The Negative Impact Of Fast Fashion
Gone are the four seasons of fashion. Today fashion companies seek to raise profits through 52 weeks [seasons] of fashion, as a result, fast fashion has now become the norm in order to meet the ever-growing supply and demand chain. This popular consumer habit is having devasting social and environmental impacts across the globe.
Our personal consumer choices have ecological, social, and spiritual consequences. It is time to re-examine some of our deeply held notions that underlie our lifestyles.” ~David Suzuki
As consumers we have the power to shape and impact the world around us. Our spending habits can have either a positive or negative impact on the planet and its people. We can vote with our wallets and create world change simply through by what we choose to buy.
We live in a disposable culture where everything is available to us in huge quantities and at such cheap prices- especially fashion. You can go to your local shopping mall and pick up a pair of shoes for $3, a t-shirt for $5 and a pair of jeans for $12. You can buy a complete outfit for the same price you would buy dinner or a movie ticket.
Have you ever taken the time to wonder how this is possible.
Today I’m going to spend some time unpacking this.
Firstly – what exactly is fast fashion
Fast fashion is the result of fashion companies responding quickly to changing fashion trends in an economical way and make them available to customers at an affordable cost , thus enabling retailers to provide up-to-date fashion trends at a much lower cost to their customers and maintain a competitive advantage.
In todays modern world Fashion styles and trends are constantly changing – instead of having the traditional four seasons of fashion [spring, summer, autumn + winter] we now have 52 weeks of fashion. Every week there are new items of clothing hitting the stores. New trends that we, the consumers, feel the need to keep up with. In order for the consumer to take part of this endless cycle of fast moving trends the clothes need to be available at a very affordable price.
Bottom line… Fast fashion is low quality clothes that are mass produced very quickly at an affordable price.
Why does fast fashion exist
It is a module of fashion that delivers huge profits for the fashion label. It is much more profitable for a company to hire low cost labour to make not so quality clothes that can be sold on a mass scale both cheaply and quickly. The Fashion labels have huge marketing budgets to convince you and I to buy more and more. As consumers we eat it up and absolutely love it – especially in a culture where ‘more is the mantra’. We love having so many choices of fashion at such affordable prices. However, this popular consumer habit is having devasting social and environmental impacts across the globe.
There are crazy amount of clothes being purchased each year – approximately 80 billion garments annually. Compared to 20 years ago this is a 400% increase. Back in the 1960’s the average woman owned 25 pieces of quality items where as today most women own easily a 100 items or more in their wardrobe. Once upon a time Fashion was looked at as an investment – infact the average spend on a garment was approximately 10% of the average wage.
As the world population increases rapidly and globalisation surges, civilisations are becoming more integrated than ever witnessed in human history . The middle class of China and India are becoming more wealthy and as a result are wanting to buy into the ‘western lifestyle’. The world is now experiencing a rapid movement of fast fashion owing to the advancement of information technology and social media.
As global population rises daily and is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050 , it becomes undoubtedly clear that the more people we have, the higher the demand for fast fashion.
So why should we care?
Well…. there is the environmental impact and human impact that we need to consider. As consumers we are so far removed from the entire production process that it has little to no impact on us. All we know is that shopping makes us feel good for a while. Fashion has the ability to fill that empty void in our life. For each item we buy, we get a sense that our own lives are starting to resemble those glamourous look books and billboards which sell us a distorted illusion of ‘the happy or perfect life’.
As consumers we all have a duty of care to educate ourselves on the impact our purchases are having. The entire process of fast fashion is very complex and very ugly. For most of us, if we knew the truth behind what we wear, we would choose different clothing.
The supply chain of fast fashion consists of several stages. The stages of raw materials cultivation, raw materials sourcing, raw materials supply, product manufacturing, product assembling, product transportation to wholesalers and retailers and the use of products by end users (consumers) are found in fast fashion supply chains .
China, Turkey, Bangladesh and India are now an attractive destination for fashion houses as production cost and labour are dirt cheap. The fast fashion market as of today is characterised by complexities around the nature of its supply chain – in particular its sourcing and manufacturing stages , which cannot be isolated from the fact that it is fragmented, disjointed and unstable. The sourcing and manufacturing stages of the supply chain are domiciled in countries where legislations are relaxed and/or fragile and this has opened the market to social, economical and environmental risks.
Lets take a look at the environmental impact that fast fashion is having on our planet
The worlds natural resources simply cannot keep up with our demand for throw away fashion – it is not a sustainable system due to landfill, pollution and rapid depletion of natural resources.
The textile industry is believed to be the second largest polluter of the environment , following in line with the oil sector, which is currently number one. Here are 5 of the main contributors and concerns:
Carbon Emissions: Air freight is used to facilitate product supply from manufacturers to retailers and as a result, high levels of carbon are emitted in the transportation stage of the fast fashion supply chain. Air transportation is the preferred mode of transport due to the high pressures and demands on the supply chain to deliver mass amounts of fashion on a weekly basis.
Fossil Fuels: There are issues surrounding the fuels used in the production of fast fashion in developing countries such as China, India and Bangladesh. For example, China is the biggest user of fossil fuels in the world .The manufacturing sectors of these countries rely heavily on fossil fuels such as Coal to produce energy. The burning of fossil fuel releases carbon as a by-product – a greenhouse gas, which warms the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. The global move towards renewable energy is still at its infancy stage and the world is still largely dependent on fossil fuels. This makes the mass production of fast fashion unsustainable.
Pollution Of Water: Water pollution is growing at an alarming rate and the poor practices within the manufacturing of fast fashion is contributing significantly . Textiles are coloured with toxic dyes and the dye coloured waters are then washed into waterways . As a result, coloured wastewater makes its way into fresh waters and oceans causing irreversible water pollution. It is unsurprising that there are severe cases of water pollution in countries such as India, China and Bangladesh where the majority of manufacturing of fast fashion takes place  .
The Agriculture + Cultivation Of Raw Materials: Cotton which is the most used raw material in the fast fashion industry is produced using excessive water . Cotton also accounts for a huge usage of insecticides and pesticides. The World Wildlife Fund  highlights that cotton accounts for up to 24% of global sales of both insecticides and pesticides. Chemicals used in cotton farming often get absorbed into the dirt and then run into waterways, contributing to global water pollution. To put it into perspective
A standard t-shirt takes 2700 litres of water to produce and 1 handful of chemical pesticide, team the t-shirt with a pair of jeans and you would need 20 000 litres of water and 5 handfuls of chemical pesticide to develop that one simple outfit that you will probably only wear 4 or 5 times before you dispose of it.
Increase Of Landfill Waste: Textile waste is rampant and is one of the biggest environmental risks that the fast fashion industry poses. As the consumer demand for fast fashion increases, landfill waste rises. The majority of textiles are not disposed of in an eco-friendly way at the end of there life stage. There is currently no reliable data on the amount of clothing items sent to landfill. It is my impression that landfill waste produced in developing countries is higher than that of developed countries due to the absence of adequate infrastructures for recycling. For instance, whilst around 15% of clothing items are recycled and the remaining sent to waste in developed nations such as the United States of America + Australia , waste management regulations are less enforced in developing nations. Nevertheless, and regardless of the location where disposal occurs, synthetic fibres used in the fashion industry do not decompose and when sent to landfill release methane – a strong greenhouse gas which is twenty-one times more powerful than carbon at warming the environment.
The aforementioned environmental concerns thus suggest that there are key issues of carbon emissions, air, water and land pollution associated with the fast fashion industry which poses imminent threats to air, water and land resources meant for human, animal and plant survival.
The role of the market place is to be an instrument of environmental change and policy making. We are all consumers with a great potential for change. Environmental protection begins at home.” ~ Noel Brown, Former Director of the UN Environmental Program
The Negative Impact Fast-Fashion Has On Humans
Major Health Risks: In addition to the environmental impacts of the fast fashion practices, there are also health and safety issues associated with fast fashion operations. The production of textiles requires the use of chemicals, which harm people who become exposed to them. For example, highly fluorinated compounds are used to make waterproof jackets. These compounds can cause neurological and endocrine issues and other adverse health effects . There is also a rise in cancer, birth defects and respiratory disease due to the harmful effect that the chemicals are having on human health. Depression and suicide is also on the uprise within the manufacturing sector of fast fashion due to the pressure put on employees and the poor working conditions.
Modern Slavery + Human Exploitation: Fast fashion companies are always trying to drive more profits and the best way to do this is to squeeze more out of the manufacturing process. Often manufacturing factories are forced to lower their costs to the fashion brand so they can secure the production contract – obviously this then leads to very low wages for the workers.
A significant portion of the labour used in the production of fashion products is based in countries within the developing world where work regulations and minimal wage are virtually non-existent . As the manufacturing process does not require high level skills, workers accept low wages due to being desperate for any kind of income which will help put food on the table for their family. Over 80% of the employees within the fast fashion industry don’t even earn a living wage – this then locks them in a channel of poverty.
Women and young children also make up a significant portion of the workforce and there are also the challenges of child labour within this workforce. In developing countries like Bangladesh, there are cases of forced labour where people are forced to work for no money at all. There are also widespread issues of long working hours. For example, it was reported recently by the Clean Clothes Campaign that garment workers in China work for 13 to 14 hours non-stop per day . Long working hours have been associated with feelings of depression, dejection and loss of confidence and these feelings can interfere with other aspects of workers’ life and create other social problems such as relationship breakdown and crime. These unsustainable social and corporate issues within the fast fashion industry have garnered huge attention at the UN.
In my opinion the ultimate goal would be to not pull the manufacturing away from these countries – rather we should promote better wages and working conditions for the workers. We could do this if there was a legislation that required regular auditing of both the fashion labels and the manufacturing factories to ensure there are no violations.
Promotion of ‘Throw-away’ consumerism: New fashion trends are produced on almost a weekly basis  and the low production cost is seen as a driver for fast fashion trends . It has been reported by a Cambridge University study that “people were buying a third more clothes than they were in 2002, and women have four times as many clothes in their wardrobes than they did in 1980″. Fashion trends inherently create a situation where more buying occurs and not all clothing items bought are being used. Lower production costs also mean that finished items are sold to customers at a very low rate and people can afford quantity over quality. About 1.7 billion clothes are unused annually in the UK alone. Not only is this waste appalling – people are spending money unconsciously which leads to credit card debt.A survey conducted in Manchester in 1996 revealed that clothing items were one of the most purchased items by people with credit cards .
Change is happening – slowly
Although the social and environmental issues discussed herein are not within the fashion industry alone, it is important to highlight that the fashion industry is developing innovations to improve sustainability. However, most of the big players are in the developed world and are taking measures to improve social and environmental issues in the industry. An example of a sustainability initiative in the fashion industry is Zara’s “green clothing” initiative launched in Autumn/Winter 2016 . These goods were produced with eco-friendly materials such as organic cotton, recycled wool and forest-friendly wood fibre. Not only were the materials organic in nature, the factories in which Zara’s green collections were produced were powered by clean and renewable energy. Fashion retailers such as Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Next etc. are also actively raising awareness to encourage people to dispose fashion waste in an eco-friendly way, and have also pledged to reduce landfill waste, as well as water and energy use by 15% by 2020 . The fast fashion industry also has eco initiatives, policies, standards and labels in place to promote ethical fashion. These tools can be used by customers to ascertain whether or not the products which they intend to purchase are sustainable or not . The STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX is a worldwide consistent, independent testing and certification system for raw, semi-finished, and finished textile products and is one of the most common Eco-Labels found in Europe. Initiatives like The Ethical Trading Initiative mandates members to tackle, monitor and report their social and environmental performance annually.
On a micro scale, people are becoming more aware of wider social and environmental issues and are being encouraged by environmentalists to adopt quality over quantity. To see an increase of sustainable and ethical fashion within our favourite stores – it is up to us – the consumers- to break the unethical supply chain by no longer buying into fast fashion. Ultimately, our consumer choices will dictate where the industry goes.
How you can shop better
I personally have a personal desire to buy better – and I hope that the information I have given you peaks a little curiosity into your own consumer habits also. So how do we buy better?
Well….there is now actually a name for it. It is called The Slow Fashion Movement. Slow fashion is not a seasonal trend that comes and goes like leopard print, but a sustainable fashion movement that is gaining traction fast.
Slow fashion is based on the same principles of the slow food movement. It is the alternative to mass-produced clothing. It is ethically-made, sustainable and of quality craftsmanship. So what does Slow Fashion Look Like?
- Stearing clear of mass-produced “fast fashion” or “McFashion”.
- Supporting smaller businesses, fair trade and locally-made clothes.
- Buying secondhand or vintage clothing and donating unwanted garments.
- Choosing clothing made with sustainable, ethically-made or recycled fabrics.
- Choosing quality and timeless styles that will transcend trends and last longer.
- Getting creative by making, mending, customising, altering, and up-cycling one’s own clothing.
- Downsizing the rate of fashion consumption: buying fewer clothes less often.
Firstly, we need to understand that ‘Ethical’ is unregulated. Just because a company promises that they are ethical and displays a photograph of the factory they use for production on their website does not mean they are actually upholding ethical practices. A photograph of a factory and its workers is not good enough. We need more transparency. Transparency is when a brand is willing to name the factories they work with to manufacture products. By naming factories this then allows third parties and media to seek out more information if they so wish. So spend some time on the website of your favourite brands and look for this transparency within the manufacturing process. Companies doing the right thing will have it on their website – if it isn’t clear or not on the website then there is a 99% chance the brand has something to hide.
Learn to ask questions to companies so that you can educate yourself on what you are buying. Write to your favourite brands and ask them about their entire process. If they don’t bother to reply to you then they definitely have something to hide.
When buying clothes here are some things to consider :
- Always check the tag so that you know where its made and what it is made from.
- Also check the seams of the garment – look for quality craftsmanship.
- Choose quality over quantity and get in the habit of only buying what you love. Stick to timeless styles that look good on you. Join my Free 30 day Simple Living Challenge and be inspired to create a minimal yet stylish wardrobe [Read Here]
- Don’t get so stuck on the price tag. Choose to look at clothing as an investment for not only your wardrobe but for the planet and the people who made it.
- Look after your purchase. Take the effort to launder garments correctly. Educate yourself on how to remove stains. Get in the habit of mending clothes if they lose a button or have a small tear.
- Find ways to recycle old clothes. Turn them into cleaning rags. Make a patchwork quilt. If you are creative find ways to turn the fabric into a new outfit or bag. Hunt down local textile recycling units that break down the fibres of old clothes and turn them into new fibres and materials that can be reused for new clothing designs.
In a nutshell….Learn to reduce, reuse, recycle and shop smart. Choose to take a stand against the rising Fast-Fashion Industry by voting with your wallet. Yes your consumer decisions can make a change. Support ethical brands that are transparent about their entire manufacturing process. Ensure you always choose quality of quantity. Choose key wardrobe staples that will be with you for many years [they look quality and fit much better also].
RESOURCES YOU MAY LOVE
Here are a few books that go into great depth of how the fashion industry is having a huge negative impact on the planet and people.
The author examines the entire fashion ecosystem, from sweatshops to haute couture, unearthing the roots of today's buy-and-discard culture.
Using the paper based version of GreenPad’s operational sustainability software, the fast fashion product’s life cycle has been mapped to identify its environmental aspects and impacts. The stages of fast products’ life cycle which are responsible for the environmental impacts (please see report) have been identified. A risk assessment was conducted on the aforementioned environmental impacts to determine their significance level for priority actions. [Click Here] to read the risk assessment of The Fast Fashion Industry
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