The problem with fast fashion

Date: 31/08/2021 Written by: Lauren 9 minutes to read.
How can you help to solve the issue of fast fashion?

Over recent years, people have become more and more aware of plastic pollution, bringing about a huge change in behaviour in governmental policy, retail standards and shopping habits. However, pollution from the fashion industry is a big issue that is only just beginning to garner the attention it deserves. So, how exactly is fast fashion impacting the planet, and what can we do to help?

Almost all of us own fast fashion pieces. Whether it’s the ease of next day delivery, the value of a certain brand, or the celeb-inspired looks from online retailers, fast fashion clothing is easy, accessible, social and timely. So, when a product hits all of the elements of the EAST framework, we can instantly see why fast fashion is so popular! 

This is bad news for the planet, but cheap, disposable, poor quality clothing isn’t just bad for the environment - it’s also unethical. Every five minutes, 9,513 garments are being dumped in the UK (Oxfam) – that’s 9,513 garments dumped by the time you finish reading this blog. Taking it one step further, that’s 350,000 tonnes or £140 million a year of clothing gone to waste (Clothes Aid). Staggering, we know. 

Unfortunately, those facts don’t tell the full story – there’s more. According to WRAP, the total footprint of clothing in the UK was 26.2 million tonnes of CO2 in 2016. Half a million tonnes of plastic fibres are shed during washing and end up in the ocean (Ellen MacArthur Foundation). Workers globally are owned USD 11.85 billion (Clean Clothes Campaign). Throwaway fashion isn’t just bad for waste - it’s bad for our oceans, workers and climate change. 

Fortunately, this never-ending list of statistics isn’t the be-all and end-all. Clothing brands, organisations and charities across the world are working to address fast fashion and move the fashion economy to a more sustainable, circular (link to circular economy blog) economy. 

WRAP, a charity established to promote and encourage sustainable resources, created the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan to bring together charity retailers, fashion retailers and textile recyclers to reduce the impacts of UK clothing consumption. By sharing their expertise and best practice, convening working groups and setting targets, WRAP made it easy for big brands like ASOS, Marks and Spencer and Tesco to reduce waste to landfill, carbon footprint and water footprint. Providing brands with easy access to education, guidelines and training, WRAP has covered all three elements of the Behaviour Change Wheel, allowing brands to change their behaviour. 

The Textiles Action Network, also from WRAP, works to uses the principles of a circular economy to re-shape production, taking a different approach to reducing waste. This network ensures that more reused clothing is sold, clothes are designed to be made circular and more circular raw material is in new clothing than linear raw material. 

When it comes to shelving fast fashion, consumers are also waking up and making a difference. Last year, after news came out that fast-fashion brand Boohoo was using a factory that pays their employers £3.50 an hour, a mass boycott from environmentally-conscious customers ensued. As a consequence of this, and big brands like ASOS dropping their collections, Boohoo lost more than £1bn in value in just one day – not something to be sniffed at! 

Conscious shopping doesn’t just stop at behaviour change through boycotting the worst offenders - 81% of people said they are more likely to buy from a brand with a positive approach to sustainability (SmartestEnergy). Promoting the fact that such a high percentage of people want to shop more sustainably is a key way to change behaviour, as it promotes social norms – no one wants to be seen as supporting the bad guy. As more people change the way they shop, costs of production for ethical brands can decrease, and more sustainable options can open up and compete with the big polluting brands – eventually leading sustainable options to become the default option for clothes shopping. A real challenge with this is a “values-action-gap” – 81% of people say they want to shop more ethically, but are they putting their money where their mouth is? Some people may be unwilling to spend more to shop ethically, but that’s where vintage comes in. 

As shoppers increasingly turn away from polluting companies, the popularity of second-hand and sustainable clothing rises. Depop, a community-powered platform selling small brands and second-hand, now has more than 30 million global users - 90% of which are activism-conscious Gen Zs and young Millennials (Depop). While second-hand was once something to be shunned, it’s now a key trend for younger people who want to wear unique clothes and limit their impact on the planet, again helping to promote second-hand through social norms and trends. While trending items can be expensive on second-hand marketplaces, which in itself shows the popularity of vintage, a good browse in the local charity shop is usually an accessible, cheap way for anyone to pick up something unique and eco-friendly. Making vintage cool is a great way to help battle fast fashion issues as it gives people on any income the opportunity to stay stylish without impacting the environment. Plus, there are a few vintage-loving changemakers at Social Change UK who would give you the thumbs up for your second-hand looks! 

After last year’s events and shocking (but unsurprising) reports like the IPCC reports, people are putting increasing pressure on influencers as a messenger to use their platforms for good. This doesn’t just mean speaking up about important political and social issues, it also means shopping ethically, particularly for fashion influencers. Many influencers have young, impressionable audiences, so Instagram Reels and TikToks on clothing hauls shipped from China just doesn’t make the cut anymore. Fortunately, many influencers are taking this new lifestyle in their stride by making an effort to decline gifted items they don’t need, reduce “wear it once” looks and shop more ethically. A key trend for fashion influencers is choosing items from zero-waste brands with limited runs on clothes like Reformation and Molby The Label – authority bias is where people tend to follow the leader, so pushing ethical brands as the latest trend is a great way to combat pollution through fashion. 

Finally, more and more brands and companies are turning to rental fashion. A recent report, infamous in the fashion world, stated that rental fashion is the least sustainable method for wearing and ditching clothes. However, understanding the nuance of this report is key – rental platforms must choose ethical clothes, carbon-neutral deliveries, sustainable packaging and eco-friendly washing. Consumers also need to play their part, choosing from rental platforms that genuinely care for the environment rather than profit margins, as well as carefully deciding whether or not rental is really the better option (going to wear that dress once? Rent it. Going to wear it 100s of times? You may as well buy it and donate it at the end of its life). With this in mind, it’s clear there is still room for rentals in sustainable fashion. 

Companies across the world are working together to make fashion more sustainable, and people are becoming increasingly aware of the impact their clothing choices have on the environment. While these facts and figures can encourage eco-conscious shoppers to stay motivated in their mission, and the rise in popularity of sustainable and vintage fashion is providing people with more opportunities to shop ethically, many people simply cannot afford sustainable style at this time. That’s why charities like WRAP are working on changing mindsets – a t-shirt can only cost £2 because someone or something is losing out along the way, but a quality t-shirt at a slightly higher price point will last much longer. However, the real secret to success is for consumers to demand businesses reduce the price of clothing while ditching unethical production practices. Ultimately, this can only be done by increasing the popularity of ethical choices, and there are stand out companies that are well on their way to making slow fashion the future of fashion. 

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