The Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion
What is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion is the speedy imitation and replication of designs and trends from the catwalk onto the high street. Fashion lines are typically introduced on a seasonal basis, though it is often more frequent than that. Emphasis is on these trends being designed and manufactured quickly and inexpensively to allow the mainstream consumer to buy current clothing styles at a lower price. Most of your local high street chains are selling you fast fashion. Generally speaking, most people have far more clothes than they need, so in order to sell you more, retailers tempt shoppers with constant ‘newness’ in order to convince them that the items they already have are no longer fashionable. This trend in fast fashion has led to more garments being produced, more often, and as more people buy more clothes, this results in more pollution and more waste. More, more, more, more, more………. and so the cycle continues in this classic case of over-consumption.
Pollution occurs in the harvesting, processing and manufacturing of both natural and synthetic materials. Here are a few examples:
Cotton - an exceptionally thirsty plant that requires an awful lot of water . Unless organically grown, farmers use lots of pesticides and herbicides that end up in the environment, namely soil and water. The impact of toxic chemical use in agriculture, for growing cotton, was shown in a documentary called The True Cost, where children of Indian cotton farmers were being born with serious birth defects.
Silk - made from the cocoon of the silk worm. (the caterpillar of the silkmoth) Most of the insects used by the silk industry don't live past the caterpillar stage because they are boiled or gassed alive inside their cocoons, so that the workers can obtain the silk threads as the cocoons unravel. ‘Some 6,600 silkworms are killed to make just 1 kilogram of silk.’ - PETA
Leather - a by-product of the meat industry. It is estimated that around 80 percent of the Amazon rainforest that has already been cleared is used for cattle pasture or for growing feed crops for livestock. This mass deforestation has caused habitat loss for millions of species, and disrupted the lives of indigenous people who live there. Animal agriculture and its by-products including leather, are leading contributors to climate change as globally, animal agriculture is said to be responsible for more greenhouse gases than all the world’s transportation systems combined. The turning of skin into leather also requires massive amounts of energy and dangerous chemicals. To stop a cow’s corpse from decomposing, it has to be treated with highly toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, dyes and finishes, some of them cyanide-based, which is horrid for both workers and the environment. Tanneries are often so bad for the environment that the surrounding area is forbidden from being used for agricultural purpose.
Nylon, Polyester and Acrylic - These textiles are made from petrochemicals and fossil fuels, and manufacturing them requires lots of water and energy. The use of petroleum creates emissions of air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide. Not only that, but synthetic fabrics are not biodegradable e.g. polyester is a popular fabric used for fashion but during a washing cycle it sheds microfibres (tiny pieces of plastic used to make synthetic materials) that are adding to the increasing levels of plastic in our oceans and because they do not biodegrade, they represent a serious threat to aquatic life. Small creatures such as plankton eat the microfibres which then make their way up the food chain to other fish and thus onto other mammals including us.
Making textiles involves activities like bleaching, dyeing, and washing that involves the use of lots of water and chemicals. Many chemicals used such as arsenic, lead and mercury don't decompose and end up in our water. It is estimated that ‘the annual environmental impact of a household’s clothing is equivalent to the water needed to fill 1,000 bathtubs and the carbon emissions from driving an average modern car for 6,000 miles.’ The fashion industry generates 1.26 billion tons of greenhouse emissions every year, which is more than the amount created by international flights and shipping combined, although both these statements are hard to verify, I am in no doubt that pollution from the industry is a huge problem and is only going to worsen unless big changes are made.
It is estimated that between 80 billion and 100 billion garments are produced every year. Consumers tend to keep their clothes for only half as long as they did 15 years ago. More than half of the fast fashion items made are thrown away within a year after production. WRAP - estimates that ‘we purchased 1.13m tonnes of new clothing last year in the UK whilst the value of unused clothing in wardrobes has been estimated at around £30 billion.’ It is also estimated £140 million worth of clothing goes into landfill each year. Oh my goodness - what a waste!!! Despite the presence of several charity and secondhand stores and recycling points dotted all over the UK, three-quarters of Britons still throw away unwanted clothing, rather than donating or recycling it. Across the ocean, our cousins in the US generated over 16 million tonnes of textile waste in 2015, according to the US EPA. Of this amount, 2.5 million tonnes was recycled, 3.1 million tonnes was combusted for energy recovery, and 10.5 million tonnes was sent to landfill.
What are the human impacts of fast fashion?
On Wednesday, 24th April 2013 an eight-story garment factory, Rana Plaza, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed killing 0ver 1000 workers - the deadliest garment factory accident in history. This event highlighed the often terrible conditions facing millions of workers in poor countries producing garments for Western retailers. These poor workers paid the price for our cheap fashion. Andrew Morgan who spent two years making “The True Cost” to explore the impact fast fashion is having on the world, shared with us that “400 percent more clothing is made now than 20 years ago, with 97 percent outsourced to poor nations where factory owners compete on price for contracts and regulation is lax.” He goes on to say “the workers need these jobs but many are paid a minimal wage and have little job security, while their health is affected by the chemicals used to produce the cheap fabrics made into T-shirts that are snapped up for $5 in Western stores.” Below are some facts and figures relating to the garment workers who make our clothes for us:
There are 40 million garment workers in textile factories in the world, and 4 million of these workers are in Bangladesh. More than 80% of them are women who work very long hours, and often have to take their children to work with them. The workers in Bangladesh earn about 2-3 dollars a day, which makes them the lowest paid garment workers in the world.
Dangerous chemicals in the factories affect the health of the workers. The workers also experience high rates of respiratory issues because of dust and air pollution too.
The International Labor Organization estimates that “170 million children are engaged in Child Labor”.
This trillion dollar industry generally does not pay workers a living wage.
Garment factories and work mills often ignore building codes in an effort to fit in as many workers as possible and export more products to major companies for retail.
In addition to overcrowding, the work itself is not monitored.
Garment workers have tried to form unions and peacefully protest for fair wages and better working environments, but they are met with violence and sometimes lose their jobs in this pursuit for equality.
As you can see, fast fashion runs by placing more value on profit than on human life or the environment, it is therefore down to us, the producers and consumers, to use our power and start taking responsibility for our actions.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
It would be easy to think that the only option now is to go naked, but unless you are a closet naturist, don’t worry there are other options:
Buy second hand - there are so many charity shops to choose from and even online sites that specialise in preloved designer wear.
Mend and upcycle - This is something our society has moved away from but is slowly returning to - the art of mending clothes or upcycling them into something new. If we want to learn and put the time in we can even make our own clothes from scratch.
If none of the above options appeal to you and you still want to buy new then lucky for you, I have some more suggestions:
Shop Ethically - shop around for some ethical brands - find manufacturers and retailers who have shown respect for the workers and the environment in the production of their garments. Take the opportunity to exercise your spending power by supporting businesses that adopt sustainable and fairtrade practices.
Consider sourcing clothes made from more sustainable and earth friendly fabrics such as organic cotton, hemp, flax and bamboo, wild silk and peace silk - none of these are totally free from problems, but they can be a better alternative to synthetics and animal derived materials.
Buy Less - consider all your purchases, how much do you really need it? Is it just another impulse buy? Sometimes paying more money for one better quality item that will last you longer is a better choice.
Invest in a Guppyfriend wash bag - ‘The Guppyfriend washing bag filters out the tiniest microfibers released from textiles during washing. The self-cleaning fabric bag is made of a specially designed micro-filter material. After a wash, simply collect the fibres and dispose of them properly.’ - check their site for more details.
At the end of a garment’s life there are a few things you can do to prevent it from going straight to landfill. If the garment is still in good condition, you could:
Sell - make some money from your clothes by selling them at car boots sales or online.
If the clothes are past their best, then you could:
Recycle - Find out if your local area offers textile recycling in the form of clothing and textile banks. Did you know that even stained, damaged and holey clothing can be recycled into new items, such as insulation, cleaning cloths and industrial blankets.
Donate - Secondhand shops often sell on unsellable clothing to a textile recycling merchant.
Re-purpose - Cut up and use as dusters, or get really creative and fashion something new like a bag, cushion covers, quilt squares, stuffed toys, jam jar covers, gift wrap, a scarf or even a whole new garment. The possibilities are endless……
As you can see there are plenty of possibilities of how to reuse or dispose of clothes in a sustainable fashion.
After all is said and done, I by no means want to tell you to stop buying clothes, just to consider stop buying into fast fashion. If we want things to change then it is time to consider the alternatives to buying disposable, cheap clothing and to try to keep things from ending up in landfill for as long as possible.
You can find more info about the Guppyfriend washing bag here - https://guppyfriend.com/en/
If you want to give things away on online check out Freegle for the UK -https://www.ilovefreegle.org/ or Freecycle globally - https://www.freecycle.org/
If you live in the UK check out this site to find a charity shop near you - https://www.charityretail.org.uk/find-a-charity-shop/
Other countries, including the UK can use yelp to find their nearest thrift stores by following this link - https://www.yelp.com/nearme/thrift-stores
In the UK, Recycle Now has loads of useful information - https://www.recyclenow.com/
The United States Environmental Protection Agency provides more information on the three R’s which stand for Reduce, Reuse and Recycle can be found here - https://www.epa.gov/recycle
For other countries, please check your local authority websites for similar information.