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Fast Fashion: The Real Eco-Impact

Updated: Feb 1, 2020

Writer Katie Byng-Hall looks at the real moral and environmental impact of fashion and what some retailers are doing about it.

Photo by Hannah Morgan

Fashion is an integral part of modern life for many people, which means that buying clothes continually to keep up with trends is key.

This can be summed up in the term ‘fast fashion’, namely cheap, fashionable clothing available on the high street, inspired by catwalks and celebrity fashion, and updated non-stop. This trend leads to approximately 350,000 tonnes of clothing being thrown into landfill annually as garments are constantly replaced.

The top high-street brands now typically have 52 ‘micro-seasons’ annually based on current trends. For example, Topshop releases 400 new styles on their website every week. This fast turn-around means that the products are often poorly made from low-quality materials which are harmful to the environment.

Today’s consumerist fashion culture is concerning not only for our pockets, but also for the planet.

Environmental Impact

The clothing industry has a monumental effect on the environment. The annual greenhouse gas emissions related to textiles production stand at 1.2 billion tons, making the fashion industry’s climate impact greater than that of all international airline flights and maritime shipping trips combined.

It has also been found that the production of all the clothing bought in the UK every minute releases more carbon emissions than a car driving around the world six times. Buying a single cotton white shirt produces as much carbon dioxide as driving a car for 35 miles.

The industry harms the environment through more than just greenhouse gases. Textile dyeing is the second largest water-polluter globally, trumped only by agriculture.

Additionally, polyester, currently the most popular clothing material, releases microfibers when it’s washed which add to plastic levels in the oceans, poisoning sea creatures when plankton eat the fibres.

Underestimated Damage

The fashion predicament, and thus also its environmental impact, are more severe than one might think. Clothing and footwear production supplies 8% of global greenhouse emissions, a figure which is expected to see a 50% increase by 2030.

This is caused by our rapidly expanding appetite for new clothing. Clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, with the average person buying 60% more clothing annually compared to the overall spending habits of 15 years ago.

This growth in demand has a destructive effect on more than just the environment. Fast fashion is fuelled by low-paid workers, often overseas, who have to produce garments in poor conditions to meet their employers’ excessive demands. For example, some cheap materials contain high levels of lead, meaning that workers exposed to them for prolonged periods of time are more at risk of infertility and heart attacks. Our consumerist habits come at the detriment of other humans’ lives.

‘Slow Fashion’

Fast fashion needs to be challenged through so-called ‘slow fashion’. One example of this is ‘circular fashion – recycling materials from well-made garments used to create new clothing.

Multiple organisations are promoting a more sustainable approach to clothing, such as the UN’s Alliance for Sustainable Fashion campaign, launched in 2019 to kickstart action by ten coordinated UN organisations trying and change the fashion industry through sustainable projects and policies.

Big high-street companies are also jumping on the bandwagon, with H&M launching a garment collection scheme to reduce waste, and Patagonia producing jackets made from recycled plastic bottles. Companies like Rent the Runway, from which you can rent outfits for occasions instead of buying them, are also becoming more popular.

Whether it’s through buying from sustainable brands, purchasing better-quality garments so you have to replace them less frequently, donating used clothing to charity and buying second-hand, or just buying fewer new pieces altogether, making changes to your clothing spending habits can have a real positive impact on the environment.

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