The statistics around fast fashion are shocking. It produces more carbon emissions than aeroplane travel and shipping worldwide combined. 93 per cent of fashion brands surveyed by Fashion Checker aren’t paying their workers a living wage. And over a third of the microplastics found in the ocean come from our clothes
But let’s be honest, who hasn’t ever bought something from Zara or done a giant ASOS haul? When almost all fashion is fast nowadays, it’s impossible to avoid it.
Recently, I’ve been thinking: is there a way to make it just… end? Can we really ever get to a place where there’s no fast fashion and garment workers are paid fairly? And, if so, what would a fast-fashionless world look like?
What is fast fashion?
For the uninitiated, fast fashion has only been around for about 20 – 30 years, emerging in the ’90s and early 2000s, when designs from catwalks started to be quickly replicated by high street shops.
Since then, fast fashion production has gotten quicker, clothes have become cheaper and trend cycles have been speeding up at rocket speed. Where once upon a time, people would wear clothes until they grew out of them or when the seasons changed, today some fast fashion brands launch between 600 to 900 new styles each week.
Popular fast fashion brands include Zara, Shein, Boohoo, Fashion Nova, H&M, Pretty Little Thing, Uniqlo, Primark, Topshop and GAP. You know the ones.
How bad is fast fashion for the planet?
There are two main issues here: production and waste.
According to the Climate Council, the industry “belches out 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 per year”, and it’s the planet’s third-largest polluter after food and construction. Today, the global fashion industry releases 5 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases.
Why is it so polluting, you ask? Contrary to what you might think, the process of making and transporting clothes isn’t the main contributor to emissions. Turns out that our over-reliance on synthetic fibres – which are made mostly from non-renewable materials like polyester and nylon by using crude oil – guzzles up an estimated 342 million barrels of oil every year.
Cotton, a traditional alternative, also requires a tonne of fresh water, pesticides and fertilisers to grow, making it a process-heavy resource that must be used sparingly and in a sustainable way.
And then there’s the waste. After you’ve worn your outfit once on Instagram and decide it’s no longer suitable for your wardrobe, it ends up in the landfill – along with the 10,000 other items of clothing that get sent to landfill every five minutes. Globally, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles are dumped into landfills each year. By 2030, this number will reach more than 134 million tonnes per year. That’s not counting all the wasted resources used to make the clothes — a single pair of denim jeans requires 1,800 gallons of water!
Is there more interest in sustainability from consumers?
Yes! People are getting more environmentally conscious and data shows we’re becoming more driven to buy sustainable products. Consumers have pushed companies to evaluate their labour practises and effects on the climate crisis. A 2015 survey found that 66 per cent of shoppers globally were willing to pay more for more sustainable clothing. But whether that’s actually happening on a wide scale is hard to grasp, especially as fast-fashion brands continue to dominate.
What can we do as consumers?
Many people have been trying to resist fast fashion for decades, by either making their own clothes or finding alternative ways to source them.
Essentially, consumers have a few choices: buying less, buying second hand, buying from sustainable brands, or even making their own clothes. There are also more fun and social ways to get new clothes. Why not have a clothes swap event with friends?
As waste is one of the most significant issues with fast fashion, it’s also crucial to have an exit plan for your clobber. The best thing you can do is either adapt your old clothes, sell them on, or donate to charities if you’re feeling extra generous.
But beware: even charities are overwhelmed by fast fashion. In the UK, we send 700,000 tonnes of clothes to charities each year. As you can probably imagine, the clothes that don’t sell still end up in landfills.
What will it take to really end it?
As always, individual acts of sustainability are better than nothing and can have ripple effects on those around you. But is there anything we can do on a bigger scale? You know, like introducing governmental reforms or eco-tariffs?
Well, because the world is so globalised, regulating the supply chain of fast fashion is incredibly difficult. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for legislation, especially in the UK, where garment workers mostly come from marginalised communities, who are notoriously overworked and underpaid.
Although the current UK government has been criticised for “failing to tackle fast fashion”, non-profit groups have made efforts to bring more accountability into the fashion industry. Remake managed to collect an estimated $7.5 billion in unpaid garment worker wages from 16 brands after launching a viral social media campaign called #PayUp.
For real change (that’s protected by law) to happen, though, there needs to be mass demand for change and new legislation.
What would a fast-fashion free world look like?
Fast fashion has become so normalised that it can feel alien to imagine alternative futures without it. But thinking outside the box is a key step in solving the climate crisis.
A world without fast fashion would mean better quality clothes made to last lifetimes. It would mean learning to mend and repair broken items instead of binning them. It would mean paying workers fairly for their time and supporting more local businesses, instead of relying on outsourced cheap labour and transporting clothes around the planet. It would mean expressing our identities in a way that isn’t harmful to the earth. It would mean that a few fashion CEOs wouldn’t profit off the hard work of many, because fashion brands wouldn’t be profit-driven businesses but rather collectives, where each person reaps the reward of their labour.
But most of all, a world without fast fashion would be cool because it would be ethical. And being ethical is obviously very chic.