Ubuntu | Article | Is fast fashion really as bad as they say?

Is fast fashion really as bad as they say?

Is fast fashion really as bad as they say?

Ubuntu Thoughts  /  Article  /  14 min read
August 3, 2022
Ubuntu | Article | Is fast fashion really as bad as they say?
Ubuntu | Authors | Jaz Newberry
Jaz Newberry
Account Manager
As summer hits the UK and everyone is preparing to go away on holiday, many of us are no doubt heading to the highstreet (or its digital cousin) to top up our summer wardrobes. But industry reports are not looking favourable for fashion brands, particularly when looking at the socio and environmental impacts many (or, let’s be honest, all) of our favourite brands have.
As consumers become increasingly more conscious, we wanted to look at the true impact fashion has on the environment.

Cash in our pockets

A quick look at the numbers reveals that we’re clearly a nation who spends. In 2005, UK households spent £39.3 billion on apparel, a figure that skyrocketed to £57.6 billion in 2021 thanks largely to higher levels of disposable income, a rising middle class and the booming success of eCommerce.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this rise in spend has correlated with the growth of brands who have built a sense of consumer loyalty fueled by cheap prices, rapidly changing trends and seasonal sales. Across Europe, the top three retailers (Zara, H&M and Marks & Spencer) alone collectively sold over 6.4 billion units in 2019. Offering discounted delivery and free returns, they have led the charge in promoting the rise of fast fashion—the catalyst behind the $1.5 trillion industry.

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion can be defined as cheap, on-trend clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand.

The idea is to get the newest styles on the market as fast as possible, so shoppers can snap them up while they are still at the height of their popularity and then, sadly, discard them after a few wears. It plays into the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas and that if you want to stay relevant, you have to sport the latest looks as they happen. It forms a key part of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the world’s largest polluters.

It isn’t just the term that has risen in popularity over recent years. The demand for fast-fashion has boomed and new brands are popping up everywhere and that isn’t expected to slow down anytime soon. According to Fashion United, the fast-fashion industry is expected to grow to $211.9 billion by 2030.

Is it really bad for the environment?

The fashion industry has three major impacts on the environment, all of which are accelerated by fast-fashion practices.

  1. High water usage
    In a world where many people experience water poverty every day, the fashion industry is the world's second largest consumer of water, using 93 billion cubic metres of water every year. If current trends continue, it’s expected that this figure will almost double by the year 2030.

    It takes between 10,000 - 20,000 litres of water to cultivate 1kg of cotton—one of the most widely used natural materials in the world, with 27 billion kilograms of cotton produced globally a year. This means, even using the ‘best case’ scenario of 10,000 litres,, the cotton industry alone would use 270 trillion litres of water a year (raise that number to 20,000 litres of water, and you’d be looking at 540 trillion litres of water a year).

    It isn’t just the cotton industry that’s making a splash. Conventional dyeing techniques also make the fashion industry a dirty business, with the majority of water used in the dyeing process returned to the natural environment as toxic waste containing hazardous chemicals, some of which are listed as carcinogenic. Water disposal is rarely regulated which is why factories and big brands are often left to their own devices and aren’t held accountable for the waste.

  2. Production of microplastics
    Cotton isn’t the only fibre that’s causing problems for the environment. Cheap, synthetic materials which are often used in fast-fashion such as polyester, nylon and acrylic, take thousands of years to biodegrade.

    It’s estimated that 35% of microplastics in the ocean comes from garments, largely from washing clothes. Experts estimate that 700,000 - 12 million microfibres are discarded into our oceans during one single load of laundry.

  3. High energy demands
    It takes a lot of energy to produce 100 billion garments a year, and relies heavily on coal and natural gas to generate electricity. China, India and Bangladesh are some of the largest manufacturers in the world, yet they’re also some of the biggest consumers of coal globally.

    Each stage of the production process consumes vast amounts of energy—from the preparation of fabrics (such as knitting, weaving or creating synthetic fibres), to the demanding process of dyeing. You wouldn’t be alone in thinking the physical distribution of products was a significant contributor to energy consumption, however in fact only 3% of the industries energy is spent on transportation.

How to avoid fast-fashion

So what do you do with all these negative stats and facts about the impact fashion (especially the fast type) has on the environment?

Well, the first and easiest thing to do is to share this information with your friends, your family, your colleagues, your dog (ok, maybe not your dog) so you can open up a discussion and share your knowledge.

Secondly, we’d recommend re-thinking your fashion shopping habits. We’re not here to cast judgement, however as a society, we spend far beyond our clothing needs and typically buy high volume, low quality goods—simply because they’re the cheapest option. So next time you’re browsing ASOS (other eCommerce platforms are available), pause and think about whether you need everything in your basket. Simply reducing the volume of purchases, you can personally reduce your impact.

We’d also recommend looking at the quality of the garments you purchase. What's the material DNA of that t-shirt you really liked in H&M last week? Is the cotton recycled or is it virgin? Is it made up of synthetic fabrics? Who made your products and were they paid a living wage? If you don’t want to cut back on the amount of shopping sprees you go on, why not swap the type of shops you visit. Circular fashion is an industry that’s slowly but surely up and coming and there’s plenty of vintage or charity clothing shops on the high-street right now, you’re almost spoilt for choice.

Not only could you try evaluating your current shopping habits but you could even try swapping who you shop with by looking at brands who are actively trying to work on their sustainability strategy in relation to their products. We’ve championed them before, but Good On You provide a comprehensive list of brands and their impact on people and the planet.

Public Habit— a ‘slow fashion’, luxury knitwear brand—only produces garments once an order is placed, so each item is made for the buyer. Their on-demand approach aims to eliminate waste and build long lasting wardrobes, and the brand has introduced greater transparency of its fabrics, factory conditions and the environmental impact each product line has.

Pangaia too, are making waves in the sustainability space. The rising brand is currently investing and researching dyes that use natural bacteria to create colour—their Blue Cocoon colour is made entirely from pigments found in silk cocoons and the Midway Geyser Pink uses pigments found in springs.

At the end of the day, nobody is perfect and we all need clothes on our backs. We’re not saying you should stop shopping altogether, but acknowledging the fashion industry’s effect on climate change and pollution is vital in opening up discussions on the industry.

Change starts with us and—regardless of your position—we all have the means to take at least one step in the right direction.

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