Fast fashion: Is it sustainable or a growing fashion emergency?

Fast Fashion

Five Figures to Consider

60% increase in the average shopper’s yearly garment purchases from 2000 to 2014
⅗ of all clothing produced ends up in landfills or incinerated within one year of being made
2,700 liters of water needed to produce one cotton t-shirt
20% of earth’s industrial water pollution comes from the production of fashion
1,900 minimum number of microplastics leached into water supply with each washing of a fleece jacket

Heading to the beach for the weekend?  A last-minute dinner with your boss? A new client pitch? Dozens of companies can have you covered in a click without denting your wallet. Consider Asos and Forever 21,  both have about 2,000 dresses available online this week for less than $50. The ease of online shopping combined with the spread of “click and buy” runway photos has given rise to “fast fashion” — cheaply chic clothes produced on a hyper-accelerated cycle that gives shoppers the ability to expand and refresh their wardrobes instantly. In the past 15 years, shoppers increased their yearly garment purchases by an average of 60%. No wonder that during the same time global clothing production doubled. But, closets are not necessarily overstuffed. Consumers now keep clothing about half as long as they did 15 years ago, and the lowest-priced garments are treated as nearly disposable, often discarded after just seven or eight wears. In fact, three-fifths of all clothing produced ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being made. Is it time for fast fashion to slow down?

From an environmental perspective the answer is a resounding yes. In addition to the challenge of disposing of so many tons of t-shirts, sweatpants, shoes and socks, fast fashion hogs water, creates pollution and increases carbon emissions. Consider your favorite t-shirt. If it is made from cotton (which 30% of all textiles are), its production drank up 2,700 liters of water (that’s about the volume of water the average person drinks in 2.5 years.) Furthermore, because most cotton crops are sprayed with chemicals that remain in the fabric through the life of the garment, its washing will then leach those toxins into the water. (Fashion production in general produces 20% of the world’s industrial water pollution.) Think a synthetic fiber would be better? Nope. Look at polyester, a textile found in 60% of garments on retail hooks today. Its production requires crude oil and other fossil fuels making its carbon footprint more than double that of a cotton shirt. Polyester is not biodegradable. Additionally, during washing, polyester garments shed micro-plastic fibers that end up in the world’s oceans, and often, the fish we consume. Estimates vary, but a synthetic garment (say your beloved fleece jacket or best-fitting yoga pant) will shed at least 1,900 and up to 1 million microplastics during a single wash. Studies estimate that up to 35% of the 1.5 million tonnes of microplastics that are released into the ocean every year are the result of washing synthetic textiles – equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles. This makes the synthetic textile industry the single largest source of microplastics in the ocean. Additionally, the fossil fuels and electricity used in textile production combined with the constant replenishment and use of throwaway garments creates carbon emissions that contribute more to climate change than air and sea travel combined. If nothing changes, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up 25% of the world’s carbon budget (it currently contributes 10%.)

The global fashion industry generates $1.3 trillion in retail sales each year and employs more than 300 million people along the value chain. However, the way we currently design, produce and use clothes (extract resources, make a product, dispose of it) has long-term negative consequences, particularly with the increased volume of stuff being made. With the world’s leading climate scientists warning that we have just twelve years to limit devastating global warming, it is time for fast fashion to go the way of the plastic straw and takeaway cup. In addition to the negative environmental impacts, fast fashion is also linked to dangerous working conditions due to long hours, low pay, unsafe processes and hazardous substances used in production.

Responses to fashion’s sustainability challenge are coming from all quarters though largely in the idea form. Proposals being floated include regenerative agriculture, organic cotton, living wages in the supply chain, and creating standards for washing machines that would filter micro-particles. The EU and UK are commissioning reviews on the environmental impact of fast fashion. Two states, New York and California, have proposed bills that would require manufacturers to label garments that contain more than 50% synthetic materials. In New York City residents can drop off unwanted textiles at clothing drops throughout the city, and apartment buildings with 10 or more residents, office buildings, commercial businesses and schools can request an onsite refashionNYC collection bin. (Enroll your building here.) The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index lets companies measure the environmental, social and labor impacts of their products and services.

Several retailers have implemented take-back-recycling programs including H&M, Levi’s and Patagonia. However, there are not markets large enough to absorb the volume of material that would come from recycling all our clothes (see our article Reduce, Reuse, China-Cycle.) One solution? Upcycling (the process of returning materials back to a usable form without degradation to their quality – think fabric scraps that become upholstery. Also, upcycling stops new material being added to the world and instead creatively reuses materials that may otherwise end up in a landfill.  Another example, blue jeans repurposed into housing insulation. Cotton Incorporated started the Blue Jeans Go GreenTM program in 2006, and has diverted over one million pieces of denim from landfills producing over two million square feet of denim insulation.

Interested in how you can make a difference? Examine clothing labels, just as you would food labels, and know how much acrylic, polyester and rayon you are consuming. Rethink how you care for and how long you wear your clothes. A study by Patagonia found that top-load washing machines contribute 7 times the average microfiber shedding of front-load machines. Additionally, wash your clothes at lower temperatures and forgo the tumble dry which eats up electricity and reduces the longevity of your clothes. Don’t buy what you don’t need. Doubling the useful life of your clothes from one year to two can reduce emissions over the year by 24%. Meanwhile reducing the longevity of a shirt from one year to one month increases emissions by 550%. Try renting clothes that you know you will only wear once or twice. Last, try to find  joy in Maria Konda’s “KonMari” effect; it might inspire you to keep your closet free from excess. Just make sure to donate or recycle, instead of throwing away, unwanted items.

Inspiration for this post goes to Global Goods Partners
An Ethical Brand Supporting Women Artisans Around the World




Bluejeansgogreen.org, California Legislature, Carbontrust.org, Ellen Macarthur Foundation, Globalcompostproject.org, Global Fashion Agenda, Greenpeace, intercongreen.com, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, International Union for Conservation of Nature, McKinsey & Company, nysenate.gov, nyc.gov, Patagonia, Plasticsoupfoundation.org, The Robin Report, United Nations Economics Commission for Europe, Worldwildlife.org