Fast fashion and the Environment: what are we really buying?

Today an article written by our fellow RESD student Anna Verones! Enjoy it as much as we do!

Fast fashion is a contemporary term used to define a phenomenon in the fashion industry whereby the production process is expedited to get new trends out on the market as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Businesses have aggressively cut costs and streamlined their supply chains. Shoppers have responded to lower prices and greater variety by buying more items of clothing.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been an “explosive expansion” in fast fashion, led by the H&M and Zara brands. Sales have almost doubled (From 1.8 trillion in 2015 to 1 trillion in 2002). The period of time that consumers use their items has been shortened by 50% since the beginning of the 21st century. Even so, the average consumer today buys 60% more clothing items compared to the average consumer at the start of the century. These trends are expected to keep growing (up to 2.1 trillion by 2025), also thanks to the increase of online sales. Even assuming the production and consumption levels to be constant, the rapid growth of the global population gives rise to serious concerns for the future.

Consumers prefer to buy cheap and short-lasting clothes, indifferent to the clothes’ quality and environmental effects. Over-consumption and materialism lead to disastrous effects on the environment: both in terms of resources needed for the production and in terms of wastes.

The textile industry is one of the biggest contributors to world pollution. The textile industry contributes about 3% of the global production CO2; The whole production and consumption process (from manufacturing to maintenance, drying and ironing) results in massive CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.

The main problem with the fashion industry is the material used in production. Since the ‘80s, the utilization of polyester has rapidly grown, substituting natural and less polluting material, such as cotton. Nowadays, our garments are composed of 60% by polyester. Polyester is cheap and available in larger quantities, but is also highly polluting: emissions caused by the production of polyester are almost three times higher than in the case of cotton.

Polyester and other hazardous chemicals used in the production of our clothes do not degrade so easily. Clothes can also discharge large amounts of microfibers in rivers and seas when they are washed; the decaying process of these pollutants takes decades. The accumulation of such pollutants in the water can be detrimental to the marine environment.

Neither continuing economic growth in the textile industry, nor constant levels of production and consumption can be maintained forever, assuming growing population and the constraints imposed by our environment. Actions need to be taken to maximize the benefits for people and minimize the cost for the environment – sustainable fast fashion.

Both firms and costumers must stop ignoring the problem and start collaborating: evaluating sustainable proposals, planning, and reporting about their actions. Since 2011, Greenpeace’s Detox campaign has been challenging this environmental toll and has gathered support from 78 companies, including fashion brands, large retailers, as well as textiles suppliers, to achieve greater transparency and less discharges of hazardous chemicals in the supply chain manufacturing; they want to achieve this by 2020. Greenpeace found that three companies that support their campaign (H&M, Benetton and Inditex.) are on track to meet their goals.

Estimates suggest that as much as 95 percent of the clothes thrown out with domestic waste and could be used again—re-worn, reused, or recycled—depending on the state of the textile wastes.

The part of wasted clothes that is not discharged in landfills or incinerators, ends up in the second-hand clothing market: the export of used clothing has drastically increased since the year 2000, with 4.3 million tons traded in 2014. Some of the leading exporters include the USA, Germany, the UK, South Korea, Japan, Netherlands, Malaysia, Belgium, China and France and the main importers include Pakistan, Malaysia, Russia, and India. But the problem is always the same: the increasingly poor quality of the products breaks down this circle and always more clothes are not suitable to be reused anymore and anywhere in the world.

The problem with recycling is generally linked to the composition of clothes. It is not so difficult to recycle natural fibers (even if it will result in a loss of quality of the product). However, chemical fibers are costly and technically difficult, to recycle. Furthermore, only few companies operating in this sector nowadays. Moreover, the greatest problem regards mixed materials, that require a separation of all the components and a specific treatment for all of them.

Technical progress, investment in cleaner technologies and wastes treatment could make it possible to figure out a well-working and efficient circular production model where the final product is entirely recycled and transformed back into the original fibers, and other components so that it can be recreated again, as good as new. But even if the wastes and the environmental footprint of fast fashion are reduced, this is not the solution to the problem. The core of the issue does not regard only the damage caused by pollution, wastes and all the correlated effects, but the uncontrolled and unsustainable addiction of fashion consumers, regardless of the implication of their economic decisions. The only way to solve the problem – to really solve it – relies in a shift of consciousness of individuals: buying less and being aware of what we are buying is the only way to induce a real change in what and how firms use to produce. Considering also the environmental cost of a garment, choosing for a better and more expensive cloth instead of a cheaper one, that probably will last only for few time, re-using, repairing and re-creating clothes, buying and selling second-hand clothes, keeping old clothes separate from household waste making easier the recycling process, looking for eco and fair trade labels…. These are only few good practices that will reduce the impact of fast fashion on our planet and will also create an incentive for firms to move towards greener and more sustainable production practices.

Any positive change in this contest will be necessarily driven by consumers. If consumers change their behaviour companies will follow very quickly, and politicians may follow also: firms can only move with their consumers. Consumers’ education is the key to supporting a move towards beneficial changes.

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