Fast fashion is hurting us
Quick, without checking, how many sets of clothes do you have in your wardrobe? The odds are, you don’t really know, do you? In 1930, the average American woman had nine outfits stashed away in her closet. 90 years later, that number has jumped to 30, with many having thousands upon thousands of dollars of clothes. It’s not just an American trend either, with women in the United Kingdom buying the equivalent of half their weight in clothes every single year, despite having an average of 22 items in their closet that have never been worn. Or limited to one gender, with men in the UK outspending women by a large margin. With clothes worn more than once or twice now often being considered old, it seems this trend is set to continue going forward, and the fashion industry is more than happy to continue churning out more than 80 billion pieces of clothing a year. The fashion industry already has an environmental impact that, in many ways, is bigger than the aviation and shipping industries combined. As it continues to grow, we can expect this environmental trend to become even worse, as the steps required to make clothes sustainable are often in direct opposition to the high profitability of fast fashion.
How fast is fast?
Fast fashion is a term used to describe the recent trend in fashion marketing, with retailers having a high number of small collections that are designed to be sold out quickly and cheaply. Customers are incentivized to purchase more by the ever-falling prices, the allure of sales, and the promise that this design will be removed from the stores shortly. Even expensive brands are taking part, with brands like Luis Vuitton sometimes offering a new collection every second week.
It’s estimated that the average item of clothing in the UK has a lifespan of 2.2 years. This wouldn’t sound so bad, except for the fact that many items are seldom worn, and as many as 8% end their life without having been worn a single time. It’s easy to keep clothes for a long time if they’re never used.
Of course, closets sometimes need to be cleared out and, as a result of this, billions of tonnes of clothing are landfilled every year. In fact, people are now discarding clothes so quickly, that extending the average lifespan of clothes by a mere three months would lead to up to a 10% reduction in carbon emissions, water usage, and waste creation for the clothing industry. Considering that the fashion industry currently emits 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, and that this number might grow to as high as 26% by 2050, it’s clear that the pattern of rapid consumption needs to be reversed. Using clothes for a longer time may just be the single best way to reduce the environmental impact of the industry. That’s right, clothes are so disposable now that simply using them more has a higher benefit than switching to more sustainable manufacturing practices.
Carbon emissions are not the only part of this grim picture either. Even though cotton tends to have a bigger overall impact on the environment, synthetic materials come with their own issues too. For instance, with synthetics representing at least 60% of our wardrobes, clothing is now also a major contributor of microplastics, small plastic particles that pollute the oceans and drinking water. Also impacting the waterways, textile dying is a major issue for many local sources of water, with the most striking example being perhaps some Asian rivers being reported to turn black from the output of dyeing factories. Rivers and their vicinity, once vital to local communities, are becoming toxic to any form of life.
There is also a human factor to take into account. It shouldn’t be too surprising either, as it’s an easy corner to cut for companies wanting to sell you bikinis for £1 (€1.11, US$1.32) and dresses for £3.75 (€4.15, US$4.94). In fact, it’s not uncommon for the people who make your clothes to be paid only pennies for their labour. On a US$19.99 (€16.82, £15.19) clothing purchase, you can expect the person who manufactured it to have been paid 19¢. Even by working really fast, workers are not expected to take home much money. For instance workers in Bangladesh might make US$3 (€2.25, £2.28) a day sewing jackets.
The working environment is also something to give you shivers. The fact that a manufacture was left in a state of disrepair that led to its collapse in 2013, killing and injuring thousands, should tell you exactly how decrepit the facilities can be. And, if it isn’t the building collapsing, it may be the highly toxic and dangerous work environments that slowly kill the workers, with reports of lung disease and cancer being commonplace, not to mention the occupational hazards. Without some drastic change in the industry, you can also expect to keep hearing about cases of child labour and human trafficking.
Recycling & second-life
It’s easy to become complacent about consumption habits, especially when recycling bins can be found in many places promising to give a second life to your clothes. Yet, as discussed in my article about recycling, it’s not because something ends up in a recycling bin that it will avoid ending up in the landfill — far from it. Despite the large quantity of clothes that remain unused when they get thrown out, the American Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only 13.6% of all clothing is recycled, with everything else being thrown out. It’s become so cheap to purchase clothes from fast fashion brands that new clothes are often a more economical option. This also means that developing countries, to where second-hand clothes are typically exported to be given a second life, are slowly starting to follow our steps in buying cheap clothes from fast fashion brands. In turn, this could mean an even shorter average life for clothes.
Certainly, everyone does. The question is, do you need another pair of pants when you haven’t worn 50% of your wardrobe more than once. Like with many things related to our over-consumption, we need to start asking ourselves questions when it comes to our purchasing habits. It’s not enough to purchase from brands that promise to use sustainable materials and fair working conditions. Though it is a start, we need to make sure we buy clothes that last a long time and can be repaired. This is especially true if you want your clothes to have a second life once you are done with them. A jacket with a broken zipper is not getting used by someone else, and throwing it in the recycling bin only adds a step on the way to the landfill.
We also need to get rid of the stigma often associated with second-hand clothes. It’s already starting to happen in some places, with online platforms such as Vinted becoming highly popular, but buying used clothes not only gives a second life to someone’s wardrobe, it also avoids new manufacturing. Second-hand clothes are more environmentally friendly than new clothes, no matter what companies tell you in their eco-friendly-tons-of-nice-labels advertisement. Opting for second-hand clothes is an amazing way to reduce your footprint.
Finally, clothing swaps are becoming more and more trendy. While you could also consider them second-hand clothes, the idea is that you also get rid of some of your clothes by handing them out directly to someone who will use them. This not only diminishes the potential for your outfits to end up in a landfill, it also helps manage the number of clothes that are sitting unused in your wardrobe.
- Rethink: Reflect upon your purchasing habits. Which brands do you want to support? Which materials do you want to buy? Can you avoid buying entirely?
- Refuse: Do you really need yet another item of clothing?
- Reduce: How many new items do you need? Is what you’re buying going to be usable with the rest of your wardrobe?
- Reuse: Keep your clothes for a longer period and wear them more frequently. Swap clothes with others and consider buying second-hand.
- Repair: Fix that broken zipper. Upcycle whenever possible.