Our Intern Stella Hosier takes an in-depth look at the environmental and societal harm caused by ‘fast fashion.’
I first became aware of the impact the fashion industry has on the planet, and the people who work in it, when I watched a film called The True Cost by Andrew Morgan. The film documents the origins of the clothes we wear and the lives of the people who make them. In doing so, it exposes the devastating impact of the fashion industry on the environment and global community. Up until that point, I had never questioned where my clothes came from, who made them, or why they were so cheap.
THE HUMAN COST
The term ‘fast fashion’ refers to the mass production of trendy, inexpensive clothes. They are produced in subcontracted factories around the globe and sold in thousands of chain retailers. To keep manufacturing costs low, the fashion industry outsources production to take advantage of lower labour costs and weaker regulations in many African and East Asian countries.
The global apparel industry employs an estimated 60 million people worldwide. It is anticipated to grow to over $1.8 billion in 2023, making it one of the largest industries in the world in terms of revenue and employment. A 2022 study by The Industry We Want, found workers in key garment-producing countries such as Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia receive on average 48.5% less than the wage they would need to sustain a decent standard of living.
Approximately 80% of garment industry workers are women. They are disproportionately affected by wage inequality, health risks and workplace violence, as deep-rooted gender discrimination in these countries severely limits their social and economic mobility. Child labour is also common practice throughout global textile and fashion supply chains, from cotton production to garment assembly. Children are considered desirable workers as they are generally obedient and have small hands, which are well-suited to delicate tasks such as embroidering.
According to a 2021 report from UNICEF, tackling child labour in the fashion supply chain is difficult because it is merely a symptom of wider issues such as extreme poverty and lack of education. When children have limited access to education and their families need to supplement their income, they often get sent to work in factories. Without education, they remain in low-paid work throughout adulthood. Eventually their children are also forced to work at a young age, thus trapping them in an intergenerational cycle of poverty.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL COST
The fashion industry is one of the most harmful industries to the planet. It contributes significantly to the loss of biodiversity, with clothing supply chains accountable for an estimated 25% of freshwater pollution due to textile treatment and dyeing processes. The use of toxic chemicals in textile production is also highly concerning. A recent CBC Marketplace study found that one in five items, from a sample of 38 garments from fast fashion retailers Shein, Zaful and AliExpress, contained elevated levels of toxic chemicals, including lead.
In addition, according to the European Parliament (2022), the textile industry is responsible for releasing up to 500,000 tonnes of microplastics into the ocean each year. This causes significant harm to marine life and ecosystems. Microplastics from synthetic textiles such as polyester have been found in every corner of the planet, from the peak of the Himalayas to the deepest point in the ocean.
It is estimated that 20% of the 100 billion items of clothing produced worldwide each year go unsold. Most of this unsold stock ends up in landfill or incineration centres, as retailers want to avoid selling them at a loss once they are no longer in season. Within the global second-hand market, millions of tonnes of clothes are shipped around the world annually.
Most of these are exported to Africa and East Asia for “reuse”. However, Greenpeace (2022) reports that 30 to 40 percent of this clothing is so damaged or of such poor quality that it has no market value. The damaged clothing ends up as textile waste and either gets burnt or sent to overflowing dump sites, which contributes significantly to air, soil, and water pollution. This practice disproportionately impacts the poorest and least regulated countries, who are left to pay the price for the damage caused by Western overconsumption.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
In the past 2 decades, the fashion industry has experienced exponential growth fuelled by a trend of increasing consumption. Between 2000 and 2014, the average consumer purchased 60% more clothes but kept them for only half as long. This increase in clothing consumption is fuelled in part by social media and the rise of influencers.
A perfect example of this is the online trend of fashion hauls. This is where an influencer goes on a huge shopping spree and posts a video showing all the clothes to their followers. Social media has also perpetuated shorter and shorter trend cycles, with the emergence of micro-trends accelerating both production and consumption.
With growing demand and shrinking trend cycles, fashion has become so fast it’s almost disposable. The market is expanding rapidly, with the global population expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030. This rapid growth means the need for change is imperative.
WHAT LIES AHEAD?
There has been a shift towards a more sustainable fashion industry in recent years; a quarter of UK consumers now claim their purchasing decisions are based on sustainability. Global awareness of the harmful impact of the fashion industry has also increased substantially.
A 2022 YouGov survey showed that 11% of consumers only buy clothes from sustainable brands, a 7% increase from 2020. Furthermore, Deloitte’s 2022 Global Sustainability report revealed stakeholders are putting increasing pressure on companies to adapt their operations and strategy based on environmental and sustainability considerations. So much so, in fact, that 79% of executives now agree we are at a “tipping point” for responding to climate change.
While this inevitably enhances the importance of sustainability marketing for brands, it has also given rise to a wave of greenwashing and misleading communications. When Pretty Little Thing Marketplace was launched in 2022, the fast fashion retailer faced criticism. It was accused of using the launch as a marketing tactic to appear more sustainable, without changing any other aspect of the business model.
Ultimately, fast fashion needs to be phased out, alongside the prevailing business model of mass production and short product lifecycles. To facilitate this change, there is a global need for stronger regulation. Major players in the industry need to be more transparent about the environmental and social impact of business practices throughout their supply chains.
MAKING SUSTAINABLE CHOICES
Clothes are a powerful tool of communication. They can convey so much, from your political and religious beliefs, to your self-worth and ambition. When I learned the truth about the fashion industry, I still wanted to dress well, but without harming people or the planet. We have incredible power as consumers if we choose to use it. Fashion can be both sustainable and ethical, without compromising on quality, style, or fun.
But what steps can we take to become more environmentally aware and advocate for a more sustainable fashion industry? A good place to start is being more mindful of purchases and researching brands before buying. If you need to update your wardrobe for Spring, some alternatives to fast fashion include reselling platforms like Depop, Vinted and Vestiaire. You could also investigate rental sites such as Hurr Collective.
In addition, pre-order business models like Unfolded have emerged as an alternative to the existing model of mass-production based on loose sales estimates. This method simultaneously reduces production costs and waste, which allows brands to offer items to consumers at a lower price.
Finally, supporting local charity shops is always a good alternative to fast fashion. However, it’s important to be mindful of falling into the overconsumption trap. Although it’s easily done, it ultimately negates the benefits of shopping second-hand and reduces accessibility for others.
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