The fashion industry has become one of the world’s biggest polluters as it is responsible for the 92 million tons of waste being dumped in landfills every year. The main contributor behind these tons of waste is fast fashion, which has generally become the norm across the clothing sector. It focuses on capturing the current fashion trends and works around delivering or producing new collections inspired by catwalk looks or celebrity styles at low cost and at a faster speed.
Fast fashion has thrived in the fashion industry mainly because it promotes mass-producing trend-inspired clothing at inexpensive rates. The Fixin Report, a scathing cross-party analysis published by the UK Parliament in 2019, said that the fast fashion business model is “encouraging over-consumption and generating excessive waste.” It came to prominence as it became effective in its target market: young people, especially young women, with promises of cut-price individuality, female empowerment, and next-day delivery.
However, it received major criticism from environmental experts and organizations. The garments produced in the world of fast fashion are generally of low quality, thus, many are thrown out before they have the chance to be worn out. Reports show that while the average person buys 60% more items than they did 15 years ago, that clothing is kept only half as long. This problem is worse among younger generations. A study found that a quarter of people would be embarrassed to wear an outfit on a special occasion more than once. This figure increases to 37% for young people aged 16 to 24 and falls to 12% for over 55s.
The Environmental Impacts of Fast Fashion
For years, environmentalists have been critical of fast fashion not only for contributing to textile manufacturing pollution but also for encouraging consumers to buy and discard clothes as quickly as trends change. As much as it satisfies that craving of fashion lovers to try on something new, fast fashion is harmful to the environment. It has also escalated in recent years. A report from McKinsey showed that the world now consumes more than 100 billion pieces of clothing annually.
Fast fashion has encouraged consumers to buy clothes although they have too much in their closets. According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world, on average, people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000. As people buy more clothes, the growing market of fast fashion is taking a toll on the environment.
Reports show that fashion production makes up 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and pollutes rivers and streams. A lot of the clothes being produced every day end up in the dump. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second. A 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) also revealed that 35% of microplastic pollution comes from washing synthetic textiles which are mostly produced by fast fashion brands.
A lot of clothes are produced using toxic chemicals. According to The Independent, a British online publisher of news, the second largest polluter of clean water globally after agriculture is textile dyeing. Polyester, the most popular fabric used for fashion, sheds microfibres when washed in washing machines, increasing the levels of plastic in our oceans. Since microfibers don’t biodegrade and can easily pass through sewage and wastewater treatment plants, they pose a serious threat to aquatic life. Most of the time, microfibers are eaten by small creatures such as plankton which can make their way up the food chain and be consumed by humans.
Why Fast Fashion is Unsustainable
As of now, there’s no sign of any slowdown from the fast fashion market. A 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation revealed that if the fashion sector continues on its current trajectory, that share of the carbon budget could jump to 26% by 2050. Fast fashion is resource- and emissions-intensive. Making a pair of jeans, for instance, can produce as much greenhouse gas as driving a car for more than 80 miles. Textile waste made of non-biodegradable fabrics can stay in landfills for up to 2,000 years.
A recent study published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment examined the environmental impacts at critical points in the textile and fashion value chain. It focused on water use, chemical pollution, carbon emissions, and textile waste. The findings revealed that the fashion industry, due to the rise of fast fashion, produced 92 million tons of waste per year and 1.5 trillion liters of water consumed, alongside chemical pollution and high levels of CO2 emissions.
According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, the study suggested several ways to address the unsustainable ways of fast fashion. This includes embracing renewable energy and developing new methods for recycling, as well as reducing the use of polyester. The researchers also said that the industry should focus on producing better quality, long-lived items.
"We highlight the need for urgent and fundamental changes in the fashion business model to minimize and mitigate the detrimental environmental impacts,” Dr. Patsy Perry from The University of Manchester said.
These suggestions would require the industry to move towards 'slow fashion'. According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, this would encourage people to focus on more sustainable practices such as the deceleration of manufacturing and an emphasis on better-quality materials that last longer. This transition would mean requiring the introduction of sustainable practices throughout the supply chain, a slowdown in manufacturing volumes, and a shift in consumer behavior.
"Slow fashion is the future, but we need a new system-wide understanding of how to transition towards this model, requiring creativity and collaboration between designers and manufacturers, various stakeholders, and end consumers,” co-author Kirsi Niinimäki, Associate Professor at Aalto University, said.
The study also emphasized the importance of buying clothing secondhand as well as the need for improved quality and clothing rental schemes. “Slow fashion is the only sustainable future for the industry and the planet,” Libby Peake of the Green Alliance said.