What is fast fashion? An analysis on fashion’s impact on the planet

Fast fashion is essentially a business model that focuses on rapidly producing vast amounts of clothing. It replicates catwalk trends and high fashion designs and delivers them at a low cost, typically using low-quality materials such as polyester. 

This business model incentivizes us to consume way more items than we need, making us believe that we would be out of trend if we don’t. In that sense, fast fashion applies the planned obsolescence method to the extreme. Unfortunately, this is causing a severe and rapid deterioration to our planet.

Keep reading to find out more about how fast fashion impacts us all.

The impact of fast fashion

To write this article, I took inspiration from the BoF sustainability index to categorize the impact that fast fashion has on the environment and the people.

Waste

Waste is a massive problem in the fashion industry. It happens at every stage of the life of a garment, from its production process to its disposal by the consumers. We are buying more clothes than ever and keeping them for a shorter period: While people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000, they only kept the clothes for half.

Is recycling a solution? While recycling promotes a more circular business model, it only deals with an issue generated by overproduction in the first place. Most of the garments are not designed with recycling intent in mind; therefore, recycling can be really difficult or sometimes impossible to achieve. There’s also a compromise in quality when using recycled materials to produce new clothes.

RELATED ARTICLE: Slow Fashion: 5 Actions You Can Take Today To Join The Movement

A more effective solution to the waste problem is to drastically slow production; this would need to be incentivized by consumers’ slowing down consumption patterns.

Additionally, increasing the use of analytics and AI can help reduce waste since it allows predicting consumer behavior to avoid overproduction. Digital design platforms can also positively impact the design process instead of physically producing the garments.

Water & chemicals

During the production of a cotton T-shirt, 2,700 liters of water are contaminated. If that T-shirt had been produced without the use of toxic chemicals, the problem would not exist. Textile production is estimated to be responsible for about 20% of global clean water pollution from dyeing and finishing products.

It’s no question that the fashion industry is one of the most significant contributors to water contamination. Growing the crops that will become fabrics requires millions of liters of water. During the processing of those fabrics, chemicals are released into the water and the environment.

One of the problems preventing change is the lack of technical understanding of the chemicals used in fashion. Some manufacturers don’t have this information, so they can’t take action.

There needs to be a heavy investment in two main areas, which all combined reduce the overall usage of water: Green chemistry and material sciences.

Unfortunately, this is very often overlooked by business owners since it requires substantial investment. However, this should be seen as a long-term investment that will eventually pay off. The costs of not implementing measures now will result in a lack of water very soon, making it impossible even to do agriculture to produce cotton.

The solution to this is to have government regulation in place and provide incentives for companies to invest in innovation and technology.

Worker’s rights

According to Oxfam’s Reward Work, Not Wealth, it takes four days for a fashion CEO to earn what a female garment worker in Bangladesh will earn in her entire lifetime. 

The heart of the problem lies in the business model, which is ruled by greed and the massive profits corporations aim for, and where all the rules are set unilaterally.

The faster and cheaper our clothes are, the more fragmented the chain becomes, and the more hidden the makers become.

As Orsola de Castro points out in her book Loved Clothes Last, “After decades of quantity over quality, of idolizing perfection over the subtlety, intimacy, and vulnerability of the handmade, our aesthetics have changed, and we have become removed from people who make our clothes.”

The solution lies in bringing more balance to the supply chain and providing workers with what they deserve. Fashion needs a new social contract that gives more power to worker’s voices and advocates for more robust regulation on living wages.

Materials

Fast fashion expansion wouldn’t be possible without the rising use of polyester, which is relatively cheap and readily available and is now used in 60% of our garments

The use of unsustainable materials in fashion is deeply harmful to the environment, from damaging soil, contaminating water, releasing microplastics and CO2 emissions.

The problem here lies in the fact that we don’t understand the actual cost of continuing with the current practices and constantly thinking that it’s someone else’s problem. The actual price of our garments needs to be understood both by producers and consumers. If these both are aligned, the policy will follow to ensure the rules are set in place.

In the companies’ best interest, it’s best to start investing in innovative materials research and incorporating such in their clothing lines. If we keep following the current trend, natural resources, including water, will be more scarce, which brings the possibility that, for example, ordinary cotton will be more expensive than sustainable cotton given that the last one requires way less irrigation. It’s all about intention and not only looking at immediate ROI.

Regenerative agriculture is one of the solutions, and it’s all about giving back to the earth some of what it provides us with and not just taking from it. It focuses on re-activating soil health, and fortunately, it’s gaining traction in the fashion industry. 

The designers have a significant influence on which materials are selected to create the garments. They should advocate for using sustainable ones that are fabricated based on regenerative agriculture.

If you would like to learn more about sustainable materials, check out our article about plant based vegan leather alternatives.

Emissions

The purchase and use of clothing contribute about 3% of global production CO2 emissions from manufacturing, logistics, and usages such as washing, drying, and ironing.

Collaboration is essential to have a solution for climate change; there should be a more thigh connection between companies and policymakers.

We also need to hold brands accountable by asking for honesty and transparency.

The importance of transparency

The fashion industry is essentially opaque about its practices. Customers don’t want to hear about big promises and claims. We just need companies to show what they’re doing; that is transparency.

Without data and public disclosure, there can be no way for companies to make strategic decisions and measure their impact. In other words, without the existence of reliable data, there can be no real change.

We have more technology to capture data than ever before in human history (sensors for pollution, water discharges, automatic monitoring, etc.). We should be able to leverage it to start solving many of the fashion industry’s problems.

There are promising independent movements that advocate for transparency, such as the Fashion Revolution and their transparency index, to incentivize and push major brands to be more transparent and encourage them to disclose more information about their policies, practices, and supply chain.

Lastly, we also need better government regulation to hold brands accountable and require proper disclosure and unified ways to measure impact.

Final thoughts

The Fashion Revolution Manifesto should be a mantra for the fashion industry: “Fashion conserves and restores the environment. It does not deplete precious resources, degrade our soil, pollute our air and water or harm our health. Fashion protects the welfare of all living things and safeguards our diverse ecosystems.”

We also need to recognize the role that fast fashion plays in our lives and why it became so successful: We all need fashionable and affordable clothes for most people. But we need our clothes to be made with dignity. We need a system where profits are more equally distributed through the supply chain. We need garments whose production doesn’t deplete the planet. We need to slow down. We don’t need more; we need better.