Fast fashion is a term rapidly gaining popularity in recent years, especially in sustainability and environmental health. Have you wondered exactly what this term means? How does it really affect you, and should you even care? So, let’s take a look.

What is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion is clothing whose designs are copied from celebrity wear, expensive fashion stores, luxury brands and fashion shows, and produced quickly and cheaply. The low prices, combined with the fact that these are replicas of “trendy” apparel, lead to them being demanded by hundreds of thousands of consumers across the world.

Simply put, this fashion trend is ‘fast’ in every aspect – short production and distribution lead times, highly trending designs that are quick to fall out of trend and their even more swift discard by consumers.

This extremely short life cycle, right from production until discard, is a major reason behind its grave environmental impact. But more on that later.

Fast Fashion

“Fast Fashion is like Fast Food. After the sugar rush, it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.” – Livia Firth, Co-founder of Eco-Age

Let us take a closer look at the life-cycle of a fast fashion item.

Look at the following diagram which shows the difference in the life cycle of a fast fashion item versus a classic or a normal item.

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Here, see how a fast fashion item completes its life cycle much faster compared to a normal item and reaches the rejection stage. The rejection stage is where the item is discarded completely by the end consumers, leading to a continuous and enormous waste— one of the several problems posed by fast fashion.

Here is why we need to think twice before buying any fast fashion item.

So why exactly is fast fashion a bad thing?

The detrimental effects of fast fashion are not only limited to the environment but also affects us, as a society. Among the various environmental effects, let’s look at the most major ones, including intensive water consumption, water pollution, waste generation, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and harm to wildlife and ocean biodiversity. Under social impacts, we discuss the exploitation of workers, child labour, unsafe working conditions and last, unfair pay. Now, let’s dive into these, one by one.

The Environmental Impacts

  1. Water consumption

The garment and textile industry is the second most water-intensive industry in the world (1). It may come as a surprise to some, but clothes have an incredible amount of embedded water in them. Embedded water is, simply, the water it takes to produce any item. To put this into perspective, a basic and undoubtedly very versatile piece of clothing — a white t-shirt, takes approximately 3000 litres of water to produce. Taking another example, a pair of jeans takes a whopping 7600 litres of water to produce.(2) However, it is important to note that these numbers can vary highly, depending upon where the cotton is grown, forms of irrigation used and several other complex factors. Nevertheless, the key takeaway here is that the fashion industry is unquestionably a thirsty industry.

2. Water pollution

We all love vibrant colours and beautiful patterns, as much as we love a basic white t-shirt. Sadly, these vibrant colours come at a gloomy cost, in the form of toxic dyes and chemicals. These are mostly untreated and end up in the oceans after use. The World Bank estimates that textile dyeing and treatment contribute nearly 17 to 20 per cent of total industrial water pollution. (3) This toxic waste poses extremely serious hazards to ocean biodiversity, among many others.

3. Waste generation

While getting finished garments to us consumers is seen as the end of the line for the fashion industry, environmental injustices continue long after they sell the garment. The fast-fashion industry encourages us to consider clothes as something disposable. With people jumping from one fashion trend to another, the rate at which we discard clothes is alarming. Now, it wouldn’t have been easy to throw away if the clothing item was costly. Sadly, trendy clothes that come at dirt-cheap prices make it easier for us to move on from one piece of clothing to another.

Fast Fashion Problems

Moreover, even if we wished to use a fast fashion clothing item for a longer time, the poor quality materials used would never allow us. Consequently, this leads to enormous textile waste in landfills. In 2019, single-use outfits generated 208 million lbs of waste. 1 out of 2 people are throwing their unwanted clothes directly into the trash, without trying to reuse or repurpose them. (4) According to a 2020 study by ThredUp, a staggering 64 percent of the 32 billion garments produced each year end up in landfills.

4. Greenhouse Gas Emission

Greenhouse gas is a popular term in many conversations regarding climate change and global warming. Essentially, gases that absorb and trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere — causing global warming, are greenhouse gases. The manufacturing, production and transportation of clothes use a lot of energy, which leads to the emission of various greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. To put this into perspective, a 2020 research by McKinsey showed that the fashion industry was responsible for around 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions in 2018. This means that the fashion industry emits around the same quantity of greenhouse gases per year as the entire economies of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom combined. (5)

“The fashion industry emits around the same quantity of greenhouse gases per year as the entire economies of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom combined.”

5. Forest and Land Destruction

Among the more widely known problems caused by the fast fashion industry, the destruction of forests and land is immensely overlooked. Many fabrics like cellulose, viscose and rayon are all man-made cellulosic fibres derived from wood pulp. Every year, thousands of hectares of rainforests and tropical forests are felled to make way for plantations of just one tree species to produce enough pulp to meet demand, reducing the biodiversity of the world’s most important ecosystems. Deforestation also has a deep impact on climate change, as trees store a lot of carbon, and cutting them just means releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Moreover, the reckless use of chemicals to grow cotton also leads to soil and land degradation.

6. Wildlife and ocean biodiversity

Deforestation of various forests has snatched the only habitat of thousands of wildlife species, including various rare and endangered animals. Moreover, fur and leather used for making various items threaten many animal species that should be protected. Sadly, people hunt a vast number of reptiles, kangaroos, ostriches, beavers, wild cats, bears, antelopes, and seals to use their pelt for fashionable items.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2.29 billion cows, calves, buffaloes, goats, and pigs were killed for their hide and skin to make leather in 2018. Many other animals, such as seals, sheep, deer, alligators, snakes, zebras, sharks, cats, and dogs, are killed to produce leather. They are often hunted, caged, farmed, and skinned alive. 159 million animals are slaughtered to make leather each year in the United States.

Apart from serious implications on wildlife, the impact on ocean life can not be ignored. Synthetic materials like nylon, polyester, rayon are the primary culprits that cause plastic microfibers to enter our oceans and harm ocean biodiversity. Every time we wash a synthetic garment like polyester and nylon, around 2000 individual microfibers are released into the water, making their way into our oceans. Scientists have discovered that small aquatic organisms ingest those microfibers. These are then eaten by small fish which are later eaten by bigger fish, introducing plastic in our food chain. To be precise, approximately 35% of all microplastics are from these synthetic materials.

“Cheap fashion is really far from that, it may be cheap in terms of the financial cost, but very expensive when it comes to the environment and the cost of human life.” – Sass Brown, Fashion Designer

The Social Impacts

Now, fast fashion has serious implications on social welfare as well. To produce such inexpensive items at a quick pace, workers are exploited. Unfortunately, poor treatment of workers is a daily occurrence at sweatshops, where they are forced to work hours on end without taking a break.

These sweatshops have dangerous working conditions. Employees usually work without proper ventilation, inhaling fibre dust and toxic chemicals from dyes. Accidents, fires, injuries, and diseases are, sadly, frequent occurrences on textile production sites. On top of that, they are barely paid the minimum legal wage to afford the most basic resources to live.

Why is slow fashion important

To make matters worse, children are forced to work in these unsafe sweatshops. A 2018 U.S. Department of Labor report found evidence of forced and child labour in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam and many other countries. (6) In South India, for example, 250,000 girls work under the Sumangali scheme, a practice that involves sending young girls from poor families to work in a textile factory for three or five years for a basic wage and a lump sum payment at the end to pay for their dowry. Girls are overworked and live in appalling conditions that can be classified as modern slavery. (7)

“Fast Fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere is paying”

~ Lucy Siegle, Journalist and writer on environmental issues

So what is the solution to fast fashion?

After reading and understanding all the problems that the fashion industry has posed in front of the environment and society, it is now time to re-think our choices as consumers. If you are wondering how to step away from fast fashion and be a more conscious purchaser, then the alternative is the exact opposite of Fast Fashion — Slow Fashion.

Now, to understand slow fashion, we first need to look at sustainable fashion; a term which has, fortunately, become quite popular.

What is sustainable fashion?

In Rio de Janeiro, at a UN meeting in 1992, the term sustainability arose and was defined in the Brundtland report as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

In the Fashion Industry, it has a broader meaning.

According to Dr Brismar at Green Strategy, “More sustainable fashion can be defined as clothing, shoes and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, considering both environmental and socio-economic aspects.”

This means continuously working to improve all stages of a product’s life cycle, from design, raw material production, manufacturing, transport, storage, marketing and final sale, to use, reuse, repair, remake and recycling of the product and its components.

From an environmental perspective, the aim should be to minimize any harmful environmental impact of the product’s life cycle by:

a) Ensuring efficient and careful use of natural resources, including water, energy, land, soil, animals, plants, biodiversity and ecosystems

b) Selecting renewable energy sources like wind energy, solar energy at every stage, and

c) Maximizing repair, remake, reuse, and recycling of the product

From a socio-economic perspective, all stakeholders should work to improve present working conditions for workers in the field, in the factories, transportation chain, and stores, by aligning with good ethics, best practice and international codes of conduct. Hence, sustainable fashion is very broad and encompasses many aspects.

sustainable fashion meaning

Then, what is Slow Fashion?

Now, slow fashion is essentially an extension of sustainable fashion. It is characterized by emphasizing producing quality clothes, which is locally manufactured, with slow production times.

Here, it is important to note that quality is discussed as a feature for the production, for social matters as working conditions and living for the workers and quality in terms of our environment. Quality is also discussed in terms of material, as for the physical garment and the fashion and style of the garments, which mean that it should last longer in style, opposite to fast fashion garments that quickly go out of fashion and are short-lived. So a slow fashion approach is to go from quantity to quality.

What can we do?

The key takeaway here is that no matter which term we use and wish to apply, be it sustainable fashion or slow fashion, it is important to take one step at a time.

It is tough to switch from fast fashion to a more eco-friendly fashion, and the only way to make a smooth transition is to be mindful — of our future purchases and more importantly, of utilizing our existing clothes to their fullest potential, through consciously upcycling and recycling.

“As consumers, we have so much power to change the world by just being careful in what we buy.” – Emma Watson

Over time, as we collectively realize the harmful impacts of fast fashion, we will be able to step out of the vicious cycle of the fast fashion industry and step into a safer and better future for fashion.



Additional References:

UNECE. (2018). UN Partnership on Sustainable Fashion and the SDGs.

ThredUp. (2020). Resale Report.

Brewer, M. K. (2019, October 9). Slow Fashion in a Fast Fashion World: Promoting Sustainability and Responsibility. MDPI.

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Dr. Divya Goil

Dr. Divya Goil

Dr. Divya Goil is a Sustainability Researcher at Ecowiser. We empower individuals to make sustainable choices. I am a medical doctor with a passion for environmental conservation and have dedicated my career to finding solutions for a more sustainable future.

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