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Fast fashion: a huge industry

Fast fashion is the term to describe clothes from a specific industry model where high-fashion trends are replicated in mass production and sold at a very low or low cost.

The fast fashion industry model grew during the 20th century when manufacturing became less expensive and when the demand started skyrocketing. The price drop happened after the result of new materials to create clothes, such as polyester and nylon. In addition, low-cost labour, more efficient supply chains and quick response manufacturing allowed retailers and fast fashion brands to thrive and become large multinationals selling their products around the world.

Some figures in the fast fashion industry

Fashion is an influential business in the world and in the United Kingdom. We buy more clothes per person in the UK than in any other country in Europe. The fashion industry was worth £32 billion to the UK economy in 2017. This was an increase of 5.4% in 2016; a growth rate 1.6% higher than the rest of the economy. Furthermore, the industry employs 890,000 people in the UK in retail, manufacturing, brands and fashion design businesses.

  • More than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilization and the lack of recycling, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
  • The UN says that by 2050 the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles given the growth in global population.
  • In September 2015, the UK signed up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including a commitment (SDG 12) to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.10

The fashion industry has become one of the most influential sectors, both in terms of financial power and how it shapes wider trends, beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, identity and culture in the UK and across the world. This means that buying fast fashion entails a social, economic and environmental price that everyone pays!

Growth of the industry

The general consumption of fast fashion around the world creates jobs and growth in developing countries, it also leaves them with the consequences of the environmental and social costs. Eco Age warned that this competition between countries for inward investment was driving a race to the bottom in terms of standards.

By 2030 global apparel consumption is projected to rise by 63%, from 62 million tons today to 102 million tons—equivalent to more than 500 billion additional T-shirts.

Consumption levels

Fast fashion is defined as a 'monstrous disposable industry' according to Phoebe English a fashion designer. Where fast fashion has driven overconsumption, and the production of garments is so cheap that they are treated as disposable, creating excessive waste.

Others have hailed the benefits of fast fashion, Dr. Sumner of Leeds University School of Design stated that this phenomenon was successful because it had 'democratized' fashion. It allowed 'all segments of society, irrespective of class, income, or background to engage and be able to buy the hedonistic and psychogenic pleasure of fashion'.

Environmental impact of fast fashion

Some figures of the environmental impact

Key facts and figures on the carbon, water and land-use footprint of textiles for the fashion industry:

  • A polyester shirt has more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt (5.5 kg CO2e vs. 2.1 kg CO2e). (Kirchain, R., Olivetti, E., Reed Miller, T. & Greene, S. Sustainable Apparel Materials (Materials Systems Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015))
  • One kilogram of cotton—equivalent to the weight of a shirt and pair of jeans—can take as much as 10,000–20,000 litres of water to produce. (WRAP, Valuing Our Clothes: the cost of UK fashion (July 2017))
  • The fashion industry is projected to use 35% more land for fibre production by 2030— an extra 115 million hectares that could be left for biodiversity or used to grow crops to feed an expanding population. (Global Fashion Agenda & Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the Fashion Industry (2017))
textile production
Textile production is responsible for a significant amount of water waste, carbon emission and land use. Source Unsplash

Textile and Climate Change

Textile production is a major contributor to climate change. It produces an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year—more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. It is estimated that across the full lifecycle of clothing globally, the industry has an annual carbon footprint of 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2e. That figure is close to the combined carbon footprint of all 28 current members of the EU.

In the UK, the total carbon footprint of clothing is growing—rising from 24 million tonnes to 26.2 million tonnes per year in 2016, according to WRAP. If fashion continues on its current path, it could use more than 26% of the global carbon budget associated with a 2 °C pathway by 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Water consumption in fashion

Large quantities of water are also used for the production of fibres. In 2016, WRAP estimated that the water footprint of clothes used in the UK was 8 billion cubic metres. Globally, the fashion industry consumes an estimated 79 billion cubic metres of freshwater annually. Water is also used when dyeing, finishing, and washing clothes. Adding rips and tears to jeans by the application of chemicals is harmful to workers and the environment.

Textile production is responsible for high volumes of water containing hazardous chemicals being discharged into rivers and watercourses. Twenty per cent of industrial water pollution globally is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Reliance on chemicals in the cotton production process is linked to high rates of water use—with up to one-fifth of water use related to diluting chemicals, according to the Soil Association.

The water scarcity exacerbated by cotton production in arid regions has an impact on local communities—especially in low-income countries. Major cotton-producing countries such as China and India are already suffering from medium to high levels of water stress in certain areas. The Pulse of Fashion report warns that as water scarcity worsens in the future, some cotton-growing nations 'may face the dilemma of choosing between cotton production and securing clean drinking water'.

This is an ecological, economic and social disaster.

Land use and Fibres

The use of land for the production of natural fibres can also be a cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss. The fashion industry is projected to use 35% more land for fibre production by 2030—an extra 115 million hectares that could be used to grow crops for an increasing population or preserve forests to store carbon.
There are ethical and environmental problems associated with both natural and synthetic fibres used in clothing production. To produce natural fibres like cotton, wool, leather, cashmere and silk, requires the use of land, water, animals, feed, and chemicals. Synthetic fibres, like polyester, are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource, and require an energy-intensive production process.

Sustainability of the industry

According to research carried out by Boston Consulting Group and Global Fashion Agenda for the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2017, the sustainability pulse of the industry is weak. This means that most brands and retailers are not fully engaged in any of the important social and environmental fronts of their industry, this has even proven true for high fashion retailers that often copy the methods of the fast fashion industry.

climate change
There is a major responsibility we must face as consumers and try our best to do ethical choices in fashion. Source Unsplash

Sustainability challenge

Recent projections suggest the world is failing to meet most of the existing international targets regarding climate change, global emissions and biodiversity. Securing a sustainable future for the planet and people is the defining challenge of our time. In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the Paris Agreement target of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C will be exceeded if we continue on our current path.

UK commitments to sustainability

The UK has taken the crucial first step in its sustainability transition by shifting to cleaner sources of electricity since the Climate Change Act was passed in 2008.37 To meet our future carbon budgets and reach net-zero emissions by 2050—which the IPCC tells us is needed—the UK will have to go further and ensure that all industries play their part in reducing their carbon footprint to near zero.

That will require changing our consumption patterns and improving our resource productivity. There are several things you can do to contribute:

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Cloé

Franco-Mexican freelance writer. I love writing about philosophy, poetry and social justice. Hope you enjoy my articles!