• Is fast fashion sustainable? No… But here’s why

    August 2, 2022 • LIFE

    woman shopping

    Fast fashion might seem like just another buzz phrase doing the rounds on social media. On the contrary, it’s a very important term that sheds light on the dangers of the current fashion landscape. The fast fashion industry is largely responsible for the ‘buy cheap, wear once, and discard’ habit many of us find ourselves in. So, is fast fashion sustainable? Unfortunately, not; fast fashion is unsustainable for businesses, the environment, wildlife, and us as consumers. Here, we explain why.

    What is Fast Fashion?

    Fast fashion is a design, manufacturing, and marketing strategy that focuses on creating high quantities of clothing very quickly. Brands that use this model create cheap, poor-quality, on-trend clothing items that are often inspired by celebrity culture or high-fashion designs seen on runways.

    Fast fashion items are mass-produced at a rapid pace to meet consumer demands. Essentially, the idea is to release new styles on the market as quickly as possible so that they can be purchased while the trend is still ‘trending’.

    The items are made quickly and using poor quality materials and techniques, as they are designed to be discarded once the trend passes (usually after, at most, a few wears).

    The concept of fast fashion is rooted in consumerism and founded on the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas. So, if re-wearing is out, the only other option is to continually purchase new items.

    It’s this process of overproduction and excessive consumption that makes fashion one of the planet’s largest polluters.

    When Did Fast Fashion Start?

    Up until the 1800s, fashion production was broadly considered ‘slow’.

    People sourced their own materials, such as wool and leather, then prepared them, wove them, and made clothes out of them.

     

    Because this was an expensive and lengthy process, items were made to last and worn over and over again.

     

    Then came the Industrial Revolution and the development of new technologies — including the sewing machine. Clothes became easier, cheaper, and quicker to make, so naturally more garments were made at a more rapid pace.

    Dressmaking stores — which were traditionally reserved for the wealthy upper class — now opened to cater to the middle class. Many of these shops used home workers or garment workers.

     

    It was around this time that sweatshops began to emerge. In fact, the first major factory catastrophe took place in 1911, when a fire erupted at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The disaster killed 146 people, many of whom were young female immigrants.

    Unfortunately, we know the prevalence of these unsafe sweatshops and the frequency of such disasters has only increased over time.

    Up until the mid-20th century, the fashion industry operated in four seasons — summer, autumn, winter, and spring. Fashion houses planned ahead for each season by predicting the kinds of designs consumers would want to wear.

    Fast forward to the 1960s and 70s, and young people began creating new trends and treating clothes as a form of self-expression.

    Incredibly, the fast fashion industry can be traced back to a marketing campaign in the 1960s, when Scott Paper Company released cheap paper shift dresses to promote their new paper material.

    These paper clothes took the industry by storm — people loved the wear-once designs.  This encouraged the wider industry to quicken the pace of production and lower its prices.

    It was in the late 90s and early 2000s that fast fashion became what it is today. Online shopping became widely accessible and brands began competing to keep prices down and churn out as many styles as possible.

    In the early 2000s, Zara began releasing bi-weekly drops, and many other brands followed suit. Today, there are essentially 52 fashion seasons, with many brands launching one new collection every week.

    It’s considered standard practise for brands to have a surplus of stock to ensure they don’t run out.

    In fact, fashion companies make 53 million tons of clothes each year. If we continue this way, we are predicted to reach 150 million tons by 2050.

    Is Fast Fashion Sustainable?

    Fast fashion is not sustainable.

    The production method harms the planet, wildlife, garment workers, and consumers.

    The industry is the third-largest manufacturing sector in the world and is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions. Every year, the textiles industry emits 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air we breathe. These emissions are incredibly harmful to our planet and all living things inhabiting it.

    We know that all life on earth requires water. It is a vital natural resource. The fashion industry as a whole uses 93 billion cubic metres of water each year, which is enough to meet the needs of five million people.

    Fast fashion houses are responsible for a significant percentage of these emissions and water use.

    So, this is all to say that the process of creating fast fashion is unsustainable — but so is the product itself.

    Less than 1% of all clothing is recycled, meaning the rest ends up in landfills. Fast fashion pieces in particular make up a majority of clothing in landfills because they are usually made from unbiodegradable materials.

    Let’s take a closer look at this below.

    How Much Waste is Produced by Fast Fashion?

    Australia is actually the second-largest consumer of new textiles in the world, following the US. It’s estimated that each Australian acquires 27kg of new clothing per year.

    Unfortunately, our textile waste is just as confronting.

    A whopping 500 million kilograms of clothing waste ends up in Australian landfills each year.

    That’s 85% of the textiles we Australians buy.

    The fabrics in these fast fashion garments, such as polyester, are not biodegradable. They can take hundreds of years to decompose, leaching toxins into the environment and our waterways in the meantime.

    Globally, we consume 80 billion new items of clothing each year, which is up 400% from two decades ago.

    person with huge plastic bag

    Why is Fast Fashion ‘Bad’?

    There are a number of reasons why fast fashion is considered ‘bad’.

    It’s clear that fast fashion is dangerous when it comes to the health of our planet, but, as mentioned, it’s also a harmful production method for wildlife, workers, and consumers.

    The increased rate of production means corners are cut at every point along the supply chain.

    Fast Fashion Harms the Environment

    As we’ve touched on, fast fashion has a significant impact on the natural environment. Let’s unpack why that is.

    When a price tag seems too good to be true, that’s because it is. Something has to give in order for brands to cut costs and produce clothes quickly.

    Unfortunately, environmentally-friendly manufacturing practices are more costly and time-consuming, so they have no place in the fast fashion industry.

    The use of cheap, toxic dyes makes the fast fashion industry one of the largest polluters of clean water worldwide. In fact, 20% of our global wastewater comes from the fashion industry, due to toxic dyeing processes.

    Fast fashion houses also use harmful fabrics instead of natural, organic materials as these are cheaper and more readily available. These synthetic fibres — polyester being the most commonly used variety — are made from petroleum, which is a fossil fuel.

    Not only does producing these fabrics add to global warming, but washing them harms the environment too. When you wash synthetic fibres, microplastics are released into the ocean which endangers all marine life.

    Even mass-producing clothes made from natural fibres can harm the environment. Regular cotton, for example, requires significant amounts of water and pesticides when produced in developing countries. This increases drought risk and fosters competition for resources among businesses and communities.

    The speed at which fast fashion is produced also leads to increased land clearing and puts stress on soil quality and biodiversity.

    Unsafe Working Conditions are Rife in the Fast Fashion Industry

    The costs of fast fashion aren’t just environmental.

    Humans also pay the price for the mass production of cheap items. Fast fashion factories have long been infamous for unacceptable working conditions.

    Garment workers are expected to work in dangerous factories where they are paid well below the minimum wage, (as revealed by Lucy Siegle in the documentary The True Cost) and stripped of fundamental human rights.

    Further up the supply chain, farmers are exposed to toxic chemicals and dangerous working practices that can have significant effects on their physical and mental health.

    These unsafe practices are also dangerous for people living and working nearby fast fashion factories. Textile dyes are known to release heavy metals and toxins into community water systems, which can have devastating impacts on residents and animals.

    Of course, the most immediate and significant risk is to the health of the garment workers who are continually exposed to these chemicals and dyes.

    Fast Fashion Harms Wildlife

    As we know, the toxic dyes and microfibres that make up cheap fast-fashion garments are released into our waterways when the clothing is produced and washed.

    This directly affects marine and land wildlife who ingest these chemicals and plastics, which disrupts their food chain. Generally, the lower the quality of the material, the more microfibres the item will shed when washed.

    Of course, it goes without saying that the fast fashion industry also leads to the killing of animals for leather, fur, and animal skin items to be produced. This very practice has endangered a number of species and threatens many wildlife species with extinction.

    Fast Fashion Impacts Consumers

    Most fast fashion consumers aren’t consciously aware that they too are negatively affected by the industry.

    Fast fashion encourages a ‘wear-once’ mindset by creating a system in which trends change rapidly, and we feel pressured to keep up with them.

    This culture convinces us that the next product we buy will finally satisfy us. But, of course, the system is designed to cause this very feeling of constant dissatisfaction — and so the cycle continues.

    We also know that what we’re spending our money on (however little money that may be) is poor quality. Fast fashion allows no time for quality control, which means low-quality garments are produced.

    Fast fashion can also directly affect the health of consumers. Dangerous chemicals, such as benzothiazole, are commonly used to produce cheap clothing. Such chemicals have been linked to cancer and respiratory diseases. The skin is the largest organ in the body, so wearing clothes containing these chemicals is harmful to our health.

    shirts 50 percent off

    The Morality of Fast Fashion

    One of the moral concerns blurring the line between whether fast fashion is good or bad is the accessibility and size inclusivity of the items.

    When clothes are made sustainably, they are more expensive. This is because higher-quality materials and production practices are used, and workers are paid fairly. For the same reasons, fast fashion brands tend to be more size-inclusive than slow fashion brands.

    These factors play a significant role in keeping fast fashion brands afloat.

    How to Prevent Fast Fashion

    Try not to be too hard on yourself when reflecting on your fashion purchases. Remember, the fast-fashion giants have long trained us to prioritise low prices and newness above all.

    However, there are a few ways to go about changing your approach to fashion. These changes will help to ensure you’re supporting the businesses doing the right thing by the planet, their workers, and you — their consumer.

    Identify Fast Fashion Brands

    Learning how to differentiate fast fashion brands from slow fashion brands is the first step.

    You can ask yourself the following questions to gauge how a business goes about making its garments.

    • Are new styles coming out every week?
    • Are styles cheaply made versions of trends from runways?
    • Do the garments contain low-quality materials and synthetic fabrics?
    • Are the garments poorly made?
    • Are the clothes being made in places where people receive below-minimum wages?
    • Does the company mark down items steeply when they don’t sell?

    If you answered yes to these questions, you’re likely engaging with a fast-fashion brand.

    Shop Secondhand

    Instead of opting to buy brand-new every time, consider shopping second-hand. This helps to limit industry demand and reduce textile waste from ending up in landfills. Head out to a vintage store or op-shop and peruse the range of pre-loved items. There are also a number of apps dedicated to second-hand buying and selling if you prefer online shopping.

    Heading to a special event? Consider hiring an outfit instead of buying something you’ll only wear once. As Dress for a Night notes, when you hire an outfit, you save on cash and wardrobe space, and you help to contribute to a circular fashion economy.

    It goes both ways, too — when you’re ready to let go of a clothing item, consider selling or donating it instead of throwing it in the bin. If you’ve loved it, there’s a high chance someone will love it after you!

    Get Creative

    A great way to limit your fast fashion consumption is to get creative with your wardrobe.

    Get familiar with upcycling techniques, such as turning frayed jeans into denim shorts, tie-dyeing old tee shirts, or adding embroidered patches to jackets.

    Alternatively, you could learn a new skill altogether and make your own clothes! No need to worry if you’re a beginner — Liesl & Co. creates sewing kits for making your own dresses, tops, and pants, while Oliver + S makes kits for sewing clothes for your little ones.

    Shop Sustainable Slow Fashion Brands

    Finally, one of the best ways to avoid filling the pockets of fast fashion giants is to opt for slow fashion brands instead.

    Slow fashion is the very antithesis of fast fashion. It prioritises considered manufacturing, fair labour rights, and the use of natural, sustainable, and earth-friendly materials. Slow fashion brands make items that are designed to last and be loved for years to come.

    Wondering how to shop slow fashion and remain current? Visit our dedicated blog for some tips!

    Some of our favourite slow fashion brands include:

    For Knitwear – Komodo

    Komodo Katty Jumper - Tan

    Komodo Katty Jumper – Tan

    For Dresses – Seaside Tones

    Seaside Tones Maxi Shirt Dress Black

    Seaside Tones Maxi Shirt Dress Black

    For Denim – Outland Denim

    Outland Denim Ellie High Rise Jeans - Sunday

    Outland Denim Ellie High Rise Jeans – Sunday

    For Activewear – Indigo Luna

    Indigo Luna Ananda Organic Cotton Leggings - Spice

    Indigo Luna Ananda Organic Cotton Leggings – Spice

    For Underwear – Afends

     

    Afends THC Hemp Boxer Briefs - Black

    Afends THC Hemp Boxer Briefs – Black

     

    Afends Molly Hemp Sports Crop - Black

    Afends Molly Hemp Sports Crop – Black

    For Tops & Tees – Afends

    Afends Iconic Hemp Rib Long Sleeve Top - Black

    Afends Iconic Hemp Rib Long Sleeve Top – Black

    Afends Misprint Recycled Retro T-Shirt - Sage

    Afends Misprint Recycled Retro T-Shirt – Sage

    For Shoes – VEJA

    VEJA Mens V-10 CWL Full White Natural

    VEJA Mens V-10 CWL Full White Natural

    For Accessories – Icebreaker

    Icebreaker Unisex Vela Cuff Beanie - Ecru Heather

    Icebreaker Unisex Vela Cuff Beanie – Ecru Heather