Fast Fashion: How It Impacts the Environment
Of the many unique environmental challenges facing society, fast fashion stands as one that there is a clear path to fixing. Fast fashion is a modern creation, combining the convenience of ecommerce with the ever-shifting nature of trends in fashion. Fast fashion is the result of a consumer society where throwaway culture has become the norm, but it is also the result of businesses catering to this culture. Fast fashion brands create clothes that are meant to be worn seasonally once or twice, then thrown away to make room for next month’s trend. The environmental impact this has is significant.
According to a report from the United Nations Environment Programme, the fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions. The same report claims that every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned, showcasing the extreme amount of waste that is prevalent in the industry. As well, on a more human level, producing cheap clothes requires cheap labor, and many fashion brands source from unethical sweatshops or countries without properly regulated labor industries.
A European Union report detailed why the problems with fast fashion have been exacerbated in recent years. According to this report, the average fashion company produced 2 different collections a year in 2000. But with the saturation in the industry, with a glut of new players and an ever-increasing demand, that average had increased to 5 collections per year by 2011. This includes some large companies like Zara offering 24 collections per year. Other companies like Fashion Nova, which thrive on the social media hype machine, are seemingly releasing new collections every day. This makes clothes an evermore disposable good.
Fast fashion is immensely popular with consumers. According to a Guardian article, in the U.K, 1 in 3 young women, who make up the most significant segment of the consumer demographic, consider clothes worn once or twice to be old. This type of mindset is not viable long-term. According to the Saturday Evening Post, the average American throws away 81 pounds of clothes every year. That makes up 9% of the solid waste in America. The throwaway culture, and lack of thought about the impact, is a massive contributor to the problem.
It is easy to point to consumers as the primary problem here. They fuel the demand, and without their willingness to part with their money, and their lackadaisical attitude towards clothing longevity, the industry wouldn’t be viable. In reality, though, the onus must fall on the companies who have created this industry. It is not an issue that you can point to a few brands and entirely blame them. The carelessness of the fashion industry is endemic. It doesn’t have to be this way though. Sustainable fashion is a rising trend that could hopefully become the norm. But how can fashion brands become sustainable, and what makes a brand sustainable in the first place?
How to Become Sustainable?
There are many ways for brands to have sustainable fashion. Sustainable fashion isn’t just about the material that an article of clothing is made of, it is the top-down process of production and distribution of the product. Some so-called sustainable clothing brands use environmentally damaging distribution or packaging methods. That is why sustainable ecommerce is an important component of ethical fashion. But that is just one aspect of a laundry list of different things a brand must live up to to be properly considered sustainable. Below, we will give a breakdown of some of the components that make a clothing brand ethical.
- Sustainable Materials: Much of the material that fast-fashion clothes are made of are used because they are cheap. With no thought into environmental impact, these materials often consist of synthetic fibers. Synthetic fibers are things like nylon, polyester, and acrylic. According to a report by Hawthorn International, these materials all need fossil fuels to be created. This same report shows that 70 million barrels of oil every year are required to create the raw materials that many of these clothes are made of. According to estimates, 262% more CO2 is used to produce a single polyester shirt than a cotton shirt. What clothes are made of makes a big difference in their environmental impact. While some material, like polyester, is particularly bad for the environment, others are particularly good. Brands that use recycled material, like old clothing or other previously used items, manage to heavily offset material waste. Some brands that stand as leaders on this front are Patagonia and Nudie Jeans. According to the same report by UNEP, since 1993 Patagonia has been using polyester made from recycled water bottles to create their famed fleece jackets. They also mend and recycle their older items. Nudie Jeans uses organic cotton to create their jeans, which is all the more important considering jeans are one of the hardest types of clothes to create sustainably. They also offer free repairs for their jeans so customers don’t just throw them away, and give customers a discount if they hand in old jeans. These are examples of the types of initiatives businesses can make to create sustainable fashion that lasts.
- Ethical Production: The production aspect of fast-fashion is often a nightmare. Sustainability and ethical production aren’t just about the environment. It is also about the human impact of how your clothes are created. Too many brands use third-party creators who source their clothes from workshops in developing nations, where the cheap production comes at the cost of horrible working conditions, no labor laws, and minimal pay for the workers. This problem isn’t just tied to a few big names in the industry. It is everywhere. According to a report by Fashion Checker, 93% of the brands they surveyed were not paying garment workers a living wage. According to the Fashion Transparency Index, many of the biggest names in the fast-fashion industry from FashionNova to Forever21 scored under 10% transparency on the index, meaning the sourcing of their clothing is not available to the public. For comparison, Patagonia had a 60% score on the index. Transparency is a key to ethical production because if companies can’t or won’t disclose where their clothes are coming from, that is a bad thing. Companies looking to be sustainable should source their clothes locally from producers they know and trust, or use ethical manufacturers across the world. There are certifications like Global Organic Textile Standard or World Fair Trade Organization that manufacturers can have that will show they comply with certain social and environmental standards that will ensure they are ethical.
- Environmentally-friendly distribution: The problem of getting your clothes to your consumer is one that the internet has made fashion brands face. Many fashion brands don’t have a brick-and-mortar store for consumers to patron, so ecommerce is how they conduct their business. Sustainable ecommerce is an important component of a sustainable clothing brand. Sustainable ecommerce means packaging the products in recyclable material and transporting them to the buyer in a way that doesn’t heavily increase carbon emissions. This is different from other types of ecommerce which prioritize speed over sustainability. It could mean that it takes longer for packages to arrive in some cases, but consumers who focus on sustainability will not hesitate to wait a couple of extra days if their product arrives sustainably. There are platforms out there that use Shopify, a cloud-based software that allows users to create and set up online stores, to help brands sustainably have ecommerce capabilities. One such example is Thooja.
- Made to last: Lastly, creating clothes that are made to last is an important component of this whole process. Clothes that are designed and marketed to be a seasonable boost to your wardrobe then tossed aside, are wasteful no matter how they’re created. Of course, fashion brands still need to be fashionable, but 24 collections released in a year sends the message that previous collections are old and unfashionable. Evergreen fashion is a real thing, and making clothes that are intended to last is important. This also means creating clothes that will not fall apart after limited use, or offering programs similar to Nudie Jeans with repairs, or offering incentives for customers to give back material to be recycled.
Why is it Good for my Business to be Sustainable?
As a business, financial incentives are the priority. At the end of the day, everyone needs to make money, and no one is starting a brand for purely altruistic purposes. That is why fast-fashion is so popular. It is a proven, profitable model, but it is also a model that can’t go on indefinitely. Sustainable fashion is a model built for the future, although it might cost more in the early days. While sustainability might hamstring your bottom line initially, because production and distribution costs are likely to be higher, there are also numerous financial benefits for businesses that are sustainable.
For starters, sustainable clothing is fashionable right now. It is currently trendy to have a sustainable fashion brand because the public conscience is beginning to shift. As people see more news reports labeling their favorite brands as destructive, the tide is turning. People are seeking out environmentally and socially sustainable fashion brands because that is what is current. Millennials and Gen Z are the most socially driven, environmentally conscious generation we’ve seen. That is why sustainability became so popular recently because consumers are starting to care more and more. This is only going to increase. If you intend for your fashion brand to last, make it sustainable. While fast fashion sells more right now, future climate degradation and societal uproar are going to curb their growth. They have nowhere to go but down. Sustainable fashion is only going to increase in appeal.
If you want your brand to be future-proof, focus on sustainability. There is no future where fast fashion’s harmful production measures will be allowed to exist. At some point in time, it is likely that there will be more regulations in the fashion industry. The media is consistently calling for change, and it could very well happen in the near future. Already, in the past decade, we have seen pro-active governments step up to addressing this issue. According to Luxiders, in 2019, Sweden introduced a clothing chemical tax that taxes companies for using certain chemicals which are harmful to the environment in their clothing. In 2019 in the U.K, the government made a pact to reduce the amount of micro-fibers companies are allowed to shed. These are just the start of what should one day become a more ubiquitous trend. Sustainable fashion companies will not have to adjust to regulations like companies that haven’t been built in an environmentally conscious way. This will put them at an advantage when inevitably, the industry shifts.
Businesses are made to make money, but that doesn’t mean that is what their sole imperative has to be. Many companies get caught up trying to create higher margins, and trim excess spending of their company, that they lose sight of what their impact is. No brands set out with the goal in mind to be destructive, but by unethically creating and distributing their clothes, that is what their impact becomes. Brands that set out with the goal of contributing positively to the industry by setting an environmentally-friendly precedent are setting themselves up for a future where sustainability is all-important.
What we are witnessing right now, with the discussion of climate change ramping up, and brands pivoting towards marketing themselves as sustainable, is the early stages of a trend that will only grow. Environmental challenges aren’t going away, and with the fashion industry being a huge part of the problem, neither is sustainable fashion.
Brands that want to be a part of the solution will focus on ethical fashion. This includes the material, how the material is turned into clothes, how the clothes are distributed to consumers, and the intended longevity of those clothes once consumers have them. Sustainable fashion represents the future of the industry, and brands who decide to produce sustainably now will likely see the benefit in the future.