Nowadays, clothing is being made more quickly and in larger quantities than ever before. And this means that we’re creating an increasing amount of waste. The BBC tells us that 56 million tonnes of clothing are bought each year, while 92 million tonnes of textile waste is created in the same period.
This is largely thanks to ‘fast fashion’ – a process by which clothing brands design, manufacture, ship, and sell products at breakneck speeds to capitalise on constantly changing trends set by fashion shows and celebrities.
The term also refers to the unsustainable practice of wearing items of clothing only a handful of times before discarding them, which has become more common over the last few decades.
The phrase ‘fast fashion’ was coined by a journalist at the New York Times in the early 90s. But while the term itself and awareness of the phenomenon are relatively new, we can trace the origins of fast fashion all the way back to the 1800s.
Below, we’ll explore how fast fashion emerged, why it creates problems, and what the alternatives are.
How did we get here?
Throughout the majority of human history, clothing was made by hand. The process was slow. You’d have to source all of your own materials, and fibres like cotton and wool needed to be spun into thread or yarn (by hand or with the use of a loom), before you could even get to work on measuring out and sewing clothing together.
However, this all began to change during the Industrial Revolution with the invention of machines like the power loom and the sewing machine, which automated the process – making it quicker and cheaper. Clothes could now be made in large quantities and in a range of different sizes. And throughout the course of the 1900s, mass-produced clothing was made widely available to people of all classes in the developed world.
As the demand for cheaply-made, mass-produced clothing increased in the latter half of the 20th century, manufacturers began moving their factories to less developed countries because of the cheap and abundant labour available there. They also began using cheaper, unsustainable materials – for instance, synthetic fabrics like polyester.
Now, more and more clothing is made in one country and shipped to another. And McKinsey Sustainability estimates that clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014 (and is expected to triple again between now and 2050). Right now, a whopping 100 billion articles of clothing are produced each year.
So now, when a celebrity is seen wearing an article of clothing, or an outfit is unveiled on a catwalk, fast fashion brands are able to design a similar, cheaper piece of clothing, mass-manufacture it, and ship it out to shops and homes all over the world in a matter of days.
Why is fast fashion bad?
Although fast fashion has become increasingly widespread, it doesn’t come without a cost. For example…
Fast fashion has disastrous effects on the environment
Because fast fashion brands use cheap materials and cut corners in order to get clothing onto high street racks as quickly as possible, they’re usually very poorly made and don’t last past a handful of wears. This means that people are discarding clothes at an alarming rate.
As we’ve already mentioned, 92 million tonnes of textile waste are created each year. To put this into perspective, the BBC compares it to a lorry full of clothes arriving at a landfill every second. In fact, the fashion industry is the world’s second-largest polluter behind the oil industry.
The materials that fast fashion brands use to bring their prices down are often terrible for the environment. Firstly, fast-fashion products are mostly made of synthetic materials such as polyester, which aren’t only non-biodegradable, but they’re also made from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels create greenhouse gases and are the world’s biggest contributor to global warming.
What’s more, the chemicals used by fast fashion brands to dye clothes are often toxic. These harmful chemicals eventually end up in waterways, polluting our water supply and poisoning marine life.
Fast-fashion factories exploit workers
Because of looser labour laws, a great many fast fashion brands outsource their manufacturing to countries like India and Bangladesh. However, the workers in these factories are frequently underpaid and have to work long hours in hazardous work environments.
In April of 2013, the Rana Plaza – a complex in Bangladesh containing multiple factories that manufactured fast fashion clothing items – collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring over 2,500 more. Although it was evacuated the day before when cracks in the structure of the building were discovered, factory owners forced workers to return on the day of the collapse by threatening to withhold pay.
Since then, the Rana Plaza has become a widely used example of how a great many fast fashion brands place profits above the safety and wellbeing of their employees.
To keep the price of clothes low, fast fashion brands also frequently pay factory workers in developing countries a sum that’s well under the living wage. Despite commitments having been made by these brands to pay their workers fairly in recent years, the Guardian reminds us that “low pay continues to be the status quo in the garment industry.”
If you want to find out more about the human impacts of fast fashion, it’s worth having a watch of the 2015 documentary, The True Cost, which goes into more detail about the Rana Plaza collapse and explores the working conditions of garment factory workers.
Fast fashion is more expensive in the long run
On the surface, fast fashion may seem to be a cheaper alternative to buying more expensive clothes. However, many people argue that by frequently purchasing cheaply-made articles of clothing that constantly need replacing, as opposed to investing in well-made products that’ll last for years, fast fashion will actually leave people out of pocket in the long run.
What are the alternatives to fast fashion?
When faced with the facts of our modern clothing habits, it’s easy to become disheartened and a little overwhelmed. But try not to let it get you down. There are plenty of things you can do to make your own fashion practices more sustainable, which will help to reduce waste and the demand for fast fashion – all while saving you money.
1. Use charity shops
Using charity shops is a brilliant way to make your fashion lifestyle more sustainable. By buying secondhand, you won’t only be saving money but reducing the demand for more clothing to be made by the fast fashion industry. And by donating your unwanted items, you’re limiting the amount you’re throwing away, so less waste will end up in landfills.
Even if charity shops can’t sell your items, they’ll try to send them off to a textile recycler. Charityretail.org tells us that charity shops are able to recycle more than 90% of donated clothing, so if you think no one will want something, it’s still better to give it to a charity shop than throw it in the bin.
What’s more, by spending money in charity shops and supporting them in other ways, you’ll be contributing to worthy causes like cancer research and child poverty.
Some of the most common charity shops that you can find in high streets all over the UK are Oxfam, Cancer Research, and The British Heart Foundation. Charity organisations also usually have online stores, so you don’t always have to do your shopping in person.
2. Use secondhand apps and websites
Buying clothes second hand using apps and websites allows you to find well-made designer items at greatly reduced costs while limiting waste and reducing the demand for fast fashion. Clothes are resold in a range of different states (from well-worn to never touched) and the price often reflects this.
On apps like Vinted, you can also converse with sellers, asking questions about size, fit, quality – and you can even negotiate on price. But as with all negotiations, always remember to be realistic and polite.
On the flip side, you can also sell your unwanted items on secondhand clothing apps for decent prices. A lot of people use selling clothes as a side hustle to earn some extra cash, or even as a full-time job.
To find out more about the best apps and websites for buying and selling secondhand clothes, why not check out this article from The Independent?
3. Build a capsule wardrobe
Susie Faux, the owner of the London based boutique Wardrobe, was noticing the problems of fast fashion all the way back in the 70s. In response, she came up with the idea of the capsule wardrobe.
Capsule wardrobes are essentially anti-fast fashion. They’re based on minimalism; owning small amounts of high-quality garments (50 pieces or less, including shoes, bags, and other accessories), as opposed to lots of low-quality ones.
Building a capsule wardrobe also involves choosing pieces that are versatile and go well with each other – maximising the number of different outfits that you can make. In a successful capsule wardrobe, with 25 items, you should be able to make 100 different outfits that match; each one leaving you looking a feeling great.
A capsule wardrobe will help you declutter your living space, save money, live more sustainably, as well as make it easier for you to pick out outfits. Just remember to try and sell or donate your clothes when transitioning to a capsule wardrobe, rather than throwing them away.
To get started on your journey to own less and dress better, why not take a look at our article Tips for creating a timeless and sustainable capsule wardrobe?
4. Be thoughtful about shopping for clothes
Have you ever found yourself spotting a piece of clothing out of the corner of your eye and adding it to your bundle of newly found things on the way to the checkout? Only to wear it only a handful of times, and find it doesn’t go with many of your existing clothes? Or discovered it doesn’t fit you as well as you’d hoped? Well, if you have, you’re certainly not alone.
Not being thoughtful about our purchases can lead our homes to become cluttered with clothes we rarely, or never, wear. And these clothes ultimately end up in landfills. By simply being more thoughtful about what we purchase, we can make a massive move towards having more sustainable fashion habits.
Being thoughtful about your buying habits can take many different forms. For instance, some people find it helpful to make a list of everything they need and to organise it by priority, or to find ways to refrain from buying things on impulse.
Try taking some time to decide whether or not you actually need something, before getting your credit card out – or even better, agree to come back in a few days. Then, if you move on and forget about the item, chances are you didn’t really need it.
5. Repair your clothes
When a piece of clothing becomes damaged, it can be tempting to just replace it – especially when there are plenty of affordable replacements offered by fast fashion brands. However, by learning to repair your own clothes, you can save money, live more sustainably, and keep your clothes alive and well for longer. Skills that are quick and easy to learn include replacing buttons, fixing seams, and mending lining.
When faced with clothes that are damaged or don’t quite fit anymore, you can also consider getting them repaired or altered by a tailor or seamster. This will prevent your pieces from going to waste, meaning you can invest in higher-quality pieces, knowing that they won’t have to go in the bin as soon as they have a little hole.
If you don’t already have a tailor or seamster that you trust, then why not check out Sojo – an app that’s designed to make getting clothes repaired and altered as quick and easy as possible?
6. Do your research
Trying to avoid fast fashion brands is a great way to live more sustainably, however, this can be easier said than done. One of the reasons for this is that it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish sustainable brands from those that aren’t – especially with the recent rise of greenwashing; a marketing technique that companies use to appear more sustainable and eco-conscious than they are.
With that in mind, here are some things to look for when researching brands:
Is their catalogue huge? Fast fashion brands will often have thousands of products on offer at any one time.
What’s their supply chain like? Do they give information about it on their website? As we’ve already spoken about, fast fashion brands often outsource their manufacturing to developing countries, resulting in complex supply chains. If info about supply chains is vague, then you might be dealing with a fast fashion brand.
What sort of materials do they use? Clothes that are made of cheap, synthetic materials like polyester are often a good indicator of an unsustainable brand.
Are their products really cheap? Lot’s of fashion brands offer unbelievably low-priced items, such as £1 bikinis and £5 dresses. So if the price seems too good to be true, unfortunately, it probably is.
For some ideas on how to shop more sustainably, why not take a look at this list of 35 ethical and sustainable fashion brands from The Good Trade?
Fast fashion is a growing problem that has real effects on people and the environment. But because of the increasing awareness of the subject, we’re starting to see some positive changes. For instance, the secondhand (or ‘pre-loved’) fashion industry is growing like never before, as people are trying to create a circular clothing economy and reduce waste.
It’s also important to remember that at this point in time, sustainable fashion habits can be expensive. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you need to buy some staples that are made from unsustainable materials, and don’t deny treating yourself to the occasional bargain.
As the old adage goes, a little goes a long way, and by making small steps – like taking the occasional trip to a charity shop or even making the effort to take care of the clothes we already own – we can make a big difference to the future of our planet.
For more ideas on how to be kinder to the environment, why not check out our article 13 tips for sustainable living?
Do you have any tips for creating sustainable fashion habits? Or do you know any great sustainable clothing companies that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation over on the Rest Less community forum or leave a comment below.