10% of global carbon emissions, 4% of the available drinking water, 20% of industrial water pollution.
H&M, Zara, Forever21, Primark, Mango these are all stores that each of us has entered at least once and are the protagonists of a very interesting documentary from 2015 directed by Andrew Morgan entitled “The true cost”.
On the occasion of the opening of the first Zara store in New York, The New York Times coined the term Fast Fashion, referring to a completely new way of making fashion that aims to mass produce more and more collections per year while maintaining an extraordinarily low price. All this is possible because of one of the main characteristics of fashion, which is its volatility. Fast fashion companies thus face an ever-growing demand from consumers who, having paid very little for their clothes, tend to regard them as disposable.
Currently, about 80 million clothes are produced worldwide each year. The consumption of clothing has changed dramatically in the last twenty years, with an increase of about 400%. And it continues to rise. In fact, it is expected to increase by 63% by 2030. According to the UN Environment Programme, the average consumer buys about 60% more clothes than 15 years ago, and each product lasts and is used less than half the time.
And so fast fashion companies have grown exponentially. It’s estimated that the global fast fashion market will soon reach a total turnover of $28 billion. But there’s only one way these companies can continue to make millions while selling products at bargain prices: at the expense of the environment and their workers.
According to the 2019 UN Environment Programme’s estimates, the fashion industry is responsible for about 10% of global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and the maritime industry combined. Chemicals and toxic substances are used in every step of the production chain, polluting not only the environment but also people. In fact, the main raw materials used to make clothing are cotton and polyester. These are substances that constantly come into contact with our skin and are released with every wash, polluting the seas and oceans. Cotton is the crop that uses the most pesticides in its cultivation and requires an impressive amount of fresh water. Polyester is a highly toxic synthetic material made from petroleum that uses a lot of energy in its production. It is neither biodegradable nor recyclable.
In addition, as mentioned earlier, fast fashion uses a large amount of water to manufacture its products, about 4% of the world’s available drinking water. Moreover, 20% of industrial water pollution is caused by the treatment and dyeing of clothes for Fast Fashion. An example of this is the Citarum River in Indonesia, which is considered the most polluted river in the world. Due to the large number of factories in the area – especially textile factories – and the fact that their toxic waste is discharged directly into the river, more and more people have become ill.
Another consequence of the fleeting nature of fashion and the tendency of consumers to buy more of what they actually need is the excessive amount of waste produced. In its 2018 annual report, H&M stated that it had accumulated $4.3 billion in unsold inventory. Furthermore, it is not only industries that produce a large amount of waste, but also consumers, who produce about 16 million tons of clothing waste per year in the United States alone. In Europe, approximately 11kg of clothes per person is thrown away every year. Of all this waste, only an incredibly small portion is actually reused or recycled; the rest is incinerated or sent to landfills, where it will remain for a very long time. Polyester, for example, takes about 200 years to decompose.
The incredible success – and relative profit – of the fast fashion industry is due in large part to the use of cheap labour in countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam and China. It is estimated that some 40 million people are affected, including many women and children. Millions upon millions of people forced to work in inhumane conditions, without any protection and for pretty ridiculous wages, sometimes no more than $10 per month. Fast fashion basically thrives on the constant violation of human rights. The Rana Plaza incident in 2013 was clear evidence of this.
Rana Plaza was a garment factory where thousands of people worked tirelessly day and night for various Western brands. Although workers had long complained about the deep cracks in the walls, they were forced to continue working. On April 24, 2013, the entire building collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,000. We show the world what fast fashion really looks like.
In recent years, we have begun to see changes following disasters related to terrible working conditions, news of children falling ill due to water pollution, and more generally, the spread of greater awareness of climate change and the impact of the fashion industry on the environment. First of all, there is a greater awareness among consumers themselves, which has led to major companies developing innovative “green” programs to try to improve their reputation by reducing the environmental footprint of their collections.
Asos, for example, aims to reduce its environmental impact to zero by 2030, and Primark has committed to using recycled or clean materials in the future. Companies such as Zara, H&M, Bershka and many others have also made various commitments to reduce their environmental impact. However, these commitments are currently only on paper and have not yet led to an actual improvement. On the contrary, they often use unclear language that makes it difficult to understand how much “green” is in their productions and often misleads people into buying more. An example of this is H&M‘s clothes recycling campaign, where customers could bring their old clothes into the store – clothes that were largely not recycled, but burned or thrown away – and in return receive a voucher to buy as many new clothes as they want!
It’s not that easy to curb the negative impact of the fast fashion industry on nature and people. What makes it especially difficult is the price. In fact, the new generations are quite aware of the environmental problem and are willing to do much more than the old generations to curb it. However, buying truly sustainable fashion is anything but affordable. That’s why many young people who reject everything these companies stand for continue to buy from them.
One thing is certain: this exponential development of fast fashion is no longer acceptable, neither on an ecological nor on a human level. For these reasons, the European Commission has proposed a series of initiatives to try to make the textile industry more circular and sustainable through a series of fundamental steps. These include reducing the number of annual collections, communication and awareness campaigns, mandatory separate waste collection for fabrics and clothing, mandatory minimum quantities for the use of recycled fibers, banning the destruction of unsold products, and measures such as pre-washing during industrial production to reduce the unintentional release of microplastics from fabrics.
In fact, we can all do something in our own small way to improve the situation. All it takes is buying fewer clothes or using them a little longer. Other brilliant alternatives that have emerged recently thanks to various apps include buying used clothes and renting clothes, which allows us to wear different outfits while limiting our carbon footprint!