everything new and exciting.
This democratisation of fashion enabled mass production, allowing more people to express their identity through clothing regardless of their social and economic backgrounds. The shift in consumer demand also broadened the industry to hire more workers. By going down this route of producing cost-efficient clothes in massive quantities, fashion passed a dangerous threshold without realising its future repercussions. H&M and Zara were considered the first “fast-fashion” brands in Europe around the mid 20th century. They became famous for selling affordable, trendy pieces. But today, that affordability has been taken to an extreme, considering you can buy a dress at the price of a coffee.
So what’s the problem with fast fashion?
Fast fashion negatively affects our planet’s resources, bio-diversity and population on a tremendous scale. But it’s easy to overlook its negative environmental effects because we don’t see them in our own backyards. This is because a lot of the impact happens in far-flung developing countries, where the majority of our clothes are now produced.
When we think of fashion in the West, we tend to envision the final product; we seldom consider who is making our clothes and what goes into them. Given today’s climate activism, it’s become easy to picture coal factories belching out black smoke or oil tankers spilling chemicals in oceans. But when it comes to fashion, overflowing landfills, greenhouse gas emissions and discoloured rivers just don’t come to mind. Just as we now have with single-use plastic waste, we must start connecting the dots to realise how serious the situation is and the role that brands and everyday shoppers like us play in creating change.
1. Fast fashion pollutes the air we breathe
If we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist — right? Nope. The global fashion industry itself is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions caused during production, manufacturing, transportation and disposal. Producing synthetic fibres like polyester, fast fashion’s most popular fabric, is more energy-intensive than natural fibres such as cotton. To make matters worse, the energy required to power fashion’s industrial practices involve burning coal and fossil fuels. Not only are these power plants in the heart of cities, but smoke also travels hundreds of kilometres where the air quality of nearby towns and cities are worsened.
The use of coal isn’t all there is to worry about. Just transporting raw materials, yarns, cloth and finished goods around the world reveals fast fashion’s massive carbon footprint. Many companies have also been called out for how much damage their free shipping and returns policies are causing, all for the sake of the latest trends.
Ultimately, fast fashion companies have scaled quickly by pushing sustainability to the end of their priority list, and not factoring in the planetary cost into their price tags. Basically, while we enjoy discounts and low prices our planet (and people) pay the real price of fast fashion.
2. Clothing production pollutes waterways
Worryingly, cheap clothing is a big source of microplastics in our oceans. Synthetic materials like polyester and acrylic contribute over 500,000 tonnes of plastic into oceans a year from just washing. Shocking, right? What’s more, growing crops for fibres like cotton can cause water contamination. Pesticides and other chemicals used to make raw materials grow faster can run off and enter streams and rivers, affecting soil and drinking water for those living nearby.
Speaking of rivers, the Citarum River in Indonesia is one of the most polluted — and psychic — rivers in the world. You’ll be able to tell what the ‘it’ colour of the season will be, based on the colour of the stream. What’s more, up to 5 million people living in the river basin face adverse health effects from this pollution. Countless species of wildlife have also become displaced.
From farming, dyeing and fabric treating, we come to transporting garments by container ship, which produces as much cancer and asthma-causing pollutants as 50 million cars a year. Consuming tonnes of oil every hour, most of the emissions of such ships go unregulated. This poses a big threat to those living in coastal or inland regions, not to mention aquatic wildlife.
3. From our closets to landfills
Our landfills are overflowing with clothes and accessories we’ve grown tired of and thrown out. And most of them are neither biodegradable nor recyclable. For 80 billion new clothes consumed a year, an average of 14 million tonnes of textile trash is thrown out, and that’s only in the US. Whether from fashion or food industries, landfills look like rolling hills of indistinguishable plastics, with sand engulfing the many shards of drink bottles, cigarette butts and old flip-flops.
Landfills are a major source of methane emissions, generated from decomposing plastics and last season’s sweaters. These harmful gases and chemicals from decomposition seep into the soil, eventually making it infertile and poisoning groundwater. Even certain forms of mechanised practices during farming can render land unusable, giving rise to deforestation. Continually harvesting crops and pulling them taut weakens soil. All of these practices damage forests and ecosystems, causing an imbalance in the atmosphere. Since forests efficiently clean the air and produce the oxygen we need to survive, no forests = big trouble.
4. Exploiting, not empowering
The impact of fashion doesn’t stop at our environment; it affects the hidden figures working in our supply chains. Many fast fashion brands still don’t disclose information about how they treat their workers, from living wages to safe working conditions. In short, we need more transparency and traceability to protect garment workers, of which there are reportedly over 40 million. During this year’s pandemic, many factories shut and a number of fast fashion brands refused to pay for orders. Some are still at risk of losing their job or getting infected.
Fashion is a labour-intensive industry, allegedly employing 1 in 6 people on the planet, yet only 2% of them receive living wages. Companies choose to take advantage of the lax regulations and low wage requirements in the developing world to outsource production. What’s more, a disproportionate amount of women and young girls are dependent on their jobs for survival, making it easier for fashion conglomerates to exploit this vulnerable group. If you consider yourself a feminist or a supporter of women’s rights, these facts about the way the fashion industry is run should definitely be on your radar.
In addition to low pay, fast fashion brands often cut corners around their workers’ health and safety to maximise profits. You may have heard about the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 — an event that gave rise to the Fashion Revolution movement — but since then there have been more harrowing accidents, like this one at a denim factory in India. Without legislation in place, brands can get away with not doing frequent safety checks, ensuring proper ventilation and fire-escapes in the factories they partner with. What’s more, overcrowding and cases of physical, verbal and sexual harassment towards women are rampant. The price of fast fashion doesn’t factor in the price of the blood, sweat and tears of the people making our clothes.
5. It’s cheap enough to seem disposable
It’s fast fashion’s exploitation of people and planet that enables the industry to charge such rock bottom prices. A dress costing $19.90 has become normalised, but its far from it. In comparison, brands that produce more sustainably are labelled too expensive.
Our global culture of disposable fashion is as much a waste issue as it is a psychological issue. Brands are finding new ways to tempt consumers into buying ideas more than clothes. At the same time, shoppers create demand by buying items they don’t need. As this demand plateaus, new trends emerge. Fast fashion companies have learnt how to sell an ideal fantasy by making clothing attainable through thoughtless but affordable design.
When these cheap clothes start falling apart, we realise it’s more expensive to repair them than buy another. This is exactly what fast fashion brands want us to do. Experts call this phenomenon ‘planned obsolescence’, and it’s not unique to fashion. Think about how our mobile phones’ peak performance drops after about two years. Similarly, fast fashion brands design clothes and accessories to fall apart in time so we will buy the next new thing. A rip in an armhole, an elastic waistband becoming looser, your sandal’s torn ankle strap — these small things can be easily mended, but why repair something that isn’t in style anymore?
So, can’t we just recycle all those disposed clothes? As logical as it may sound, this idea remains a pipe dream for sustainable fashion. Not because we can’t recycle clothes in general, but because we lack the advanced technology required to make it mainstream. Only 1% of textile waste is recycled, some repurposed into rags or sent to become insulation, and the rest get incinerated or tossed in landfills.
So, how can you take action?
Here’s 10 small steps you can try to become a more mindful shopper:
1. Wear your clothes for as long as you can.
The longer we keep and wear our existing clothes, the better it is for our world and our wallets. Choose good quality timeless pieces, take care of them well and they’ll take care of you. Even checking the tags on your clothes is a good step to learn about the fabrics you buy and wear. This helps you understand how to care for them and maximise their lifespan.
2. Reflect on your shopping habits.
Consider your own relationship with fashion first and understand why you buy clothes – for need or want? Ecocult’s founder, Olivia Firth has a 30 wears challenge, where we can slow down our buying habits, and assess if we love something enough to wear it 30 times and more.
3. Start conversations with family and peers.
It’s always easier to start a new journey with a close friend or family member. Keep each other accountable, and encourage your peers to assess their bi-monthly mega fast-fashion hauls.
4. Try other avenues other than fast fashion.
If you need an affordable alternative to fast fashion, consider swapping, thrifting, renting, DIY or upcycling!
5. Use social media for bite-sized educational posts.
Follow interesting accounts on Instagram such as @thesustainablefashionforum, @fash_rev and @ssustainably_ to start your sustainable fashion journey. Also, stay tuned on @zerrin_com for news, stories and other happenings in the space.
6. Get reading, and listening!
There’s plenty of documentaries, podcasts and books out there that can enlighten you on all things sustainable fashion. The True Cost and Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act episode about fast fashion makes for a good start.
7. Ask brands questions.
Ever since the Rana Plaza disaster, #whomademyclothes became a poignant question to ask all brands to become more transparent about their supply chain.
8. Use your dollars, cents and common sense for good!
If buying from sustainable and ethical brands is convenient for you, find some forever pieces without any guilty conscience. Good On You is a great resource for discovering ratings on brands from fast to slow fashion. We have an ethical brand directory right here on ZERRIN, featuring our home brands as well as more popular ones in the Southeast Asian region and globally. Remember: cheap is rarely fair, and when prices seem too good to be true, it probably is. Someone somewhere is paying the price for those heavily discounted pants with their lives.
9. Purchase natural fabrics (new and secondhand) when possible.
Given that over 35% of all microplastics released into the world’s oceans are from synthetic textiles, we can try to opt for natural fabrics wherever we can. While we cannot give up synthetics completely (activewear, waterproof jackets, shoes etc), we can try to wash them less. Even wash them in a self-cleaning washing bag from Guppyfriend that filters out even the tiniest microfibres released during our wash.
10. Buy less, choose well, make it last!
Lastly, it’s not about giving up fashion for good, it’s about being considerate about what you need.
With a background in fashion and textiles, Durva is an ardent photographer and advocate of social justice. She enjoys writing about fashion, socio-political issues within sustainability and partakes in the occasional 'who wore it better' banter on Diet Prada.