Should fast fashion slow down?

Recently, I’ve been struck by the impact of fast and affordable fashion.  My concern has been heightened, having recently visited the V&A’s Fashioned from Nature exhibition, seeing Earth Day receive so much coverage and watching David Attenborough’s ‘Climate Change – The Facts’ show. With spring just around the corner, many of us are looking at refreshing our wardrobes with the latest trends. But, do we really need to keep buying more ‘stuff’? Can we step away from buying so much?

The fashion industry has moved from having two clothing seasons (spring and autumn), to four, to even more. We now have new styles coming out on a weekly basis, dialling up the FOMO heuristic and putting pressure on us to buy the latest trends.  Instagram encourages us to wear different outfits in order to maintain our social presence, giving a sense that we are early adopters and trendsetters. To keep up with this high demand of ever more clothing, quality and durability is often compromised. These garments don’t promise durability, they are produced cheaply but at what cost?

It is estimated that the UK recycles less than 1% of all clothing sold, we throw away £140m worth of clothes every year. The negative impact of fast fashion is huge with a recent Government report highlighting not only the environmental impact, but the cost and impact to those working in textile factories.  The Rana Plaza building collapse six years ago is a salient reminder to us all.

With increasingly documented social occasions and depressed disposable income, fast fashion is difficult to resist. It’s no surprise that brands such as Boohoo and Primark have just published some of their most promising profits to date.  There is a real challenge to be truly ethical and sustainable with all our choices.  We live in a consumer culture and it’s simply unrealistic to quickly unlatch ourselves from our social peacocking. Even when we think we’re helping, by recycling the clothes we’ve grown bored of via charity shops, they often don’t sell due to diminishing demand.  Many of these are exported to other countries only to end up in landfill sites. It’s overwhelmingly and frustratingly unsustainable!

The extent of the environmental impact cannot be underestimated. Landfill aside, the clothing industry also contributes to 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Many ‘fast-fashion’ garments are made from synthetic materials, such as polyester, which are oil based – reliant on the use of fossil fuels. These man-made materials break up in washing machines, ending up in our oceans and contaminating our eco-systems. Natural fabrics such as cotton and wool do not get a ‘green card’ – production of these uses vast amounts of water and pesticides. Knowing just which fabrics and brands to buy in order to be truly ethical and sustainable is a minefield.

So, what can we do?

We need to focus on both production and consumption. Through learning to repair and alter clothes, increase demand for pre-owned items, extend clothing lifetimes, and to make smarter choices by using transparency apps, such as ‘Good On You’ (as supported by Emma Watson). This will be the start of helping us make more informed, ethical retail decisions and change our relationship with clothes and fashion. Being sustainable and ethical in our choices is not easy, yet these behavioural nudges are far more than nice-to-haves, they are vital.

The beginning of this increase in awareness and consciousness has helped start-up ethical fashion brands (e.g. Thought, Mud Jeans, ASOS Made in Kenya, Birdsong London, etc.) to make a positive impact.  It’s great to see H&M’s pilot for sales of second hand goods with its & Other Stories brand. With the launch of Fashion Revolution Week, we’ve seen some brands moving away from the ‘fast fashion’ trend by offering free repairs (e.g. Patagonia) and producing products made from recycled / natural / ethical materials.  Small steps, but the good news is that we can start to make a difference by making smarter choices of where we shop, how often we spend and which brands deserve our support on social media.