What is Fast Fashion doing to the planet, its people, and our state of mind?

What is Fast Fashion doing to the planet, its people, and our state of mind?

Olivia Gecseg Sunday, 9 February 2020

The problem with Fast Fashion is… Now, where do I even begin to start answering a question like that? We know Fast Fashion is bad, but somehow it just won’t go away and in fact, it looks like the industry is only picking up pace. 

In my last post, I explored how Fast Fashion has got to the state it’s currently in and what qualities make it so popular among trend-led consumers. Unfortunately, the addictive nature of easily available, cheap and cheerful clothing has a tendency to drown out the noise around the industry’s poor-show on issues of sustainability and ethics. Consumers are willfully ignoring the fact that their shopping habits are destroying the planet - the fashion industry has grown 21% over the past 3 years. 

Philippa Thackeray of eco-swimwear brand Paper London, put it brilliantly in January’s eco-networking event,  when she said, “people feel a hunger for newness and the chance to be a part of the fashion world,” driving them to buy Fast Fashion. Her solution? To use her powerful platform to educate consumers about why sustainable clothing might cost more, but costs the earth a lot less.

In this blog post, I’ve pulled together key facts around the current state of the impact Fast Fashion has on, well - everything really. It’s a sorry state of affairs when the list is practically endless, but here you’ll find the most pressing environmental and social issues caused by Fast Fashion to pass on to consumers and to make positive use of ourselves.

Fast Fashion's Impact on the Environment

Clothing is inextricably linked to the earth and its resources through the fibres used to make textiles and the energy that goes into powering factories, shipping, warehouses… the whole supply chain in fact! 

Fast Fashion is particularly demanding because of the speed of production it demands. If the state of the industry stays as it is, the UN predicts that by 2050, fashion will have used up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget

Water consumption: Nearly 20% of global waste water comes from the fashion industry - it's the second largest consumer of water in the world. Water is used across all stages of the production of fashion, for watering crops, cleaning fibres, dyeing...

Cotton is one of the most notorious offenders of intensive water consumption. According to 2017's WRAP report a kilo of cotton - the quantity needed for a pair of jeans or a shirt - will consume 10,000-20,000 litres of water. It's no surprise then, that countries that supply cotton to the Western world, such as India or Pakistan, suffer from high levels of water scarcity.

One of the most extreme examples of drought caused by fashion's insatiable demand for water can be seen in the case of the Aral Sea. Once a vast expanse of water stretching through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, over the past 50 years the Sea has now practically dried up thanks to the diversion of water in the 1960s to irrigate surrounding cotton crops. It was once the world’s fourth largest lake and home to a thriving ecosystem that was a source of life to local communities.

Water pollution: The fashion industry is also the second largest polluter of water. Water leftover from dyeing is usually dumped in streams and rivers, which are sources of water for humans and animals. The dyes used for Fast Fashion contain toxic chemicals which cause immeasurable damage to any living being that ingests them. Pollution also comes in the form of microfibres, the tiny plastic particles clothing releases into water streams when washed in a machine. Our recent Masterclass explored this issue in detail.

Use of fossil fuels: Synthetic fibres, popular in Fast Fashion because of its low-cost and easy care qualities, are manufactured from petrochemicals made from burning fossil fuels, a vastly depleted resource. The UN states that the fashion industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined.

Carbon emissions: In 2015, the carbon emissions of polyester production was equivalent to that of 185 coal-fired power plants, that's 1,715 million tonnes of CO2.The Pulse of Fashion report in 2015 forecast fashion emissions to grow by 63% by 2030.

These are some pretty shocking statistics when you consider the results are clothes - and far too many than we could ever realistically consume. Which brings us to the next Fast Fashion crime: waste.

Fast Fashion's Throwaway Culture 

In an industry where vast quantities of resources are used, you’d think there would be a little more consideration about where the end product finishes its life. However, the cheap manufacturing processes used to make Fast Fashion, means garments are not built to last and fall apart or use fabrics or dyes that get worn out quickly (a deliberate measure in some cases, to encourage even more spending)

According to WRAP UK households sent 300,000 tonnes of clothing to landfill in 2016. When synthetic clothing goes to landfill, it breaks down, releasing methane gases into the atmosphere. Toxic chemicals are also released into the soil via leaking water, known as leachate. 

700,000 tons of clothing will be sent to be recycled, although recycling plants are now observing that the textiles they see today are of such poor quality, it takes a larger quantity to recycle into a useful raw material. 

And its not just worn clothing that’s contributing to the waste heaps of Fast Fashion. A couple of years ago, brands were exposed for the wasteful and environmentally unsafe practice of burning unsold stock. H&M was revealed to have burned around 60 tons (the weight of nine elephants) of new stock since 2013. 

Then there’s the wastage of the materials that are produced to make garments. About 15% of fabric intended for clothing production, ends up on the floor of the cutting room, which means that 15% of all the energy, natural resources and labour that went into making that fabric was a waste. 

Fast Fashion's Exploitation of Cheap Labour

One-in-six people work in the global fashion industry. This fact is just astonishing. A majority of these workers are women earning less than $3 per day.

Sweatshop conditions have been exposed time and time again in the press and yet, the appalling conditions of factories and abysmal wages continue to go on. Over 3 million people work in the garment industry in Bangladesh alone, where wages start at £25 per month. That’s the cost of a single high-street garment in the UK, but exploited workers might be expected to produce 20 garments in just an hour.

Fast Fashion and Mental Health

Shopping addiction is a reality and Fast Fashion has a huge role to play in its escalation. The availability of cheap, trend-driven clothing has allowed more people than ever to become dedicated followers of fashion. The rise of blogging and social media platforms that make use of very visual means of engagement, have meant increased pressure for users of these sites to keep up with their idols. Haul shopping videos in particular, where YouTube stars, role models to millions of young followers, bring out item after item of cheap, high street clothing do little to educate shoppers on the negative impact of such purchases, and do a lot to increase envy and inspire more shopping trips to Fast Fashion chains.

Constantly seeking happiness out in clothing has a vastly negative impact on our mental health, particularly among young people who are susceptible to peer pressure. It also has financial implications too; 85% of people with a shopping addiction develop ‘worrying’ levels of debt. 

Turning a negative into a positive

Okay, so that’s probably enough doom and gloom to last us all year. What’s crucial to remember is that Fast Fashion is problematic because of the sheer volume of clothing it produces, paired with the cheap and aggressive mass-manufacturing methods used to make it, that aggressively consume resources and have little concern for the well-being of people and the planet.  The more clothing manufactured, the more these issues are aggravated, which means buying less, consuming and making slowly and learning to repair and care properly for the clothing we own are the ways to bring a stop to this vicious cycle.

It is part of our responsibility as members of the industry to make sure the harmful practices of Fast Fashion are known about and influence people to make good consumer decisions. You’ll find plenty of content on the site to help your business grow in ethical and sustainable ways and to educate people on making the right choice.

Check out the following Masterclasses for tips on counteracting some of the negative impacts mentioned in this blog: 

Feel passionately about the issues raised in this article? Join us for our next free, eco-networking event, taking place at The Marylebone in London on Monday 17th February. Can't make it in person? We live-stream all talks and panel discussions for free online. Simply tune head to this page at the time of the event to take part.

Further reading:

Five Ways Fashion Damages the Planet

Does Recycling Work and Are Landfills Really That Bad?

69 Facts and Statistics About Fast Fashion That Will Inspire You To Become An Ethical Fashion Advocate