Fashion weeks are taking place around the globe at the end of September and beginning of October. So, now’s the perfect time to talk about just how polluting the fashion industry is—and why fast fashion is the biggest evil. And of course, after reading this article, you’ll know what you can do to reduce fashion’s negative impact on the planet.
Fast fashion is a phenomenon that appeared not long ago, following in the footsteps of slow fashion. Before the industrial revolution, it took a really long time to source the raw materials to make fabric, and sew it into shape by hand. As a result, people cherished their outfits and repaired them as much as possible before tossing them when they were literally rags. The more technically advanced the industry became, the cheaper the products became for customers. Nowadays, producers offer a wide range of clothes to suit everyone’s taste and wallet. What a dream..? Well no, absolutely not, if we look at the impact on the environment! Here’s why.
One of the pillars the fast fashion stands on is overproduction. Fast fashion offers cheap and trendy clothes but means collections change at lightning speed. H&M, Zara, Topshop and other fast-fashion brands renew their collections once a week! Such volume-based business can’t be sustainable. 92 million tons of textile waste is created annually by the fashion industry. And shockingly, about 30% of the clothes produced each season are never even sold. These unsold garments are often burned, as it’s cheaper and easier for the company than finding a way to reuse or recycle them.
Apart from wasting resources, the fast fashion industry pollutes waterways with toxic dyes, and increases the number of microfibres in the ocean through the use of fossil fuel-based fabrics. It also puts extreme stress on water basins and increases drought risk in developing countries, due to the pesticides used to grow cotton. As one of the largest sectors in the global economy, fashion is accountable for driving climate change through its creation of 4% of greenhouse gas emissions. The same amount is emitted by the entire economies of Germany, France and the United Kingdom combined.
In pursuit of making products cheaper, companies sacrifice quality. As a result, garments wear out more quickly—forcing customers to buy new ones at a much faster rate. This is where we come to overconsumption, another problem of the modern age. We now buy 400% more items of clothing than we did just twenty years ago. And this trend isn’t in decline. Over time, clothes shopping has stopped being a necessity and turned into a hobby. This results in dozens of items in our wardrobe that are soon deemed “out of fashion”. The average item of clothing is worn 36% fewer times now in comparison to 15 years ago.
Marketers convince us that we need to buy new trendy outfits right away. And what to do with all these “old” clothes? Unfortunately, 85% of us choose to toss them into a garbage bin, leading to 13 million tons of textile waste per year. As about 69% of clothes are made of synthetic fabrics, most of the wasted garments take hundreds of years to decompose in landfill. Natural fabrics, on the other hand, release methane in landfill—contributing to climate change.
In addition to these environmental problems, fast fashion is also accountable for exploiting workers: garment plant employees often work exhaustingly long hours, receive low wages, and are often deprived of social guarantees.
Clothes donation looks like a pretty eco-friendly solution to deal with unwanted garments. But only at first glance. When delving deeper, we find that only 10-40% of donated clothes actually find their next owner. This is how the process goes, when donations are made in Europe or the USA, for example:
So, before putting your old clothes into a charity box, ask yourself why you decided to say goodbye to this dress or shirt. If it is too small, too loose, out of fashion or just doesn’t make you happy, but still looks good, then feel free to donate it. If you no longer want it because it needs mending, has stubborn stains or just looks too shabby, you shouldn’t pass your problems on somebody else’s shoulders. It’s better to gather heavily worn-out clothes separately and take them directly to animal shelters for beddings, or to a charity shop that proves it sends unsold items for reuse—for example, to manufacturing plants that constantly need rags.
Clothes recycling statistics don’t look any better. Globally, only 12% of the materials used to make clothes are recycled. Most of this is industrial waste taken directly from garment plants for use as furniture stuffing, insulation or cleaning cloths. Less than 1% is used for new clothes. As our clothes are made up of different material blends, buttons, labels and zippers, it’s difficult to separate the materials and recycle them one by one.
As you can see, we can’t solve the problem from the end of the life cycle. So we need to rethink it from the very beginning. While the fashion industry must seek more sustainable ways of producing, distributing and making use of the clothes it makes, we must bear our share of the responsibility too. Here is what you can do right now to reduce fashion pollution:
For more inspiration on how to build a more sustainable wardrobe, check out Sustainable Fashion: Earth-Friendly Essentials for Your Wardrobe.
Do you shop with any sustainable fashion brands? Share your favourites with your friends to help such companies compete with the fast fashion industry.