By Sarah Dunn
Fast fashion is a relatively new problem. Before the 20th Century, most British people had a few outfits that were tailor-made for the rich, or hand-sewn for the poor. The material was expensive and was often reused to make many different garments across one person's lifetime. As people became richer after the second world war, clothing shops and catalogues appeared where you could buy items that were already made to wear and available in different sizes, and the style of the clothes available changed along with the seasons. Not only was it convenient, but it was also remarkably inexpensive. Over the last seventy years, mass production has allowed clothes shopping to become more and more convenient, as items have continued to decrease in value and increase in abundance.
Clothes have also become more disposable and are no longer made to last, you can now walk into a high street clothing chain and buy ten or fifteen items of clothing for less than the price of one dress in the 1950s. In the 1990s, shopping centres and high streets filled up with bright, colourful fast fashion shops like Forever 21, which played loud pop music and offered cheap on-trend polyester clothing that an average teenage girl could afford to buy for herself. The carbon footprint of a simple t-shirt purchased from one of these shops (Topshop, Zara, H&M, etc), was enormous in contrast to the price tag, and the clothes were replaced so quickly that people were pressured to shop continuously. Traditionally, there were four fashion seasons a year, since the opening of Zara, there have been twenty - owing to their turnaround timeframe of five weeks.
It has become culturally unacceptable to wear the same outfit on more than one occasion, cheap tops and dresses bought from the high street sale are often only worn once or twice before they are recycled or shipped off to landfill sites. A 2019 Barnardos survey established that British people will spend up to 2.7 billion pounds in an average summer on clothes that are only worn once. As a nation, we buy more clothes than every other country in Europe, simply because prices are so low, and we also value the price of an item more than any other factor, including durability, quality, and sustainability.
Perhaps one reason for this is because the information about fashion sustainability is so confusing that it's difficult to ascertain how or why the dress you are buying is going to cause global temperatures to rise. Two of the statistics about fast fashion that are visible online, claim that the industry sells somewhere between 80 and 150 billion items every year, and nearly three-fifths of what is produced end up in incinerators or landfill in under 5 years.
Despite the publication of these facts on reputable eco-news and charity websites, as well as the United Nations site, there is no actual scientific research to back up these numbers; the fashion industry is so enormous it is pretty much impossible to assess how much damage it is doing to the planet as a whole. Dr Linda Greer (a senior global fellow of the Institute of public and environmental affairs) asks “Where are the technical papers? Where are the peer-reviewed journals? Where is the serious work?” She points out that the lack of solid factual information not only makes it confusing for consumers to understand the dangers of fast fashion, but it also makes it very hard to hold clothing brands accountable for their actions.
The fashion industry is also the second biggest global pollutant, releasing more CO2 than aviation and shipping combined, and that 4% of global waste comes from fashion; there is a multitude of evidence to suggests that the rate at which we are buying and throwing away clothes is completely unsustainable and that brands claiming to be taking steps to protect the earth are in reality causing mass harm to people and planet behind the scenes.
So how can the mass production and use of clothing be so damaging in terms of the climate crisis? How can it release more emissions than the aviation industry, which pumps the gas from its engines directly into the atmosphere all day every day of the year?
Making the materials requires a huge amount of the earth’s natural resources, and synthetics like polyester which the cheapest clothing is made from require chemical processes as part of their formation. The production of polyester alone could release up to 706 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, and natural materials are not much better because of their excessive need for water during agriculture. This harm is, for those working in the industry, a carefully balanced loss, which allows those at the top to make a huge amount of money (it’s thought that the fashion industry generates about $620 billion every year) - producing the clothes for mere pennies while offsetting the true cost onto the planet by exploiting natural resources, and flogging the clothes off on the cheap while still making a decent profit for every item sold.
Growing cotton requires gallons and gallons of water to grow enough for each item of clothing. One T-shirt could rely upon 7,000 litres of water to grow the material it’s made from. The 25 million cotton farmers across 80 countries often use petrol-powered heavy machinery to produce cotton, and deploy 6% of the world's toxic pesticides to protect their crops, poisoning other animals and people as well as destroying the fertile soil and polluting rivers. The process of dyeing the fabric is just as toxic, and usually, the dye leaks into freshwater sources like lakes and rivers, also releasing tiny fibres or other chemicals that poison wild animals. It requires a huge amount of heat to dye cotton, and the fabric has to be washed and heat dried before it can be shipped off to production. The material is then moved from factory to factory by ship, then to retail across another ocean, packaged in single-use plastic, sold, and worn a few times before being shipped again to a landfill or second-hand clothing markets. These ugly, pollutive, and carbon-intensive processes happen in factories in the developing world, way out of the eyeshot of British shoppers who are encouraged by brands not to think much about where their clothing comes from.
Around 60% of the clothing we buy is synthetic, either polyester, nylon or acrylic, or some other kind of synthetic fibre that requires petroleum as part of its production process; they are cheap and versatile, so can be used to make anything from athletic gear to winter coats.
The worst culprit by far is polyester - around 50 million tonnes of it were produced in 2015 and shipped across the world to be made into clothes. The real damage that this process causes to our natural environment takes place long after the factory stage however, every time a piece of synthetic fabric is washed, tiny fibres break away from the garment and are washed away into rivers, eventually reaching open water.
These fibres contribute to ocean plastic pollution in a subtle but pervasive way: The fabrics they make — along with synthetic-natural blends — leech into the environment every time you wash them. A single load of laundry could release hundreds of thousands of fibres from our clothes into the water supply.
These tiny fibres are smaller than 5 millimetres in length and eventually end up contributing to ocean pollution as microplastic debris. It is thought that thirty-five per cent of the microplastic waste in the ocean can be linked to the fashion industry, we are dumping 190,000 tons per year in tiny fibres as a result of the laundry process. These materials take thousands of years to break down and can now never be retrieved from the ocean.
They are also poisonous to wildlife and soak up other toxins in the ocean before they are swallowed by marine creatures. Around 73% of fish in the North Atlantic open ocean have microplastic in their stomachs - these fibres have even been found in crustaceans at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the ocean. Humans have touched every segment of the seafloor with the remnants of our obsession with fashion, and now, we are ingesting the carcinogenic fibres back into our systems through tainted seafood. The WWF suggests we eat a credit card’s worth of microplastics every year, and these “forever chemicals” will remain inside our bodies until we die.
The “consumer use” of clothing contributes to 39% of its carbon footprint, this includes washing and drying the clothes as well as disposing of them when they become unwanted or fall apart. As fast fashion allows for clothes to be mass-produced, sold, worn and tossed away as quickly and cheaply as possible, there is a huge amount of wastage in the industry.
Enough textiles go into landfill to fill the Sydney harbour bridge annually, and yet, the evidence of this mass dumping of old clothes is largely invisible to us in Britain, because all that fast fashion brands want us to see is the new ranges they release every few weeks. Part of this wastage is the clothes that are never sold in the first place (about 20% of what is produced) with what is leftover being buried, shredded, or sold. The brand H&M has made many sustainability commitments in the last decade but was accused of burning tons of unsold clothes in 2017. This practice occurs in all branches of the fashion industry; expensive brands like Louis Vuitton would prefer to incinerate excess stock than degrade their brand by discounting the clothes heavily, regardless of the toxic chemicals that are released into the Earth's atmosphere as part of the practice.
Dangerous Factories and Unethical Labour Practices
The fast fashion industry is perfectly designed to evade responsibility for the way it treats its employees through the use of offshoring and third-party contracts. By relying on middleman factories in the developing world to provide extremely cheap labour, which allows them to sell their clothes at absurdly low prices, they can distance themselves from the practices employed by their factories, thus allowing them to identify as an “ethical brand” even if their clothes are sewn by people who are being paid less than living wages, which is true for 98% of garment workers across the planet.
In 2013, the brand H&M declared that it would henceforth pay its 850,000 employees a “Fair living wage” by 2018. Seen as a serious marker of progress for the fashion industry, the pledge was well received by activists, who were later disappointed when the company failed to live up to its promises in any meaningful way, with 50% of their employees not seeing a pay increase over the last 8 years.
According to Oxfam, “It takes just over four days for a CEO from the top five companies in the garment sector to earn what an ordinary Bangladeshi woman garment worker earns in her whole lifetime.” Because the huge financial profit fast fashion companies rake in is so concentrated within the top levels of the company, the wage that is paid to garment workers makes very little difference to the value of the clothing, or how much money a brand can make through sales.
What that means is, if a clothing brand wanted to pay their employees a living wage, they easily could without having to raise the price of the clothing. In the year 2016, H&M made £2 Billion. It would only have taken 1.9% of this profit to pay their Cambodian workers fairly for their hours of labour (an extra $78 a month).
Aside from being poorly paid, working for the fast fashion industry can often be extremely dangerous. Sometimes, sewing-machine operators work over 100 hours a week, in sweltering hot and dirty conditions. 85% of factory employees are women, preferred by clothing companies because they are seen as less likely to unionize in demand of better pay and conditions. The Human rights of these women are not sufficiently protected, and they describe often being sexually harassed or exploited at work, as well as being fired for becoming pregnant. There are also plenty of accusations of child labour across the fast fashion industry.
Working conditions are also often dangerous, such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh in 2013 in which over 1,129 labourers were killed. Whilst making clothes for Primark shops in the UK, employees had complained to their managers about cracks in the factories infrastructure to no avail, demonstrating the human cost of fast fashion to consumers around the world, but unfortunately resulting in little meaningful change.
The pandemic revealed that even in Britain, where garment workers make clothes for £3.50 an hour for online fast-fashion sites that want to reduce delivery time, worker safety is not a priority and employees suffered in March 2020 when they were forced to work in conditions that helped spread the coronavirus through factories. The rise of the internet over the last twenty years has dramatically worsened the scope of the fast fashion industry. Slowly replacing what are known as “brick and mortar” shops, online retail is unprecedented in its convenience and affordability, and now combined with the outreach of Instagram culture its scope is spiralling dangerously out of control.
The Rise of Online Retailers
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to what many are referring to as the “demise of the high street” in the UK, with many shops having to close for prolonged periods in 2020 and 2021, the lack of demand has led to a reduction in sales and profits, as well as some closures.
Arcadia, the British retail empire owned by Phillip Green, closed its shops recently. Topshop, one of the Arcadia brands, has always been one of the pinnacles fast-fashion brands in the UK and its closure is being seen by some as a victory against the seemingly indestructible industry. However, online retailers are thriving; ASOS increased its revenue by 19.39% in 2020, as well as taking ownership of the Topshop brand which has simply moved into its hugely popular website.
ASOS’s biggest rival, BooHoo has acquired the rest of Arcadia’s brands, now owning Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Wallis, Oasis, Debenhams, Warehouse, Coast, and online giants MissPap and PrettyLittleThing. Their profits have also shot up in 2020, and their success is considered to be the main contributor to the demise of Forever21 in 2019, a brand that suffered at the hands of online shopping, becoming quickly outdated after neglecting to invest in e-commerce as well as failing to embrace the body positivity movement and falling behind the times on issues like race inclusivity.
So-called “ultra-fast fashion,” is capable of an even faster boardroom to wardrobe to landfill time. A recent report by Coresight Research found that Missguided releases about 1000 new products every month, and US brand Fashion Nova tops even that at 600-900 new styles every single week, more clothes than could fit into a “brick and mortar store.”
Social media enables the fast fashion industry in a plethora of ways; influencers are paid to promote new clothes constantly, generating new fashions every few days, and pushing their young fans to shop constantly to stay on-trend. The constant market for new content online works symbiotically with the endless production of new clothing fads. Clothes are often bought simply to be shown off online rather than to be worn.
One online retailer which has mastered the successful use of the influencer/brand sales relationship is US company Fashion Nova, which uses a large network of online and mainstream celebrities as partners, who constantly post about the brand and its mass-produced affordable dupes for designer items. Their Instagram page has amassed 17 million followers and has thousands of people browsing their website at any given time. The founder Mr Saghian brags that Fashion Nova’s clothes can be made in two weeks, the crucial difference to other brands being that 80% are sewn in the Los Angeles Garment district by American workers.
However, the US labour department and an investigation by the New York Times has discovered that the brand employs many of the same techniques as other fast fashion brands, bringing illegally low pay and dangerous conditions to the US market. To compete with brands that manufacture abroad they pay workers off the books at as little as $2.77 an hour, many undocumented immigrants who cannot find a better-paid job and have no power to unionise or demand more money. These revelations made very little impact on the brand’s sales when they were published in the national press, as celebrities chose not to waver their endorsement, and the lack of other affordable options pressured people to keep buying.
In the UK, the equivalents to Fashion Nova are PrettyLittleThing (PLT) and Missguided, the latter being responsible for the £1 bikini that sold out in 2019. Also heavily affiliated with influencer culture and online advertisements that heavily target teenage girls, PLT allows you to pay an £8.99 a month subscription fee which entitles you to unlimited free next-day delivery and returns. Its custom is growing rapidly every year, having increased sales from £23 Million to £510 million between 2016 and 2019. Part of the appeal is how easy it is to bulk by clothing and return it with ease if it turns out to be poorly designed or ill-fitting. You are now able to order clothes using face ID and pay in instalments using exploitative ‘buy now and pay later’ schemes like Klarna. More than half of the clothes bought from PLT are returned, it is likely that one garment is delivered to several different addresses across the country before it is worn once or twice, and then discarded. Despite the constant barrage of discount codes and online sales, the BooHoo group which owns PLT recently announced a £150 million bonus for its executives, while paying its UK factory workers as little as £3.50 an hour in factories with no social distancing measures.
Consumer Changes and Sustainability in Fashion
Considering the projected rise in the population over the next few decades, it is likely that we will be buying 63% more clothing (an increase of 40 million tonnes a year) by 2030. Because the industry makes such enormous profits, it is unlikely that fast fashion is going anywhere any time soon.
So how can we make the clothing industry more sustainable; what can both consumers, and brands do to reduce the impact of the industry on climate change, and how can we make sure brand’s sustainability pledges are genuine and enforced to prevent “greenwashing?”
An example of greenwashing is Inditex, the company that owns Zara, which promised in 2019 that all of its clothing would be made from sustainable or recycled clothing by 2025. This pledge has been challenged by activists, who question why, if Zara really wanted to reduce its carbon footprint, it would not simply cut down production and make fewer clothes? To reduce the emissions related to the production of clothes, companies need to employ upstream operations which include switching to renewable energy sources and sustainable materials, as well as decarbonising packaging, transport, and retail operations which could generate 61% of the necessary reductions. Circular solutions are needed to reduce waste, for example, some progress has been made with the increase in popularity of second-hand clothing sites like Depop and Vinted which promote Vintage/retro finds.
Many consumers feel positive about their consumption habits in the knowledge that they do not throw clothing into general waste but recycle in clothing bins provided in shops like H&M and Primark, which give the illusion of providing a new lease of life for unwanted clothes in the developing world. Sending clothes to second-hand markets is no valuable solution either, it simply transfers the problem of surplus to the developing world, where the clothes pile up in market streets, clogging drains and creating a health and disease hazard, with the dye running into lakes and rivers when it rains and poisoning the water. The clothes create tangled lines that are dragged into the sea putting fishermen in danger. Less than half of recycled clothing is sold and mostly remains in markets for several weeks before being transferred to landfill sites anyway.
By recycling our clothes, we feel like we are making an ethical choice, except what we are doing is sending them on one more international shipping journey to clog up and pollute waste disposal sites in the global south, where we don't have to look at it. If we saw 30-foot-high piles of unwanted clothes scattered across cities, towns, and beaches in the UK, this might encourage us to shop less, but it remains out of sight and out of mind.
Instead, we should look to resell unwanted clothing in the UK, swap old clothes with friends, mend, or resume the material to make something new, and only buy something if you know you are going to keep it for years and wear it many times. Check the label of clothing to find out what materials it is made from, looking for something biodegradable: organic or recycled cotton, hemp, linen, or bamboo are great options alongside sustainable synthetics like lyocell, modal, pinatex, or ecoVero.
The truth is, it’s hard to undercut the fast-fashion industry without spending a little more time and money on your fashion choices, as well as buying less and wearing more. These sacrifices are more than worth it when you consider the damage that has already been done by the industry, and how little time we have left to save our precious planet from the climate crisis.