Have a think back to what the world was like fifteen years ago - being ‘followed’ by lots of people was not considered a good thing, ‘apps’ meant appointments, influencers didn’t really exist, and Zuckerberg’s platform was not the world’s most popular ‘book’.
Nowadays, the world moves a lot faster - you know the news as soon as it breaks, a tv programme can be binged in a day, and online orders might arrive within hours.
Like many other industries, fashion has adapted to our faster pace of life. We see a trend online and know it can be on our doorstep within days, without breaking the bank - but what is the true cost of cheaper and faster fashion?
Hilary and Rose
*This piece was originally published on February 21, 2021
WHAT ACTUALLY IS FAST FASHION?
Clothing companies who use a ‘fast fashion’ model are essentially brands that quickly replicate runway trends for a much cheaper price.
For years, most fashion brands released two seasons a year. These days, some of the most popular brands draw their customers in by releasing new garments every week.
According to Teen Vogue, 150 billion new items of clothing are produced each year - more than 20 for each person.
Vogue also considers Amancio Ortega, the founder of Inditex (Zara, Bershka, Pull & Bear etc) as the “pioneer of the fast fashion model”.
Some of the most well-known fast fashion brands today are; H&M, Zara, Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, Bershka, Nasty Gal, Stradivarius, Forever 21, Fashion Nova, Topshop, ASOS and Missguided.
In a poll on my Instagram, 88% of respondents said they have ordered from at least one of these websites in the last year. That 88% accounts for 883 people.
Plenty of these brands are making conscious efforts to be more environmentally friendly and sustainable, but most have continued to be criticised by environmental activists.
Some examples of brands launching sustainable lines;
- H&M have a sustainable line called “Conscious”. Any product in this line “must contain at least 50% sustainable materials, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester”. They currently have 2,176 products listed under “conscious” on their website.
- Topshop has a “Considered” line, “a new range that’s kinder to the planet”. Given the brand was recently bought by ASOS, it is difficult to establish just how many products fall under this category.
- Zara has a line called “Join Life”.
Let’s make it simple. In the last 15 years, the ‘fast fashion’ model has exploded. We now buy twice as much clothing as we did in 2000, and wear those garments for half the length of time.
As consumers of fast fashion, trends are met and money is saved. However, there is a very real cost to the customer’s savings, the environment.
In fact, the fashion industry today is the world’s second largest polluter, after the oil industry.
It is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions each year. How significant is this? Well, that’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
“The clothes in your suitcase are screwing up the planet more than the flight you put them on.” - Hasan Minhaj, American comedian and political commentator
Let’s break it down product by product, using two wardrobe staples;
One cotton t-shirt
To produce one cotton t-shirt, approximately 5 kilograms of carbon dioxide are emitted. How much is that? Okay, a 19km car drive would produce the same amount of carbon dioxide. That would mean driving the length of Central Park just under five times.
One pair of jeans
The process in making a single pair of jeans emits around 20 kilograms of carbon dioxide. How much is that? Well, you could produce the same amount of carbon dioxide if you drove 78km - that’s a distance of roughly London to Brighton, or Dublin to Carlow.
Ask yourself, would you drive those distances to buy the products?
If the fashion industry continues at this pace, the UN Environment Programme estimates its greenhouse gas emissions will have doubled by 2030.
I mentioned above that we are now said to be keeping the clothes we purchase for half the length of time as we did in 2000.
In fact, our clothes are now only being worn an average of seven times before we’re done with them. On top of that, the majority of women only wear between 20% and 30% of their wardrobe on a regular basis.
So, what happens to the clothing you don’t want anymore? Well, the vast majority either end up incinerated or in landfill.
“Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill.” - The Ellen MacArthur Foundation
When it comes to ‘fast fashion’ in particular, three out of every five products are said to end up in landfill.
On an Instagram poll the other day, 72% of respondents said they have bought clothing that was so cheap it wasn’t worthwhile returning. That 72% represents 691 people.
But wait, I give my clothes to charity shops? Well, the problem is demand doesn’t meet supply. Charity shops have too many donations and not enough customers. Take the UK, for example. According to a Parliamentary report, more than a million tonnes of clothes are disposed of every year. Only about 30% are re-sold in the UK, while 70% end up being exported to either Africa or Eastern Europe.
Of all the clothes given to charity shops in the UK, more than half ends up in landfills or gets incinerated. How much clothing are we talking about? £140 million worth every year, in the UK alone.
As mentioned, not all disposed of clothes stay in the same country. More than half of clothes sent to charity shops ends up being exported to other countries - many of which are in Africa, where they are either sold at cheaper prices, or ultimately end up in that country’s landfill.
The website Fashion Revolution described it as “modern colonialism disguised as donation”.
On a global scale, some estimates suggest $500 billion in value is lost each year, “due to clothing being barely worn and rarely recycled”.
In 2019, a BBC report found that a lot of items returned by customers simply end up in landfill, despite only an estimated 20% being defective.
“Historically the way retailers have handled returns is they get a bunch of items back to a store or warehouse, usually they’ll sit for several months because they don’t have tech to know what to do with them…” - Senior Director of Marketing at Optoro, Carly Llewellyn (who spoke to the BBC)
But is it just fast fashion brands who waste products? No. In 2018, it was revealed the luxury fashion brand, Burberry, had destroyed £90 million worth of unsold goods in the five years prior by incinerating them. In 2018 alone, £28.6 million worth of goods were destroyed, according to the BBC. The same year, the brand reported a profit of £413 million. Why were the goods destroyed? to protect the brand’s name and exclusivity, and prevent its goods from being sold at a cheaper rate.
Worth noting: Burberry has since become a “core partner” at the Ellen MacArthur foundation, a UK charity with a goal to create a “circular economy” in fashion.
USE OF WATER
We already know the fashion industry is the second biggest polluter. It is also the second-biggest consumer of water, according to the UN Environment Programme.
How much water does it use each year? 93 billion cubic metres, according to the Ellen MacArthur foundation. CNN broke this down even further, saying that was essentially enough water to fill 37 million Olympic swimming pools… every 365 days.
Let’s get back to the cotton t-shirt and pair of jeans. They don’t just emit plenty of carbon dioxide in production, they also require a lot of water;
- Cotton t-shirt = approximately 2,750 litres of water
- Pair of jeans = approximately 3,000 litres
*Note: These estimates vary across the board. For example, the United Nations say producing a pair of jeans actually requires 10,000 litres of water.
What impact is this having? Well, a fifth of the world’s wastewater comes from fabric dyeing. More than one in five of all the chemicals produced globally are used for the textile industry, according to Sustain Your Style.
There is also said to be a saying in China - the world’s biggest clothing manufacturer - that you can guess the most popular colours of the next season by looking at the colour of the rivers.
Let’s put this into context: A great deal of water is required to produce one of the industry’s key materials, cotton. Back in 2013, the water used to grow cotton in India would have been “enough to supply 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year”.
As The Guardian reported at the time, “more than 100 million people in India do not have access to safe water”.
The fashion industry is projected to use 35% more land for fibre production by 2030, according to a UK Parliamentary report.
Just how much land is this? Well, it would mean an extra 115 million hectares “that could be left for biodiversity or used to grow crops to feed an expanding population”.
Examples of natural fibres - cotton, wool, leather, fur, cashmere and silk
Examples of synthetic fibres - polyester, spandex, acrylic etc
Cotton is the most widely used natural fibre in the world. The production of it accounts for 69% of the water footprint of fibre production for textiles.
According to The Ethical Consumer website, around 75% of clothing contains cotton, and an estimated 300 million farmers in 80 countries rely on it for their livelihoods - the vast majority being in developing countries.
Polyester is the most commonly used synthetic fibre. It accounts for approximately 70% of synthetic fibres used, and is used in about 60% of garments overall.
While polyester has less of an impact on land and water than a cotton shirt, it has more than double the carbon footprint. In fact, polyester, nylon and spandex use around 342 million barrels of oil per year.
Most synthetic fibres come from virgin plastics. One issue deterring greater uptake of recycled polyester is that low oil prices make new virgin plastics cheaper than recycled polyester.
WORKING CONDITIONS FOR MANUFACTURERS
Most of the clothes worn around the world are manufactured in either China or Bangladesh. If you look at the clothes in your wardrobe, you are very likely to have items that were made in at least one of those countries.
In Bangladesh, the textile business accounts for 80% of the country’s exports.
“Only two percent of the price of an item of clothing sold in Australia, for example, goes to pay the factory workers (in Bangladesh) who made it... a top fashion industry CEO earned in four days the lifetime pay of a factory worker.” - 2018 Oxfam report
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, there was a 50% decrease in orders for manufacturers in Bangladesh. $2.81 billion worth of orders were cancelled, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer’s Export Association (BGMEA).
In April 2013, an eight-story dilapidated factory in Bangladesh - called Rana Plaza - collapsed, killing 1,134 workers. The tragedy pushed more than 200 brands and retailers to create the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
In China, authorities have been accused recently of forcing Uyghurs - a mostly Muslim ethnic minority in the province of Xinjiang - to work in the region’s cotton fields.
The government in Beijing dismissed the accusations of forced labour, describing them as “completely fabricated”.
Worth noting: On the last day of his presidency, the Trump administration said China’s treatment of Uyghurs amounts to “genocide”.
Did you know? Cotton in Xinjiang makes up 85% of China’s cotton, and a fifth of the world’s total supply.
In July, a coalition of organisations and trade unions published a list of fashion brands they claim source cotton from Xinjiang.
“Virtually the entire apparel industry is tainted by forced Uyghur and Turkic Muslim labour.” - End Uyghur Forced Labour organisation
What brands did they mention? Altogether 38 fashion brands were mentioned, including Abercrombie and Fitch, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Gap, H&M, Lacoste, M&S, Nike, Patagonia, Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Victoria’s Secret and Zara.
*Want to know more about Uyghurs? Here is a link to my recent NewsFix piece.
ACCUSATIONS OF EXPLOITATION IN WESTERN COUNTRIES
Last summer, an investigation by The Sunday Times found that a supplier in Leicester (England) used by Boohoo was paying staff as little as £3.50 an hour. The UK’s minimum wage at the time was £8.72 per hour.
What was the reaction? The UK’s National Crime Agency said they were “assessing concerns of modern slavery and human trafficking” in the Leicester factories.
Boohoo - whose most popular fast fashion brands include Pretty Little Thing and Nasty Gal - said they were “grateful” for the investigation highlighting conditions that were “totally unacceptable and fall woefully short of any standards acceptable”.
Worth noting: The Sunday Times investigation also alleged factory workers were operating “without any additional hygiene or social distancing measures”. At the time, Leicester had “three times the rate” of coronavirus infections as England’s next highest city.
An independent review was conducted and released last September. In the report’s findings, Boohoo “did not deliberately” allow for such low standards in its supply chains, “nor did it intentionally profit from them”.
“However, I have concluded that from, at the latest, March 2019, Boohoo realised that there were problems with the Leicester supply chain and that action needed to be taken. By December 2019, at the latest, senior members of the Boohoo Board knew for a fact that there were some serious examples of unacceptable working conditions and poor treatment of workers (including illegally low pay).” - Alison Levitt QC, who conducted the review
In December 2019, The New York Times exposed Fashion Nova’s links to the exploitation of workers in Los Angeles-based sweatshops. Like Boohoo, Fashion Nova did not employ the workers directly, but suppliers were found to be paying them as little as $2.77 per hour.
There are, of course, many steps that can be taken. Below are just a few examples, and were probably the most commonly mentioned ones I encountered in my research.
WHAT CONSUMERS CAN DO
- Buy Less, Buy Better: This has been one of the most popular messages out there. It goes without saying that a more expensive product will last for longer. If we extend the life of our clothing by an extra nine months, carbon, waste and water footprints could potentially decrease by 30% each year.
Charity shops: Don’t just donate to them, buy from there. As mentioned, demand is nowhere near as high as supply. There are approximately 11,000 charity shops in the UK. Of all the clothing that arrives to these stores, only three in ten end up being bought in the same country.
“If everyone bought one used item this year (Apr 3, 2019) instead of new, it could save nearly 6 pounds of CO2 emissions. That’s equivalent to removing half a million cars off the road for a year.” - The Ellen MacArthur foundation
WHAT GOVERNMENTS CAN DO
- One pence levy: In the UK for example, if an extra one pence was added to the price of an item of clothing, it is believed it could raise around £35 million. A Parliamentary report suggested that could then be invested in “clothing collection points, sorting and recycling”.
- Extended Producer Responsibility: This essentially places responsibility on producers of products for how they are disposed of. France, for example, introduced the scheme in 2007. By 2016, the number of clothing collection points in the country had nearly trebled.
On Friday, I asked followers on my Instagram account to answer a few poll questions about fast fashion. More than 1,000 responded (thank you!) and below are some of the interesting results;
- In terms of age, 64% were 30 or younger.
- 88% of respondents said they had purchased products from a fast fashion company in the last year.
- Of those who have, the majority (59%) said it was to do with cash flow more than staying trendy.
- That being said, almost two thirds (65%) said even if they had more money they would probably still buy from some of the brands that use a ‘fast fashion’ model.
- Two-thirds of those who answered the poll said they have been influenced by a blogger on Instagram to buy from a fast fashion brand.
- Nearly three quarters of people (72%) said they have in the past received something they didn’t like, but because it was so cheap to buy they didn’t consider it worthwhile returning.
- A majority of people (59%) believe it is possible for fast fashion brands to operate ethically.
- Of those who have been swayed from buying fast fashion, 53% said it was because of reports of the treatment of manufacturers. 47% said it was because of its impact on the environment.
- In terms of specific brands, 63% of respondents acknowledged they did not consider Zara to be a fast fashion brand. The vast majority said this was due to the quality difference of its clothing to other brands.
*Please note: I am not trying to suggest my Instagram polls reflect society’s view in general, I just thought it was an interesting addition to the piece. Also, while I might not have covered every angle, I hope this piece serves as a helpful explainer and introduction to the topic.
Also, our thanks to Rose O'Sullivan for contributing to this research.