Fast Fashion and Its Impact on Ethical Manufacturing and Sustainability
Fashion is a vehicle of expression, and to some a form of identity. When consumers are able to access fashion pieces that make them feel comfortable and stylish, thinking of the environmental cost of fashion is often not the first thing that comes to mind. The rise of sustainability consciousness however, is prompting consumers to rethink their fashion choices. Fast fashion is one of the trends that consumers are having to revisit, given its devastating consequences on the environment. Despite being a panacea to unemployment in many countries, the danger it poses to the environment has quickly surpassed its benefits.
Fast fashion can be defined as cheap, trendy clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture, and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed, to meet consumer demand. To get a clearer picture of what fast fashion is, here are some identifying characteristics:
- Thousands of styles, which touch on all the latest trends.
- Short turnaround time between when a trend is seen on the catwalk, and when it is available on the shelves.
- Offshore manufacturing in locations of cheap labour, using workers who are underpaid and often are without rights.
- A limited quantity of a particular garment. New stock is sold every few days and shoppers have a limited window to purchase something they like, as it quickly goes out of stock.
- Use of cheap, low quality materials like polyester, causing clothes to degrade after just a few wears.
Previously, fashion used to be slow, as production processes in the fashion industry were not yet advanced to support mass production of garments. As time progressed, technological improvements made room for more speedy production processes, thereby reducing the lead time significantly. This gave rise to fast fashion which is now dominated by brands such as Zara, H&M, Forever 21 and Next among others. Where fashion used to produce 2 seasons a year, fast fashion brands now produce between 50 and 100 micro seasons a year!
The rise of the fast fashion industry has created employment for millions of people. However, it also violates sustainability on many fronts. Findings from the UN Commission for Europe showed that 85% of textiles in the fashion industry end up in landfills, and fast fashion is a huge part of this problem. Fast fashion clothing is produced through a mass garment production system, which is also characterised by poor quality material and poor quality standards. Consequently, the clothes produced are quickly thrown away, because they are no longer fashionable or because the garment can no longer hold up. The industry is therefore a significant contributor to waste as it facilitates “overconsumption” of garments. According to McKinsey and Company (2016), the average consumer bought 60% more clothes in 2014 compared to 2000, whilst keeping the clothes for only half as long. The UN Economic Commission for Europe also reported that jeans and shirts are discarded within 10 uses, contributing to the 21 billion tons of textiles sent to landfills per year. Resultantly, the surplus of fast fashion from developed countries is exported to developing countries in Africa, where it is sold as second-hand clothing.
Fast fashion is also a labour-intensive industry, and it has reportedly been associated with unethical production practices such as forced labour and unsafe working environments. Supply chains of fast fashion are very complex and hard to control. Owing to the large volumes of clothing that are produced at a time, most brands engaged in this type of production are unable to prevent their clothes from being subcontracted to other factories or homeworkers. With such limited control over some parts of the supply chain, the fast fashion industry is reportedly one of the biggest employers of forced labour, where workers are underpaid, and/or working in hazardous factories.
Pollution is another major source of concern within the fashion industry. According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the fashion industry is the second largest polluter, contributing 10% of total carbon emissions and 20% of global waste water. The case of fast fashion is quite worrisome, as most brands in this industry use synthetic fibres like acrylic, polyester and nylon, which take hundreds of years to decompose. Furthermore, 60% of all garments contain polyester, a material that also produces two to three times more carbon than cotton. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation Report of 2017 noted that if fashion continues on its current trajectory, its carbon footprint will reach 26% by 2050.
From the information explored above, it is clear that the detrimental effects of fashion are far too severe to be left unattended. The current state of fast fashion calls for alternatives that can make the industry more sustainable. Below are some options to consider, in dealing with the plight of fast fashion.
Buy Quality Clothes
One of the reasons why fast fashion continues harming the environment is the use of poor quality material to manufacture clothes. Unfortunately, this means that most of the clothes produced are not durable. Consequently, purchases of fast fashion clothes are made based on trends and not longevity of the garment. As a measure of curbing fast fashion’s toll on the environment, consumers should consider investing in high-quality clothing which is also durable. Although this might attract a higher price, it is worth the benefit to the environment.
Buying less clothes is another sustainable way of clothing oneself. In COVID-19 times where movements and events are limited, buying less pieces of clothing is a smart choice, considering that the frequency with which clothes are worn is also reduced. Even when the pandemic is over, options such as renting of garments are a functional way of saving the environment and keeping garment purchases at minimal levels.
Buy Second-Hand Clothing
Instead of demanding newly manufactured clothes every time, buying second-hand clothing ensures one still looks stylish whilst being kinder to the environment. This is one of the most common sustainability practices in Africa, which is also easy on the pocket. In a case where one does not favour purely second-hand clothing, buying from brands that recycle second-hand clothing is also a sustainable option.