Heidi Klum once famously said,
In fashion, one day you’re in, the next day you’re out.
from normcore to athleisure to color-blocking, trends are moving so fast that by the time you reach the cashier, you are already out of style and everyone starts taking notice.
So, how did, fast consumption become such a big part of our value system?
Is it because of the excitement of wearing something fresh every time we’re seen? Or is it the dopamine hit we get when we are praised for being cool, trendy, and fashionable? Or the thrill of purchasing things at a low price?
Whatever the case, the apparel companies have exploited our desires to create a powerful and extremely profitable business model. The need for a quick response to trends significantly lowered the expectation of our clothes to last. With that their perceived value dropped to the point where we have started treating them as disposable. It is fair to say that textiles have officially become the new single-use plastic of the world.
Newton's third law states
For every action in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Similarly, the cost of mass-production that consumers don't pay is at the expense of the people who create our garments and the environment. The industry shamelessly uses the natural resources in excess. Supplies from sweatshops where human rights are violated on many levels. And generates billions of tonnes of waste for our children and grandchildren to live by.
We genuinely believe that the majority doesn't mean harm (nobody buys a piece of clothing and thinks "screw the environment!") but there needs to be more awareness on the reality of the industry and what each of us can do to make a difference. So let's get deep into the problem with the latest statistics on fast fashion.
Overproduction and Consumption Habits
1. The industry produces 150 billion items each year (20 per person).
Clothing production and sales have nearly doubled in units since the year 2000. Meanwhile, more than 50% of all garments are disposed of in under a year. According to figures released by the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), the US consumption per capita increased to 68 clothes and 7 shoes per year. Americans lead the ranking by far, and yet 97% of the clothes sold in America are imported.
The current rate of production, consumption, and disposal is not sustainable. It has been shown to put a lot of stress on our natural resources, generate waste, pollute the environment, and destroy its ecosystems. The increasing requirement for high volume and lower prices has created modern-day slavery in Asian and Latin countries that create clothes for big fashion brands.
2. There are 52 micro-seasons in fast fashion
Traditionally brands design their styles and plan for manufacturing 2 times a year - for their spring/summer and fall/winter lines. In contrast, with the emergence of fast fashion new trendy models can be on the shelves as frequently as every week. Their adaptive ultra-fast supply chains encourage customers to shop regularly for new looks.
For instance, Zara offers 24 new clothing collections and 20,000 new designs each year. H&M offers 12 to 16 collections and refreshes them weekly. Recently the online businesses have taken it even further. Misguided releases about 1,000 new products monthly and Fashion Nova adds 600 to 900 new styles per week.
We wear garments 7 to 10 times on average before discarding them.3.
I can't tell if the numbers are related, but according to a separate study, fast fashion clothes are typically built to last no more than 10 wearings. In the past 15 years, the average number of times a garment is worn before it ceases to be used has decreased by 36%. And in the US clothes are used just around a quarter of the global average.
Our relationship with fashion has clearly changed. We perceive cheap and low-quality products as low-value which makes them feel "disposable". The underutilization of textiles combined with the linear economy model results in a huge loss of value, depletion of resources, and 92 million tonnes of waste each year.
Human Rights Violation
4. Garment workers in Bangladesh earn only 50% of the living wage.
Their minimum legal wage is 8,000Tk ($95), but garment workers need 16,000Tk for normal living. The situation is similar in other manufacturing countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, China, India, etc. In most parts of Asia, the minimum legal wage is insufficient to cover even basic needs. Moreover, ILO reports high rates of non-compliance with the minimum wage in the region.
The Clean Clothes Campaign surveyed over 90 brands and 93% of them didn't take the opportunity to showcase that they are paying a living wage. Transparency is essential to establish a business that doesn't fund human exploitation. Yet so many brands don't even disclose or visit their suppliers, let alone hold them accountable.
5. Factory managers force 16-hour work shifts.
Almost all fast fashion clothes come from countries with poor labor rights. Factory managers regularly demand long hours of overtime work, especially during the peak seasons. Workers have to deliver under high pressure without sufficient breaks. And if they fail to meet the target units they get verbally and physically abused by supervisors. Read their stories.
Garment workers who are 80% women often have no power to object. It's a matter of survival, working overtime helps them fill the gaps in their family budget. And if they denied working extra hours they'll be at risk of losing the job. Workers are literally forced to a work schedule that is in violation of the rules by the International Labor Organization (ILO). To be compliant employers have no legal right to require more than 48h work week and 12h of overtime, and yet it is a common practice.
6. 1134 workers died in the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse. At least 112 were killed in the Tazreen fire.
It doesn't get any darker than that, these are two of the worst industrial accidents on record. In less than two years the industry in Bangladesh proved that profit comes before human lives. People there are faced with unsafe work conditions with a high rate of work-related accidents and occupational diseases. According to ILO most of the factories do not meet the standards required by building and construction legislation. In the immediate aftermath of the tragic events, brands, retailers, and trade unions signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. And while the accord is a step in the right direction, brands are still far from keeping their suppliers to a high standard.
100 million children are affected in the garment and footwear supply chain.7. UNICEF estimates that
They are child laborers, children of garment workers, or families living near farms and factories. Because of the low wages and demanding jobs of their parents, children are at a higher risk of poverty and neglect. The poor living conditions and lack of care limit the ability to fulfill their full potential.
According to the ILO 170 million are engaged in child labor, with many of them making textiles for the western consumer. In most countries, child labor is forbidden by law, but it is still an issue in the poorest parts of the world, where most of our clothes are made.
Fast fashion has been pushing the boundaries of cheap labor. Low-skilled workers are required at all stages of the supply chain. That combined with the lack of accountability and control from big brands is what puts children at work. They are being utilized for various tasks from the production of cottonseed, cotton harvesting, and yarn spinning mills to all the phases in the cut-make-trim stage.
8. The fashion industry accounts for 4 - 8% of the Global Carbon Emissions.
Fashion alone is responsible for at least 2,1 billion tonnes CO2eq per year which is more than international air travel and maritime shipping combined. It is about equal to the GHGs of the entire economies of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Nowadays, the textiles industry relies mostly on non-renewable resources – including crude oil to produce synthetic fibers, pesticides, and fertilizers to grow cotton, and chemicals to produce, dye, and finish fibers and textiles.
Science agrees that the heat-trapping ability of carbon dioxide is causing climate change. We know with high certainty that the primary reason for the quick rise of CO2 levels is human activity since the mid-20th century. Just a few decades later we see the effects in higher temperatures, ocean warming, polar ice melting, extreme events, etc.
20% of industrial water pollution is caused by textile fiber production and treatment.9. Up to
The textile industry is a major polluter of water at all stages of the value chain. From watershed eutrophication caused by agricultural runoff - mostly synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides from the cotton fields. Through the toxic chemicals released into the rivers as part of the manufacturing and dying process. And even microplastics and chemicals from washing detergents.
Тhe UN claims that 80% of wastewater is returned to the environment without being treated or reused. Contaminated water is not only poisonous for aquatic life and the animals who feed on them, but also detrimental to the health of the communities. It can transmit diseases such as cholera, dysentery, diarrhea, etc. Statistics by the CDC show the magnitude of the problem - 780 million people don't have access to an improved water source and 2.5 billion lack improved sanitation.
10. Fashion is the 2nd most water-intensive industry.
Cotton farming and textile production use around 93 billion cubic meters (m3) of water annually, contributing to problems in water-scarce regions. Ironically, the most water-thirsty crop, cotton, is grown in dry places that rely less on rainfall and more on irrigation from watersheds that supply the local communities with fresh water.
On a global scale, there is enough fresh water for 7.5 billion people but it is unevenly distributed, polluted, and poorly managed. Nearly 1.42 billion people (~20% of the population) live in areas with high water shortages. The lack of access to drinking water, proper sanitation, and hygiene severely degrades the quality of life of those affected by it. Families have to make long roundtrips to collect freshwater which reduces their livelihood. Children are exploited and often skip school. And meanwhile, poor hygiene is conducive to spread diseases. The complicated lifestyle leads to conflicts and eventually displacement of people.
11. 87% of all textile is incinerated or end up in landfills.
Only 13% of the discarded textile is recycled and just 1% is used to create new clothes. The linear economy model promoted by fast fashion generates sizable amounts of waste - around 5% of the landfill space. Moreover, cheaper petroleum-based fabrics (such as polyester and nylon) dominate the market with a 60% share. They are essentially plastics that will not degrade for centuries and will continue polluting the ecosystems.
The bottom line is that we can't expect the linear model to succeed long term in a situation of constant mass-production. We don't have unlimited resources or space to store our waste. True sustainability can be achieved only if we start preserving value by reusing/recycling materials and reducing consumption.
half a million tonnes of plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean every year - the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.12. A
Fashion accounts for 20 to 35 percent of microplastic flows into the ocean. In the washing machine our clothes shed tiny fibers, and the older the garment the more fibers leave our homes. Through the sewage system, they enter lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Even advanced water treatment systems filter no more than 80% of the plastic, so the rest still flows back into the environment. The microfibers of common materials like polyester and nylon won't decompose in water so they become food for fishes, crabs, and turtles. From there they travel up the food chain, poisoning everything on the way, and eventually getting back to us.
Cotton is the most used natural fiber with up to 34% share. Despite the introduction of the pest-resistant Bt cotton (GMO) the crop still uses a disproportionally high volume of pesticides. Over time non-target pests have become more abundant and even a new kind of Bt-resistant pests have developed. Conventionally grown cotton is usually sprayed with synthetic pesticides which are generally toxic and resource-intensive to produce. They pose a threat to the environment and farmers` health. Destroy biodiversity. Pollute fields and waterways. And cause allergies and diseases, including delayed illnesses like cancer.
A possible solution requires more advanced agricultural practices that eliminate hazardous pesticides. For instance, crop rotation and the use of beneficial insects can largely reduce the population of pests. Organically grown cotton is the closest to that. It is a much more sustainable crop, but it's just 1% of the total cotton used in the industry. It's cleaner from chemicals and predominantly rainfed so it doesn't contribute to water scarcity.
200 million trees are logged every year and turned into cellulosic fabric.14. Around
Fibers made from trees like viscose, modal, and lyocell are increasing in popularity among consumers and fashion brands - approximately 7% of all textiles. They often go under the radar, because of their "green" facade, but in reality, they can be destroying our forests.
Trees are a renewable resource so the problem is not in the sheer number of trees felled every year. Illegal logging, however, is the main reason for deforestation which wipes out biodiversity, speeds up global warming, causes flooding, and a lot more. For what is worse, we witness the systemic clearing of endangered and ancient forests where many of the trees are over 1000 years old. CanopyStyle reports that less than 20 percent of the world’s ancient forests remain intact. In fact, the logging activity from wood pulp suppliers in the fast fashion value chain has become a Hot Button Issue on which Canopy releases annual updates.
How to Fix Fast Fashion?
Realistically the transformation of fashion companies is not going to start from within. It has to be a change driven by either strict regulations or a major shift in consumer behavior. Thankfully you are in control of the latter, your decisions can make a difference and more importantly influence everyone around you.
Your Money, Your Power
Even the biggest corporations can't survive if they don't listen to what their customers want. We are the people who drive the economy and our biggest power is in our ability to choose where to (or not to) put our money.
Here are some quick tips that will reduce your impact and save the buck.
- Buy only the clothes you need and aim to wear them longer (think 30+ times).
- Prefer timeless quality pieces that are built to last and won't go out of fashion.
- Shop sustainable & low-impact clothing from ethical brands.
- Prefer unblended and unfinished fabrics.
- Dispose of your old fabrics in the designated bins or textile recycling facility. Don't forget to remove all hard elements that may prevent recycling - zippers, buttons, badges, etc.
- Fabric Care
- Wash your clothes less frequently - especially jeans, pants, and shorts.
- Mostly wash at a lower temperature (30C / 86F). This will save energy, extend the life of your garments and release fewer microfibers.
- Wash your synthetic fabrics in a filter bag to avoid leaking microplastics.
- Opt-in for air-drying.
A bit too much? Yeah, I know, but don't feel bad if you can't do it all, that's not the point. If it takes too much time or makes your life miserable just cut it out. It is a marathon, so we have to be comfortable going for the long run. Thinking about the big picture... What would you rather prefer - 1 billion of us doing 30% better or a dozen of us nailing all 100%?
This brings us to the final point.
Spread the Message
We all have a circle of influence, however big or small it is. Sometimes it is enough to raise awareness online or in person, but often the best way to get to people is through your own actions. Be the message!