The Fast Fashion Industry and its Impact on Climate Change

Last Updated: June 13, 2019

You may buy all your groceries plastic free, cycle to work, bring your own shopping bags and compost your own food waste, but many of these actions could be counter-balanced if you’re a ‘fast fashion’ junkie.

We explored carbon offsetting in a previous article [1]. And as carbon offsetting is so vitally important to understanding our individual efforts and contributions when it comes to combatting climate change, it may be worth a refresher to gain an insight as to why buying Fast Fashion items means your carbon footprint, even if you’re a climate change activist, is at dangerous levels. In this article we will explore the damage caused by the fast fashion industry and what you can do to protect yourself and the environment from it.

What is Fast Fashion?

Fast Fashion is the term used to describe the trend towards buying cheaply made affordable clothing that’s designed to keep up with fast moving fashion trends, ultimately being deemed unwearable within a short period of time from when it was purchased. The traditional SS/AW (Spring/Summer Autumn/Winter) seasons within the fashion industry have experienced an extreme overhaul, with some fast fashion retailers updating their lines multiple times [2] in one week. The fashion industry now operates at around 52 seasons, per year with certain times throughout the year (Christmas and the peak summer months/wedding seasons of July and August) having as many having as two to three ‘seasons’ – in one week.

Operating on the ethos of low quality = high volume, fast fashion stores, which make up some of the most popular high street and online brands use cheap material and labour – often unregulated [3] - to generate a high volume of garments to continually and perpetually update their stores. This is done purposefully in order to make a customer feel off trend and therefore more likely to shop.

From the year 2000 to 2014 the number of clothing items purchased by the average consumer increased [4] by 60% and across every style of clothing, consumers keep items around half as long as they did previously. In the past, buying or receiving new clothing was something that only occurred in anticipation of an event, with consumers saving money or putting down a deposit to pay off a well-made, long lasting garment. However, by cutting the time between design, production and delivery, fast fashion companies are mass producing clothing items at levels never previously thought possible. During the biggest decline [5] in high street shopping that the UK has ever seen, the fast fashion industry continues to thrive, especially online, with reporting a 44% increase [6] in profits in the last four months of 2018. By utilising the importance of social media amongst young people, along with many other fast fashion retailers, can exploit the movement towards replacing clothing after just one use. Consequently, #outfitoftheday (which has 44.4 million tags on Instagram) has become more than just a tag line, with one in five [7] shoppers confirming they wouldn’t wear something twice if it’s already been shared across their social media accounts.

Fast Fashion and Climate Change

It takes 2,720 litres [8] of water to make a cotton t-shirt, and 10,850 litres [9] to produce a pair of jeans. With Primark selling men’s t-shirts for as little as 80p and men’s jeans for as little as £5, the social costings of these items doesn’t equate to the retail value. For a company that buys clothing made in Bangladesh, where the legal minimum [10] wage for garment workers is £73.85 a month (although many claim they are paid less) the profit margins – even for clothes sold so cheaply in the UK – are colossal.[11] It’s not only exploitative labour that should be cause for unease, although the human rights violations for workers in the developing world who produce our fast fashion items should be of paramount concern for any consumer, the impact the heightened production of clothing is having on the earths temperature is worse [12] than the contribution to carbon emissions made by air travel around the world. You may think that donating your unwanted clothes to a charity shop means they’re guaranteed to be re-used but in fact 87% of all material created in 2015 was landfilled [13] or incinerated.

The use of chemicals in the fast fashion inspired the Green Peace report [14] ‘Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stich Up’ in which Green Peace purchased 141 items of clothing from major fashion brands, they then analysed the garments for harmful toxins used in the production. The report found that 67% of the items purchased contained harmful chemicals and toxins whilst four garments contained high levels of toxic phthalates, 89 garments contained Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPES) which, although not banned, can disrupt hormones and two items from Zara contained cancer-causing amines from the use of azo dyes. Additionally, there was no correlation between high end and low-end fast fashion stores, meaning that price doesn’t always guarantee quality.

Combatting Fast Fashion

Thankfully the solution is pretty easy – at an individual level at least. Buy less and second hand where possible, research your retailer’s production line and put pressure on brands to encourage responsible, sustainable fashion. Clothing swap apps like Poshmark and Vinted allow users to swap clothes with other users, whilst clothing swap parties can be a great way to repurpose unwanted clothing amongst friends or as a charity fundraiser.

Writing to your MP or signing a petition to call for governments to take-action on the fast fashion industry can be another easy way to do your bit to combat the use of chemicals in the textile industry, whilst searching for ethically sourced organic items will protect you from harmful substances. Shopping at approved sustainable clothing brands [15] is another way to ensure you’re offsetting the global contribution to fast fashion consumption.


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