Tuesday 10 December 2019
The negative effects of fast fashion. Photo: Pexels

This summer, a humble polka dot dress from fast fashion giant Zara went viral. That means it has its own Instagram account with over 25,000 followers, featuring hundreds of images of women “spotted” (pun intended!) in the dress. Sales of this dress undoubtedly helped to boost the brand’s worldwide sales by 5% over a six-month period. To put that into hard numbers, Inditex, the parent group of Zara, generated €12.8 billion (approximately US$14.05 billion) in sales in the first half of this year.

This is the undeniable popularity of fast fashion, the most accessible way for everyone to buy the newest international trends, at affordable prices. But there are hidden costs behind the low price tags, ones that the environment is left to bear.

Fast Fashion Issues

For a better understanding of this global phenomenon, let’s go back to the very beginning. Fast fashion started to develop in the 1980s. It involved trendy and inexpensive fashion items produced at lightning speed, which in turn introduced an increased number of new fashion collections every year that were readily available to people of all classes, in a way that fashion never was before.

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Social media is contributing to unhealthy consumerism, especially in the fast fashion department. Photo: Johnny Greig/Getty Images

Historically, fashion was only available to the very wealthy, as textiles and labour were expensive. There were none of the cheap shortcuts that exist today, such as inexpensive foreign labour and low manufacturing costs enabled by new technologies. The post-war era saw faster production methods which meant clothes could be made quicker and were more accessible to the masses. Suddenly, all levels of society were engaged in the business of Fashion.

Today, thanks to the advent of the Internet, the fashion design process is faster than ever, due to the way we share information. It’s now easier for fast fashion companies to simply copy styles off the runway, allowing the market to realise their fashion aspirations at a fraction of the cost. Nowadays, fast fashion retailers are producing a heady 20 collections a year, with re-stocking occurring every two weeks – compared to the old-fashioned collections of Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. Fast fashion democratised trends, and that aspiration is not something that can or should be dismissed.

Fast Fashion Figures

Here are some sobering statistics: as a whole, the global population acquires some 80 billion apparel items annually. A 2015 study by the British charity Barnardo’s reveals that each piece will be worn seven times on average before getting thrown out. In China, it’s just three times, says the Chinese fashion-rental platform Y Closet. According to Dana Thomas in her book Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, “in the last twenty years, the volume of clothes Americans throw away has doubled – from 7 million to 14 million tonnes. That equals to 80 pounds per person per year. The European Union disposes of 5.8 million tonnes of apparel and textile a year. Worldwide, we jettison 2.1 billion tonnes of fashion.”

To bring it closer to home, in Malaysia it was recorded in 2013 that textile waste constituted 4% of the total solid waste, which is approximately two million kilograms of textile waste produced per day. These are not statistics that indicate a collective of empowered shoppers, but instead show a throwaway culture where fashion is regarded as disposable, a cheap commodity that is no longer worthy of cherishing.

Costing the Earth

Another harrowing fact: the fashion industry is the second largest pollutant in the world. According to a United Nations study, the industry is responsible for approximately 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, 20% of all waste water, and consumes more energy than the airline and shipping industries combined. It is estimated that across the full lifecycle of clothing, the industry produces 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2e globally per year. This is more than the 28 EU member states which combined, have a carbon footprint of 3.5 billion tonnes a year.

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#Repost @thredup – we're so proud to be one of the beneficiaries of their #CircularFashionFund 🥰 • • • • • "👋Meet Executive Director of @fab_scrap, Jessica Schreiber. 👋 @schreibjess and her entirely woman-run non-profit are combating the textile waste crisis by being the one-stop secondhand fabric shop for makers and creators. 💪👉"I think one of the main points I try to convey is the sheer volume of material that is being discarded. We are picking up an average of 5K pounds of unwanted fabric, leather, yarns, and trim every week, and we are only working with a small portion of the companies in only one city! With such enormous amounts of fabric going to waste, it’s really important to start to think about the process differently. We should think about the collection, sorting, processing, and resource recovery infrastructure for textiles as more similar to plastic, paper, or metal." ☝️☝️Want to hear more from Jessica? Check out our full interview with her on our blog! 😉 #secondhandfirst #chooseused #recycledfashion #fabscrap #reusereducerecycle #reuserecycle"

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To put this into its proper context, fast fashion is no better than – society’s favourite bugbear – single-use plastic.

Clothes are increasingly being produced using oil, the same raw material as single-use plastic. More than 60% of fabric fibres today are synthetics derived from fossil fuels, largely due to the fast fashion industry’s modus operandi of producing cheaper products. So if and when our clothing ends up in a landfill, it will not decay.

Even more alarmingly, the fast fashion industry has quite deliberately developed a consumption model that is very similar to that of single-use plastic. Whether it’s the greed of fast fashion companies or the relentless insistence of newness generated by the consumer (let’s not play the blame game here, all parties share a burden of guilt), the fact is, items are being mass produced at a rate that is entirely unsustainable. Garments are deliberately designed to be discarded after one or two uses, with the vast majority ending up in landfills. If regular folk are “woke” enough to say “no” to plastic bags at supermarkets and plastic straws at restaurants, then why not apply the same mindset tofast fashion?

Related: This Is How You Can Get A More Conscious And Sustainable Closet