Hello and welcome to part two of my Let’s Talk: Fast Fashion. In part one, I defined fast fashion and greenwashing while sharing some facts. I also shared a concept my friends and I created that helped us stop purchasing from FF brands. In this post, I’m discussing the lifecycle of fashion garments through a study by the Queensland University of Technology. This study was published in 2011 by Alice Payne.
Okay, I’m not going to ramble. Let’s get straight into it!
Let’s talk: fast fashion
If you’re unsure what fast fashion is, have a quick read of the definition I provided in part one, here.
According to Payne, one of the biggest barriers to sustainability within the mass market is the speed of the garment’s life-cycle. She says that within the past fifteen years, the speed of the entire fashion industry has accelerated and clothing prices have fallen, with more trends and products dropping in store. This acceleration of trend cycles results in faster production and consumption of clothing which has been made possible through cheap off-shore manufacturing, something we know to be sweatshops and modern-day slavery.
The mass fashion industry is driven by low cost and fast delivery.
The life-cycle of garments
The life-cycle of garments begins with its fibre. Fibre choice is crucial because not only does it dictate the quality of the clothing, but the impact it has on the environment. The manufacturing and the growing process is one of the defining points between fast fashion and slow fashion.
Fast fashion is responsible for 20% of global wastewater production, which is caused by 3500 chemicals that manufacturers use to produce, dye, coat, and soften your clothes. Many of these chemicals are incredibly harmful to both humans and the environment, and the run-offs of this chemical production often end up in our waterways and oceans. In 2015, the fast fashion industry created 92 million imperial tons of wastewater .
We make 63% of clothes from petrochemicals. Some materials include nylon, rayon, viscose, and polyester. In 2016 the fast fashion industry used 21.3 million imperial tons of polyester. That’s a 157% increase from the year 2000 .
We’re going to take a look into three: polyester, cotton and viscose.
Polyester: Polyester is a cheaply made synthetic fabric made from chemicals and plastic. Your clothes are made of plastic. This is by far the most common fabric type, and the plastic it’s made from comes from petroleum. Meaning, your clothes are made from the same stuff that fuels your car.
Cotton: Cotton is a fabric that can be used in both fast fashion or slow fashion because it depends on who produces it and where. Cotton is a natural fabric, and when farmed, and used correctly, cotton is a breathable, durable fabric that makes for fantastic life-long clothes. However, when it comes to fast fashion cotton clothes, it’s another story. Cotton is currently one of the most resource-intensive crops.
Current cotton production methods are incredibly unsustainable for many reasons. Firstly, cotton needs a lot of water. For one kilogram of cotton, 20,000 litres is needed . Another issue is soil erosion and degradation. Cotton farming severely degrades soil quality, meaning new crops have to expand on new land, which leads to further land degradation and habitat destruction. Cotton farming also uses large quantities of pesticides and fertilizers that threatens the health of surrounding land, and bodies of water. Globally, we use 11% of pesticides and 24% of insecticides on cotton crops. Currently, less than 1% of cotton crops are organic . This video explains the life-cycle of cotton garments if you’re interested.
Viscose: Viscose is a plant-based fibre that isn’t completely natural like cotton, but also not as artificial as polyester. It’s the third most commonly used textile fibre in the world and is usually found in summery dresses, skirts, and soft blouses for a fake silk look. Initially, it was branded as a sustainable alternative to cotton and polyester. Although viscose isn’t inherently toxic or polluting, it’s still a part of the fast fashion industry .
Most of the viscose we find in our clothes have been cheaply produced by mass manufacturers by using water, energy, and chemically intensive process to formulate the fabric. The process is incredibly damaging to the environment, and the conditions created for workers are unsafe and unethical. The wood pulp from which viscose is made is treated with chemicals and then spun into a fine thread. This process releases toxic chemicals into the air and water sources surrounding these factories, mainly found in China, India, and Indonesia. This has led to an increase in health issues in areas where viscose is produced, such as birth defects, coronary heart disease, and cancer .
Zara, H&M, and ASOS are all well known fast fashion brands who rely highly on viscose and continue the production of this product through their intensive production process. The production of viscose is also a huge contender in deforestation, as ancient and endangered forests are cleared to make way for pulp plantations .
Take a look at the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres to see where the fibres of our clothes fit in. Polyester is rated a D, cotton an E, and viscose a D and E.
This phase has been scrutinised for poor labour practices and releasing toxic waste into the environment – just think about the facts provided in the Fibre phase. Farmers in China close to garment factories joke about being able to tell what colour will be in next season by looking at the shade of their rivers .
I’m not going into depth with the design phase. For my fellow Aussies, we’re a fashion season behind Europe and the US. This results in consumers purchasing products online rather than waiting for them to be released in Australia, which speeds up the mass market.
A critical phase in a garment’s lifecycle is the production. When manufacturing is local, working conditions can be monitored closely; however, most manufacturing is now done off-shore in sweatshops, where it is harder to monitor the treatment of workers. Not too mention, there is also prison slavery to consider.
Garment factory workers often work extremely long hours with minimal pay. Also, cases of mental, physical, and sexual abuse are frequent. In 2013, the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed killing at least 1,132 people and injuring more than 2,500. The Rana Plaza was an illegally built eight-storey building full of garment factories for Western retailers. We’re certain that many of us continue to purchase from these retailers. I’d recommend you read these articles from the Guardian to gain a little more insight on the topic:
- Rana Plaza, five years on: safety of workers hangs in balance in Bangladesh
- Reliving the Rana Plaza factory collapse: a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 22
The production of fast fashion can and does kill people. Just let that sink in. How many people died making your clothes?
Not to mention that in 2017 it was revealed that H&M burned about 19 metric tonnes of obsolete clothing which is equivalent to 50,000 pairs of jeans . They’re also not the only brand to burn and dispose of unsold clothing, Gucci also burns their unsold stock and Burberry used too, only stating that they will stop in September 2018 after receiving backlash. There are many more brands destroying their stock too.
After being produced, garments are distributed. Through the collection of fibre, textile production and manufacturing of garments, many have already been flown around the globe multiple times before becoming available in store. This has huge environmental impacts, especially on air pollution. National Geographic highlighted a study that found plane exhaust kills more people than plane crashes; killing ten thousand annually.
Once the garments are distributed, they end up on the retail floor. This is where we need to think smart and vote with our money. We need to keep in mind our personal bar and raise it high.
Use & wear
Once we’ve made our purchases, the next phase within their life-cycle begins. This phase has the biggest environmental impact and will vary from person to person. Australians buy an average of 27kg of new clothes and discard about 23kg into landfill each year . The average woman has $550 of unworn clothing and has never worn at least 20% of the items in their wardrobes . And fast fashion garments, which often we wear less than five times and keep for 35 days, produce over 400% more carbon emissions per item per year compared to garments worn 50 times and kept for a full year .
It’s what we wear and how we wear it that counts.
Fast fashion garments that are cheaply made will only last a season or two, which leads to them being thrown away faster. Only 10% of clothes people donate to thrift and charity stores get sold, the rest goes into landfill . Resulting in Australian charity second-hand stores spending $13 million per year to send about 60,000 metric tonnes of unusable donations to landfill .
The Well Dressed report found that purchasing a 250g cotton T-shirt implies purchasing 1,700g of fossil fuel, depositing 450g of waste to landfill and emitting 4kg of CO2 into the atmosphere. These figures are largely driven by the energy required to launder and dry the T-shirt during its life cycle.
Bueryrarchy of needs
There is a lot to consider when disposing of clothes you no longer wear and when purchasing new items. Something I want to highlight is the Buyerarchy of needs.
It’s a great way to increase a garment’s life-cycle and really get the most out of it, and it helps stop you from purchasing new pieces. You start at the bottom, only moving up a row if you need to (I doubt you will).
Use what you have: Fix and mend the clothes you already own. Go through your wardrobe and take into account all the clothes you already own.
Borrow: See if someone you know has the item of clothing you’re looking for and ask if they’d be willing to let you borrow or hire it.
Swap: Have something your friend wants, and they have something you want? Swap them. Go to clothes swaps.
Thrift: I honestly believe you can find everything you need from thrifting (and the steps before). Purchasing secondhand brings new life into older garments. There are also so many options. Depop is a great way to thrift online, but there are other options too. You have charity and community op shops as well as vintage stores. Explore your local area.
Make: If you’re desperate for something and you can’t find it thrifting try and make it.
Buy: The last resort. If all else fails, then buy new. However, look into sustainable and ethical options over fast fashion brands.
I believe that using what you have, borrowing, swapping, and secondhand options are the most sustainable.
& there you have it
We’re coming to the end of this post now. I really hope this helps you understand why fast fashion isn’t a good option. Yes, clothes are cheap and easy to access, but they’re cheap because of the shortcuts taken elsewhere.
If you haven’t read part one yet, I recommend you do. This post may make more sense if you’ve already read it.
The best way to combat fast fashion is by changing your habits. Set your personal bar and be the change.
And, if you’re interested in taking other sustainable steps, take a look at my Sustainable & Slow Living category. Over the next few months, I’ll solely be focusing on sustainable and ethical content.