stack of white fabrics

The global fashion industry is worth £2 trillion ($1.5 trillion) and it adds an estimated £21 billion a year to the UK economy.* In the UK, we buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe and consume 60% more garments than we did in 2000.** The industry is also the largest employer of all the creative industries with more than 800,000 direct employees in the UK.* But it’s also a competitive industry with consumers wanting the newest product at the cheapest prices. Enter fast fashion. 

What is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion refers to cheap, often trendy clothing, that samples ideas from the catwalk or pop culture and turns them into garments at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand. It plays into the idea that wearing an outfit twice is a fashion faux pas and encourages ‘throw-away’ culture. Fast fashion contributes to the growing problem of waste and unsustainable resource use. It also lends itself to working condition and safety concerns and violations. Fast fashion is a key part of our toxic culture of overconsumption, caused by overproduction. 

Fashion is one of the world’s largest polluters. Long gone are the days of twice-annual shopping days or seasonal updates. Online shopping has helped accelerate fast fashion but it’s not to blame, sweatshops have been around since the early 1900s – the infamous New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire springs to mind. 

Fast fashion and the environment 

The fashion industry isn’t a straightforward process, there’s not only the growth, development or sourcing of materials but dying, cutting and sewing, not to mention every product has waste fabric, zips, etc. This is just the production of the garment, what about the plastic needed to wrap it and the next day air freight so many of us have come to expect?

The total greenhouse gas emissions from textile production – estimated to be 1.2 billion tons annually – are more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.*** Oxfam has estimated that more than two tonnes of clothing is bought each minute in the UK, and this produces “nearly 50 tonnes of carbon emissions, the same as driving 162,000 miles in a car.”**** 

According to research from Mike Berners-Lee, the average UK person has a clothing carbon footprint close to 225kg per year – or more than 400kg when you include laundry.^ This of course doesn’t take into account wider social or environmental factors like textile toxins finding their ways into water supplies. Not to mention his research assumes the average person uses each article of clothing approximately 200 times before recycling or outgrowing. I think it’s safe to say that £5 dress you bought from H&M isn’t going to be worn 200 times… 

The overall impact of fast fashion is immense. Natural products are commonly referred to as more eco-friendly because they use fewer chemicals, however, they require a large amount of water. For example, it takes 2,700 litres of water to make a single cotton t-shirt.^^ That represents about three years’ worth of drinking water for one shirt. That’s a lot of water considering the planet has a water scarcity problem. Polyester, another popular fabric, is derived from fossil fuels. Leather goods also put a great deal of environmental stress on an area, impacting biodiversity, soil quality, of course, animal welfare. 

How do I lower my fashion impact?

In my opinion, the most sustainable action is buying secondhand. This can range anywhere from charity shops to vintage depending on your budget. If wearing someone else clothes weirds you out, look for vintage stores that sell unused products or shops that sell garments with original tags. Also, consider goods that aren’t your size. The alteration of a garment in most cases will be much less than buying new. If this will result in fabric waste, try reusing the material into something like a reusable mask or saving the scraps to patch up future items. 

Buy products and materials that are easy to wash and dry. Products that are quick and easy to dry means your less likely to need your dryer, which significantly cuts down your carbon footprint – especially if it’s a product you wear a lot. I only run our dryer in the winter months to wash heavy items like our duvet. Otherwise, I hang dry everything – even if it does mean looking at our drying for 3 days. 

Discover 7 more ways to become a more sustainable household

This brings me on to my next point: afford trends. Shopping for the latest trend might look good on Instagram but if it’s ‘on trend’ and cheap it most likely is a result of fast fashion. Trends come and go but finding clothes and spending your money on ones that will sustain you for the long term will be more rewarding for you – and the planet – than something that gets a few ‘likes’ on social media. 

Buy less, choose well and be responsible. Buy stuff that is built to last. If you follow me on social media then you know I have a very limited number of outfits! I’ll admit it, I occasionally, still buy from ‘fast fashion’ brands in a pinch but I do my very best not to. I always believe in quality in quantity and most of my wardrobe is over 5 years old. I think there’s no better example than only owning one pair of jeans! 

Finally, donate, recycle or resell your clothing. The most appropriate opinion will depend on the condition of the item but almost anything can be reused in some way. Rip in your jeans? Can it be patched up with another scrap fabric? Old t-shirts can be re-worked into dog toys. Have an outfit you love but no longer fits? Try gifting it to a friend so they can love it too or reselling it and using the profits to find your next favourite – and sustainable – outfit. 

Ultimately, I hope you pause and rethink the next time you watch an influencer ‘haul’ on Instagram or the pile of parcels in their ‘cloffice’. I’m not trying to be harsh, I understand it’s their job, but I think fashion influencers, in particular, are in a great position to challenge brands through their partnership agreements and should at the very least be transparent with their audience. 

And before you hit ‘add to cart’ do your research into the company and their policies, think about if this is something you’ll wear in a year or if it’s simply fashionable now. Start building a stable wardrobe of high-quality, sustainable and ethical pieces. 

*Source: British Fashion Council, Value of Fashion Report
**Source: Rathbone Greenbank, Putting the brakes on fast fashion, 15 May 2019
***Source: A new textiles economy: designing fashion’s future, Ellen Macarthur Foundation 2017
****Source: Edentree, Fast Fashion, 10 Aug 2020
^Source: M Bernes-Lee, How bad are bananas?, 2010
^^Source: The impact of a cotton t-shirt, WWF 2013

Photo by Ethan Bodnar on Unsplash