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Because of Fast-Fashion, too much is made and wasted

What is Fast Fashion?

Fast-Fashion describes stylish clothing replicated from expensive catwalks, then mass-produced and sold at a cheaper price. According to the UK’s 2019 Environmental Audit Committee report called ‘Fixing Fashion’, Britons bought more clothes per person than any other country in Europe.

We created a Throw-Away Culture. The UK binned almost £140 million worth of clothing, most of which was still wearable, instead of keeping, fixing or upcycling them. 

Why are there so many clothes?

We Produce Too Many. Because of the growing demand of newer styles and social media influence, H&M, Boohoo and Zara (amongst other big fast-fashion brands) make more clothes now than how we used to do fashion before. Underestimating the amount of new styles of clothing that people want can mean, that they may lose profit. Retailers order more clothes from textile factories from poorer countries, as it is cheaper to operate and make there than it is in the UK. When retailers receive the clothes, they then discount each garment due to the large quantity made. This then allows more people to buy more clothes as everything is suddenly very cheap.

We Demand Too Much. Increased want was shown by the power of social media, influencers, and celebrities. Nothing wrong with buying what Kim K. is wearing, but high street brands target these expensive trends and provide us with the cheaper replica. The problem lies in how fast trends come and go, which encourages people to bin their new clothes right away when a new style comes in! Did you know that H&M currently produces 52 collections a year, that is one every week!

Source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation

Why should I care?

Source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation
Source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation
  • The way we produce and dispose of clothes is not sustainable. Producing the fibres for clothing is energy intensive. From the moment flax seeds and cotton are grown on farms with tractors and electric machinery; to weaving and sewing fibres in factories with sewing machines; to  delivering the garments from farms, factories, overseas, to shops, to your house, to outlets – takes a lot of energy and all contribute to Green House Gas Emissions. It is water intensive. It takes 3,781 litres of water to make one pair of jeans which is an equivalent to 33.4 kilograms of carbon emissions according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Running the water in growing cotton, and water wasted in dyeing and bleaching processes also generates a lot of energy.
  • The effects of Fast Fashion are felt everywhere. Seas are filled with plastic microfibres from washing clothes too often and with higher temperature. Our landfills cannot hold the amount of clothes that are binned and a single garment does not decompose easily where it can take 20-200 years. On top of this, textile workers especially in deprived countries, are exploited.

How does Fast-Fashion contribute to the plastic problem?

Microplastics. 300 million polyester microfibers containing plastic are washed away to the seas every year. This can happen through washing clothes and at times shed accidentally. Clothes with a percentage of Polyester, Nylon and Rayon shed small fibres that are thinner than human hair. The small fibres have been recently reported to work their way back to your food and water.

In Your Food. It’s so small that it is hard to filter them out of the water system. It then becomes hard to stop it from going into our food and water. Research indicated that we are eating and drinking plastic! There is also plastic fibres raining down from the sky and we can also breathe it!

So I can’t even wash my clothes anymore?

Of course you can! But we urge you to change your habit. Buy less clothing containing microplastic (Polyester, Nylon, Rayon, Acrylics, Spandex). This can help lessen the amount of microfibers being washed into the sea.

Tiny fragments and filaments of plastic in table salt crystals. Photograph: Paulo Oliveira/Alamy

How does Fast-Fashion overwhelm landfills?

Hundreds and thousands are binned. Wrap UK indicates that it is an estimated £140 million (350,000 tonnes) worth of clothes go to UK landfill. In 2019, it was found that 64,418,990 kilograms of clothes from the UK had to be sent to Ghana due to the lack of land space. This does not help as the waste management system in the country cannot cope with the number of clothes imported, hence clothes will be fill up their lands for years.

Clothes take years to decompose. When discarded, clothes can take between 20 and 200 years to decompose and remain in landfills and our seas, where micro plastic fibres are digested by deep-sea animals.

How does Fast-Fashion contribute to the emissions problem?

Making Clothes has a high carbon footprint. 1 kilogram of fabric made produces an average of 23 kilograms of greenhouse gases. Washing and drying 1 kilogram of clothing over its entire life cycle emits 11 kilograms of Green House Gases – research indicates that companies could reduce this amount by altering fabrics and clothing design.

Unsold clothes are burned. Brands incinerate clothes when they don’t sell. H&M reported unsold clothes worth $4.3 billion worth of inventory. The company’s power plant in a Swedish town Vasteras partly reportedly burned clothes to create energy. H&M incinerated 15 tons in 2017, but H&M claims those were clothes not safe to use. 
Source: Kearney

How does Fast Fashion affect people?

Workers are not paid fairly. Factories need to make sure that they manufacture the quantity needed and meet tight deadlines. At times in order to reach the target, they employ more people than regulated and pay them as little as possible. The effect of coronavirus to the textile industry, showed that since clothes are being sent back to factories due to restrictions, workers are not paid for their work. 

Source: Dr. Sheng Lu (2018)

People work in bad conditions. They are forced to work in buildings not fit for use. Because of the level of demand, overcrowding is the norm. Disasters that cost the lives of 1,134 men, women and children at the Rana Plaza Incident in 2013 is a grim example of textile workers being exploited by the fast-fashion industry. The incident occurred because of bad regulation of factory buildings not built to house too many people.

There are health risks to working in the textile industry. Proper equipment and machinery are not always used or implemented in textile factories especially those outside the UK. When dyeing or bleaching clothes, people are exposed to gases and chemicals that are harmful to the body. 

However, it is also up to the company to check whether these conditions are acceptable or not. They are able to check whether workers are managed and paid properly or cease production of clothes entirely with a factory that is not meeting the standards. Hence, they do have a choice. That’s where we come in, as consumers, we can push sustainability in the clothing industry even further.

Watch the 2017 ‘Riverblue’ Documentary that looks into the effect of Fast-Fashion to the environment and humans. 

How is this my responsibility as a consumer? I'm only buying what they provide.

Exactly. We buy the clothes. So, we are still partly responsible for clothes being on demand. We are constantly on the hunt for new trends, hence brands refresh their collection and come up with new styles. 

Are Retailers at fault? Most clothing companies outsource production outside of Scotland and the UK as it is cheaper to manufacture with less regulatory responsibility. Some argue that it is time for big brands to be responsible for demanding better production, working conditions and environmental protection. However by buying so many cheap clothes that are made outside of the UK, factory owners still make the rules, while retailers are unaware of conditions, so exploitation continues.

What Can I Do?

There is always room for improvement if we want to slow fashion down and overall mitigate climate change.

Be mindful of what we purchase and how we dispose of items. Of course, we want to look good but we need to look at options that don’t affect other people and the environment. Circular economy is the way to reduce our waste in clothes whilst educating ourselves on how best to keep our clothes from landfills or seas.

Commit to Change. Consumer demand is the driving force of the clothing industry. We can be more informed and seek ways to look for better, more sustainable options. 

Email, tweet, share, have an opinion about your go-to clothing stores and websites and demand retailers to change their sustainable policies. If you buy clothes wrapped in plastic all the time, communicate this to them and demand better practices.

Check out campaigns such as:

Source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation

Solutions for Now

Read our articles on how to improve your clothes consumption and usage.