By Fleur Howe – Environmental Editor
In recent years, the environmental concern over the fashion industry has grown astronomically; with the rapid growth of online retailers we have in turn seen the growth in the consumption of fast fashion, and with it the exorbitant growth in textile waste. The growth of social media, specifically influencer culture, has shifted societal views on clothes, fashion, and consumption. In an age where we watch our idols through Instagram every day and are sold their outfits through branded tags at accessible prices, it is clear why the over consumption of clothes has become a severely normalised issue. Fundamentally, fast fashion relies on low prices, low quality, and unethical labour.
When we are sold that wearing an item of clothing for only one photograph is the normal, we can begin to see why, according to a Daily Mail study, clothes are worn just seven times before being thrown away. Our clothes are being made to be thrown away. This trend cycle initially relied on the four seasons; it was practical, attainable and, whilst there was always room for it, over consumption was not expected. The trend cycle we are currently propelled by is dominated by microtrends lasting a week. That is an increase from 4 to 52 in the past few decades. With clothing companies able to conceptualise, design, produce, and ship clothes within a 10 day turn around, how is the ethical consumer supposed to keep up? In some ways it is this limited access to the clothes that encourages the consumer. With Zara moving to bi-weekly deliveries of new clothes in the early 2000s, we have seen the majority of retailers follow this strategy of a two-week stock change, giving the consumer a limited amount of time to get the items once they’ve been released and promoted. This exclusivity leads to impulsive, fast, spending. If you are too focused on the jacket you want going out of stock before you can get it, you aren’t going to be waiting to check its quality.
As it stands, it’s impossible to tell people to just shop sustainably; the success of fast fashion derives from its accessible price point, making an industry which previously thrived off exclusivity more inclusive. But cheap prices come at the cost of the environment – the fashion industry is currently responsible for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, a percentage of carbon emissions that is set to rise to 50% by 2030. Synthetic materials such as nylon, polyester, acrylic, and elastane are half the price of cotton per kilo, which has massively increased their popularity over natural materials. But as you can imagine, plastic fibres in the majority of clothing comes with its own set of issues.
Microfibres from these synthetic materials rub off clothes as they are worn, washed, and dried. As with everything else, it seems these microfibres end up in the ocean. 92 million tonnes of textile waste is produced every year, with half a million tonnes of microfibres per year ending up in the ocean (the equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles) explaining why, as an industry, it is responsible for 20% of industrial water pollution. If that wasn’t bad enough, making clothes is extremely water intensive; if it wasn’t polluting enough water, it is using up 93 billion cubic meters of water per year – enough to sustain 5 million people.
Some companies have started pushing a ‘sustainable’ range within their unsustainable companies, which often includes garments made of recycled synthetic materials, normally made from plastic bottles. This may seem like a decent attempt, but it is quickly made almost redundant by the fact plastic bottles can be recycled in many other ways. This includes ways which will probably have a longer lifespan; at the end of the day, low quality fabric is hard to recycle into anything other than insulation or stuffing. Beside being unfriendly to the environment, the fast fashion industry is entirely moral devoid.
Online retailers such as Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, and Nasty Gal have in recent years re-shored factories to the UK from developing countries to keep up with the high demand of orders and the promise of fast delivery. These factories are focused on producing as much stock as quickly as possible, with little quality control. In 2020, Boohoo faced a slave labour scandal when an undercover reporter discovered that Boohoo expected its workers in Leicestershire to work for just £3.50 an hour which, from a company that rakes in £173.6 million a year, pinpoints the greed that fuels fast fashion. These aren’t clothes that are meant to last, they are meant to be replaced. If we all look in our wardrobes, how many of the items in there were bought for a single event or worn for a single night? How often have your clothes arrived just for the zip to break after wearing it for one night, or the wonky hem start to unravel? What seemed like a great deal on the website leaves you with a wardrobe full of unlined, paper-thin clothes with a lifespan of a single night out.
Fast fashion is one of the biggest environmental issues we are currently facing, and it is not a lack of awareness that is stopping people from tackling it. It has become a normalised aspect of society that we buy clothes out of want not a need; a societal expectation to look a certain way has propagated an unsustainable culture that we are not even close to dealing with. Sure, we can shop second hand, try to shop timelessly not trendily, look for natural materials instead of synthetic but with the price point of sustainability being unattainable for the average person it is clear why it is so difficult for us to slow down.