What exactly is wrong with fast fashion industry?
With Fashion Revolution Week startign today, we cannot help but wonder, again, about fashion industry. On this occasion, we decided to sit down and, in this straightforward article, list some of the major reasons why fast fashion is problematic and, bluntly speaking, so hurtful for our planet and her inhabitants.
We all know the scenario. A party or a festival is coming up and we are even more than usually tempted to hit the mall in search of a new piece of garment or accessory to add to our “been-there-done-that” apparel. We choose mall, because searching for a sustainable brand takes time, shipping from (usually) another country as well, and prices are tempting - and wait, they have sales now?! Typical. The problem is on the background though. The mall normally means fast fashion brands and chain stores - and those come charged with a chain of compromises made at different stages of the value chain, which in effect reduce the price on the buyer’s end. There are countless problems that could be discussed in depth, but we decided to mention three main prisms through which we could look at problems in fast fashion. We do not wish to be too blaming, we simply wish to use the important context of Fashion Revolution Week to, once again, re-live some reflections that linger.
We all know, or should know, about levels of waste that unwanted garments count up to, but what we often fail to reflect on is the matter directly in contact with our skin, the fabrics. Some decades ago, we developed synthetics. Plastic became available everywhere and even started being woven together with other fabrics into our clothes, to provide us with extra protection and grant durability. Little did we know back then about micro plastics - but we do now. Therefore, the first problem of fast fashion that we wished to mention, is the one connected to fabrics that we utilise. Two years ago, The Robin Report calculated that “polyester is found in approximately 60 percent of garments on retail shelves today”. It means that it is actually less likely for any garment you touch in a fast fashion store is made of natural fabrics, than that it is made of or contains polyester. On top of that, according to the paper “Quantifying shedding of synthetic fibers from textiles; a source of micro plastics released into the environment”, that looked into acrylic, nylon, polyester:
“Typically, around 1m2 of fabric is used for a garment for adults giving a scaling factor of 100 for comparison between our 100 cm2 sample and an average garment, indicating that one fleece garment could release approximately 110,000 fibers. (…) The seven other fabrics tested here also released fibers, though at lower amounts, with an average of nine fibers per test or approximately 900 fibers per garment.” *
Additionally to the micro plastics pollution, production of polyester is extremely pollutant and toxic, as paints needed to dye synthetic fibres are rarely natural and more water is needed in the process (as it is harder for the dye to soak into synthetics, hence, they need to be “washed” many more times). Having access to this sort of knowledge, it is even more surprising that consumers still tend to choose synthetics in vast majority. However, we cannot help the impression that choices are dictated rather by opportunism and convenience. We choose synthetics in vast majority, because we encounter them in vast majority. The amount of synthetics in our closets is proportionally mirroring the amount of synthetics available on the market, compared to natural fabrics. We can try look for hope in governmental initiatives against synthetics appear, but unfortunately, we know how long it usually takes governments to actually implement changes. As well as, how hard it is to overcome lobby of huge, fossilised giga-brands who contribute to the problem in the biggest amount.
Some weeks ago, we had a chance to ask someone from Citeve, a Portuguese textile technology institute, whether the textile industry is in any way working towards ruling out synthetics or finding alternatives for them - for example in natural blends or bio-fibres. In a protective and know-it-all tone, we got schooled on how there is absolutely no way to eliminate synthetics and to be honest “why would we even” since they are so irreplaceable and incomparable when it comes to durability. It is always quite surprising to hear this, especially since probably until the Industrial Revolution most of all the fabrics we wore were natural. We survived, as a species, tens of thousands of years clothing ourselves in natural materials (like hemp) yet, in less than 100 years we made ourselves entirely dependent on synthetics for reliability. Sorry, but we are not buying it. We know that we are many more in terms of numbers, but we are also wasting incredible amounts of what we have. We now have literally mountain ranges of discarded clothes.
The problem of synthetics is one of the gravest ones for us for two reasons. One, it directly translates to gigantic levels of waste, and waste which is tricky because barely visible. Two, perhaps even more importantly, it relates to something that is the closest to all of us - the fabrics that come into direct contact with our body. One would hope that fast fashion brands keep in mind safety and well-being of their consumers but also ecosystems in which they exist. Sadly, those values are often at the very end of priority lists, long long after profit. After all, synthetics are cheap.
We are honestly of an opinion, that in general customers really do care. We refuse to think that we are all oblivious, un-empathetic and indifferent to the harm we inflict on the planet and ourselves. But consumer behaviour, in general, has been studied too long and too hard to just be considered “rational”. If reason and pure calculation were the only things that drive us when we go shopping, we would just all buy what we need and there would be no story to it. In such world marketers would maybe not even exist. But our decisions when we shop (for clothes - for the goal of this article let’s stick to fashion context) tend to be what they are precisely because we are not rational while making them. Apart from our reason, or even instead of it, we give way to the needs, desires, hopes, aspirations, cultural conditioning, you name it. We can make an absolutely unplanned decision just because we see a “SALE” sign. We can spend a third of our monthly salary in 15 minutes and lack money for food at the end of the month and still not regret it. Would it be considered rational? We don’t know.
“(…) The clothing industry of today has moved well beyond merely satisfying basic physiological and psychological needs, and the rise of fast fashion, especially, has greatly altered clothing’s societal and cultural significance.” **
We are victims of the abundance. At some point, someone told us “Hey, it is okay to want to have more. And the more you have, the happier you will be” - and somehow unconsciously, we believed it and we still do. It just happens that materials get worse. Because we want more and more, and we also are more and more, the supply must rise too. How else to boost production than by looking for easier accessible fabrics? But at the end of the day, we can blame the brands and companies all we want, at the end of the road there is always a person with a wallet. That person is willing to exchange some money for an object, which statistically will end up in landfill in half a year or sooner. Who knows, maybe it will actually never be worn?
In Athropocene, the geological era which is not anymore shaped by climatic and environmental changes but actions of humans, when rivers are dyed in colours of upcoming collections and gardens are created on piles of amassed waste, the choices made at the end of the value chain seem more important and impactful than ever. Buying a piece of garment is becoming a statement, much like placing a vote in a ballot. The more sustainable brand is out there, but harder to find. It will not accidentally flash at you in a mall with “SALE” sign, it will not appear on popular television, and yes, it will most probably take more time to get to you. But it is there for you to choose over what is familiar, easy, but also harmful. We managed to ostracise cigarettes because they give us lung cancer - why not doing the same with fast fashion since it does the same to earth?
SCALE AND PACE
The last, most obvious, problem of fast fashion is its pace. “Fast” is a crucial word here and it’s pejorative. According to Forbes:
“The apparel industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions and remains the second largest industrial polluter, second only to oil. (…) More than 150 billion garments are produced annually, enough to provide 20 new garments to every person on the planet, every year”
Every single person on the planet uses clothes. Fashion industry relates to absolutely each one of us, whether we want it or not. We might be interested or not, educated or ignorant, passionate or hateful towards it - but we do wear clothes. That more or less helps to visualise how many garments we produce each year. Try to put a small pile of 20 pieces of clothes in front of you (without shoes or underwear) and try to imagine how it would look like if multiplied by billions of people living on Earth right now. It is unimaginable, such as the scale of fast fashion. And let us not forget about collections. As to the data of McKinsey:
“Shorter lead times for production have also allowed clothing makers to introduce new lines more frequently. Zara offers 24 new clothing collections each year; H&M offers 12 to 16 and refreshes them weekly. Among all European apparel companies, the average number of clothing collections has more than doubled, from two a year in 2000 to about five a year in 2011.” ***
Fast fashion found a way to keep our attention span expanded. New collection virtually every week means that we will constantly have something new to look at when we enter the shop. Add it to our earlier comment on the loss of rational thinking while shopping and you have an explosive mix right there. Every single week we are reminded of the possibility of getting just a little bit happier by getting the freshest piece of garment. It is in chain companies best interest that we come back as soon as possible for a new purchase - does once a week seem often enough?
We are often disconnected from our purchases. The only thing we see is a miraculously low price tag and a floral boho-style pastel-dyed polyester dress. Our reflection ends at pairing it with a perfect pair of ankle boots and a matching jacket - hopefully we have those already at home. We do not think of all the reasons that made the dress so cheap, we often do not even check the label for country of origin and materials breakdown. How are we supposed to know the origin of things that directly touch our skin without such basic knowledge? That is why initiatives like Fashion Revolution, but also NGOs like Hong Kong’s Redress or media platforms like Common Objective are so important and needed. They keep us educated and help fill in the information gaps where we potentially can miss out on them. They get us involved and acting, so we feel empowered but also empower others.
As consumers, we are all responsible for the choices we make, especially in this era where we shape soil and geological layers with things we discard. As WOMB, we are extremely happy to contribute to Fashion Revolution Week with our own event, during which we will offer a clothing swap and a projection of “The True Cost” movie. It is essential for us to try to direct attention of as many people as we can to the problems of fast fashion, because we believe that in this case information and awareness is key. Let’s ask brands again this year: #WHOMADEMYCLOTHES? Where did they come from? Did anyone have to suffer for me to wear them? Let’s together, again, challenge the brands we wear and trust both with our money and our health. Let’s make smarter, more educated and engaged choices.
* Almroth, Bethanie M. Carney, et al. “Quantifying Shedding of Synthetic Fibers from Textiles; a Source of Microplastics Released into the Environment.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research, vol. 25, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1191–1199., doi:10.1007/s11356-017-0528-7.
** Gwozdz, Wencke, et al. “An Environmental Perspective on Clothing Consumption: Consumer Segments and Their Behavioral Patterns.” Sustainability, vol. 9, no. 5, 2017, p. 762., doi:10.3390/su9050762.