Factsheet

Fast Fashion

Lots of people like to wear the very latest fashions, but what impact do our choices of clothes have on the planet?

What do we Mean by Fast Fashion?

The fashion industry wants people to buy as many new things as possible, so new clothes are advertised as fashionable, whilst older clothes are ‘out of fashion’ and people keep wanting to buy new, different ones!   This can apply to any clothes from the new football strip produced by a team each season, to the outfits that people choose to wear to a party, or the type of trainers that are currently popular. 

People enjoy having new clothes to wear and they like to be able to buy things cheaply. Many of the clothes sold in the UK have been produced for very little money in other countries, where people are paid far lower wages. Clothes can now be bought new, for so little money that people often don’t even keep them for very long, but instead throw things away and buy new clothes, a term known as ‘fast fashion’

How Does Clothing Harm the Environment?

Each piece of clothing that we wear is made from some kind of fabric. Some of the cloth is made from natural fibres such as cotton or wool. Others, such as polyester or nylon are synthetic, meaning they have been made using chemical processes and are made from types of plastic.  Each of the materials used to make clothing goes through many different stages before it is ready to be worn, and these steps can have a big impact on the environment. 

Producing the clothes we wear uses up huge amounts of water, for example. It can take around 7,500 to 10,000 litres of water to produce just one pair of denim jeans, partly because cotton plants used to make the fabric often grow in hot, dry countries and they need a lot of watering. That’s around 10 years’ worth of drinking water for one person!  The fashion industry is the second largest consumer of clean water (after agriculture) in the world. Clothing production also uses electricity and produces waste gases and chemicals, while transporting the clothes around the world creates still more pollution. Most of the ‘fast fashion’ brands sold around the world are made in China, India and Bangladesh, where labour is cheap. These countries still use coal to generate the electricity that powers their factories, meaning that huge amounts of carbon dioxide gets pumped into the atmosphere. 

When it comes to fast fashion, the demand for cheaper clothing that needs to be made ever more quickly tends to mean that corners are cut when it comes to safety. Cheaper, toxic textile dyes cause more pollution. In Bangladesh alone, 22,000 tons of toxic waste from tanneries (where animal skins are processed into leather) get released into the waterways each year. Cheap synthetic fabrics also release more tiny plastic fibres, known as ‘microfibres’ when they are washed. These microfibres find their way into the water system causing harm to creatures that ingest them and damaging whole ecosystems. Demand for wood-based fibres such as rayon and viscose to be planted causes deforestation as rainforests are cut down to make way for these crops.

Photo: Jay Phagan

Paying the Price for Cheaper Clothes

Demand for cheaper clothing has a social impact as well as an environmental one.  In order to keep costs down, clothing companies look for the cheapest possible labour. Clothes are often made by people, including children, who are paid very low wages and who often work very long hours in unsafe conditions. These types of factories are sometimes known as ‘sweat shops’ because of the high temperatures reached there.  

Lots of fashion brands reassure their customers that they are paying their workers ‘at least the minimum wage’ insisted upon by their respective countries. However, a study by the Clean Clothes Campaign discovered that in countries such as China, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia, the minimum wage was sometimes as much as five times lower than the ‘living wage’ needed to be able to afford food, rent, healthcare and education.  Many workers are forced to work 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week in order to meet their deadlines and they do not earn enough to be able to afford to refuse working overtime. 

Conditions in many of the clothing factories are unsafe. In April 2013, the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1000 workers and injuring 2,500 more.  Fires in clothing factories are common and it is also not unusual for people to work in badly ventilated spaces, inhaling toxic chemicals or fibre dust all day.  Due to the demand for more and more clothing, the demands on workers can be unrealistic, with workers penalised if they don’t meet the impossible targets. People are denied water or breaks if they do not keep up.

There have also been examples of forced or slave labour in the fashion industry where people are made to work for no wage and against their wishes. In Uzbekistan for example, each autumn, the government forces over a million people, including children, to leave their schools and jobs in order to go and pick the cotton harvest.   Many of the workers in clothing factories across the world are women and young girls who are put to work in clothing factories instead of going to school.

Where do Unwanted Clothes end up?

What happens to all the clothes that we no longer want to wear?  It has been estimated that in the UK alone, around 350,000 tons of clothing ends up as landfill every year, where they can take as long as 200 years to decompose. According to clothes waste charity TRAID, the average piece of clothing is worn only 10 times before being thrown away. This isn’t just a waste of the clothes themselves, but also of all the time, human skill, and resources used to make the clothes. It also leads to still more pollution. 

 

It’s not just cheaply produced clothing that can lead to waste, however. Top fashion brands were in the news in 2018 for burning millions of pounds worth of brand new clothes. Why would they do this? Simply to stop people being able to get hold of these ‘luxury’ items cheaply, which might make the brand look less exclusive or desirable. Nearly all fashion brands routinely dispose of unsold stock by burning it at the end of each sale season, even if there is nothing wrong with the clothes, bags or shoes at all.

Helping to Make a Difference

The most effective thing we can do to help reduce the impact of fast fashion on the planet is simply to buy less. Instead of owning ten pairs of jeans, we might consider only choosing one or two pairs. Instead of throwing clothing away as soon as it goes ‘out of style’ we could try finding different ways to style our outfits and adapt the clothes we already own to create different looks. 

Learning to mend clothes that have small faults can help prolong their lives, as can passing them along to someone else, or donating them to a charity shop when we have grown out of them. Buying second hand clothes also reduces the demand for the new garments being churned out each year.

Although they are more expensive than the cheapest fast fashion items, there are a number of brands working to produce more sustainable clothing that has been produced in environmentally friendly ways, without exploiting workers.  Instead of rushing to buy lots of new pieces of clothing from ‘trendy’ cheap shops, it might be time to consider saving up for a longer lasting item that has been made in a more sustainable way.

It’s also worth thinking about the way that we view and judge people who aren’t dressed in the latest fashions. Perhaps they are wearing something that has been mended a few times, or that they bought from a charity shop. Your first thought might be that the outfit isn’t ‘fashionable’ but perhaps it has been chosen to help protect the planet and the people who live and work on it - and what could be cooler than that?

Credits

Pebble, (2021), What’s Wrong With Fast Fashion? (Online), Available from: https://pebblemag.com/magazine/living/whats-wrong-with-fast-fashion, [Accessed 1/2/21]

Earth Org, (January 2020), Fast Fashion: Its Detrimental Effect on the Environment, by Rashmila Maiti, (Online), Available from: https://earth.org/fast-fashions-detrimental-effect-on-the-environment/, [Accessed 1/2/21]

Sustain Your Style, (2021), What’s Wrong With The Fashion Industry? (Online), Available from: https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/whats-wrong-with-the-fashion-industry, [Accessed 1/2/21]

Pebble, (2021), What’s Wrong With Fast Fashion? (Online), Available from: https://pebblemag.com/magazine/living/whats-wrong-with-fast-fashion, [Accessed 1/2/21]

https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/old-working-conditions

Business Insider, (October 2019), The fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Here are the biggest ways it impacts the planet, by Morgan McFall-Johnsen, (Online), Available from: https://www.businessinsider.com/fast-fashion-environmental-impact-pollution-emissions-waste-water-2019-10?r=US&IR=T, [Accessed 1/2/21]

BBC, (Much 2020), Can fashion ever be sustainable? by Christine Ro, (Online), Available from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200310-sustainable-fashion-how-to-buy-clothes-good-for-the-climate, [Accessed 1/2/21]

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