Updated: Sep 21
Covid-19 put a sudden brake on our lives. Now our usual consumption modes are slowly kicking back but maybe it should be time to acknowledge that Fast Fashion 20 would be another reason to slow down, get aware and care for the planet and one another.
What is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion describes clothing designs that move quickly from the catwalk to retail stores to meet new trends. It competes with traditional fashion houses that continue to introduce new fashion lines on a seasonal basis. Innovations in supply chain management among fashion retailers make fast fashion possible.
Fast fashion can be defined as cheap, trendy clothing, that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores as fast as possible to meet consumer demand so shoppers can snap them up while they are still at the height of their popularity. It plays into the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas with only the latest trend to be relevant.
To sum up Fast Fashion is based on 3 fast and cheap steps:
Manufacturing: to cheaply produce the latest clothing trend;
Delivery: to bring the micro collection at lighting speed to the end consumers;
Renewal: to rapidly replace the collection to create an addictive consumption circle.
Numbers, Numbers, Numbers
European shoppers spend an average of nearly 800€ per year on clothes.
It amounts to over 68 garments per year, according to Rent the Runway. If we are basic at math, it is more than one new piece of clothing a week.
A piece of clothing when lucky is on average worn around seven times before the item is purged to make room for new pieces.
Fast Fashion retailer create 52 “micro-seasons” a year, yes one a week!
Nearly three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced (that amounts to 92 million...tons).
Around 20 to 25 percent of globally produced chemical compounds are used in the textile-finishing industry.
Fashion is responsible for 20% of the world’s water pollution.
More than 8 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions are produced by the apparel and footwear industries.
Where Does Fast Fashion Come From?
In the 1800s, between the design, getting the needed materials and dye, prepare them, weave them, making clothes was like everything else. It was slow and detailed fine work was reserved for the upper class.
The Industrial Revolution brought it sets of innovation and turned into technological progress, such as the sewing machine and boosted transportation speed of goods. All the above steps got a lot simpler, faster and cheaper. The middle class need could finally be afforded.
In the 60's and 70's, the way people dress in their everyday lives started to become a strong marker of people personal association and social peer group belonging. However the line between high fashion and everyday style was still distinct.
In the late 90's and 2000s, the combination of trade globalization, internet and individualistic values allowed retailers to shorten even more each step of the clothes Go-To-Market processes for a worldwide demand eager to differentiate themselves. Almost everyone had now access to reproduced clothes from top fashion houses available whenever and wherever they wanted at a cheap price.
Fast Fashion Environmental Impact ?
There has been this catchy claim you most likely heard that Fast Fashion is the biggest polluter after oil and gas, according to a study by the Danish Fashion Institute. However, this is a myth which has been debunked ever since but the phrase was mostly coined to shock and raise awareness. Juggernaut retailers' supply chains are too opaque to exactly measure, but as clothes are more relatable in the consumer's mind than cement and rare metal, the sentence was just so catchy, it stuck in our mind.
In any case, no debat here, the fashion industry is guilty to bear major responsibility for carbon emissions, dying chemical and pesticides runoff, clean water pollution and landfill gluts in different parts of the world.
What makes fashion so harmful is the fact that its supply chain is a mix all of other polluting industries: electricity and heat, agriculture, transportation, oil and gas production, and even livestock.
As long as we have only garbage information, we’ll only get garbage action from brands and governments to fix the problem - Alden Wicker
The fashion industry produces 10 percent of humanity’s carbon emissions, according to UN Environment Program.
Water-use and contamination make the situation even more grim. It takes about 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt; dyeing garments causes excessive pollution since the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams, or rivers.
For example, the production of polyester (a plastic found in 60 percent of garments) releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton. Not only that, polyester can’t break down in the ocean the way cotton does and when washed, the fabric releases micro plastic into our sewer contaminating then not only water source, but the organism that inhabit them and the one drinking out of them.
Human Rights Toll
The high demands of producing inexpensive clothing have pushed companies towards cheap labor, low-quality fabrics, and as a result provide unsafe working conditions.
Indeed, Low and Middle Income Countries (LMIC) are the producers of 90% of the world's clothing. With lacks of proper safety standards due to poor political infrastructure and organizational management, it results in working conditions leading to respiratory hazards due to poor ventilation (cotton dust and synthetic air particulates) resulting in lung disease and cancer, damage to endocrine function, adverse reproductive and fetal outcomes, musculoskeletal hazards from repetitive motion tasks, accidental injuries, overuse injuries and death.
News of sweatshop lacking complete health and safety standards resulting in terrible accidents periodically emerge such as the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse killing 1134 Bangladeshi workers, or recently in December 2019, with a bag factory in Delhi which caught fire while operating without a fire safety license (more than 43 adults and children lost their lives). These tragic disasters, however, have not triggered any change of standards and conditions for LMIC workers.
A disposable economy closing a vicious loop
Just like the single-use straws or coffee cups, fast fashion has influenced the consumers’ mind that clothes have become disposable. As a result, waste is produced even after the garment has been sold. Clothes are not worn and when discarded if not sent to the landfills or the incinerator end up in the second-hand clothing trade, which is not actually always a good sign.
The majority of used clothing are compressed, shipped overseas and then ends back to, you guessed it, the LMIC. Clothing are sold in second-hand markets there and if they do not meet the demand they become solid waste. The waste clogs rivers, clutters parks and creates the very recipe for further environmental damages with LMIC lacking proper public waste management system.
How to Recognise a Fast Fashion Retailer?
Leaders in the fast fashion industry include brands such as Primark, Zara, H&M, C&A, UNIQLO, Gap, NewYorker, Bershka, Forever 21...
The key criteria to spot Fast Fashion Brands are:
In shop Offer: A large in shop or on website offer, touching lots of different styles and trends; Limited style edition in time and quantity leading to an extremely short turnaround between collections; Aggressive offers/discounts.
Once shopped: Low quality material: clothes' color and fabric fibers deteriorate quickly after a few wears and washes.
Supply chain: Garments are made in countries where labour cost are the cheapest; not easy to track down the source of the difference processes (design, manufacturing, transportation...).
Fast fashion is a problem, but it doesn’t mean retail is a thing of the past. Caring for the environment doesn’t have to come at the cost of your love of fashion.
Here are a few mindset questions to consider in order to remain kind to our planet.
Reframe our Mindset
We can follow the quote of designer Vivienne Westwood "Buy Less, Choose Well, Make it Last."
1. Buy less - Do i actually need it?
The reason of the purchase: personal, professional.
Will I wear this article at least 30 times?
Do I absolutely need something new?
2. Choose well - Focus on fabric, quality and location.
Approach any purchase like an investment
Go for natural fibers and their organic option: cotton, linen, hemp, wool, silk, tencel
Choose the correct channels, shops
3. Make it last - Just wear it!
Read the Care Instruction note
Wash less, wear a piece 3 times before going into the laundry, of course we do not vouch for the mud look, just to be mindful, when the dirt or smell is obvious.
Washing machine best practices: right amount of laundry detergent, not too much to waste energy and not too much to avoid the clothes to rip off each other, consider Cold Wash, especially to prevent fading and save energy.
To know more: here are the ultimate guide to make your clothes last longer.
One great idea to put our mindset to good work is to create a functional closet, called the Capsule Wardrobe.
A Capsule Wardrobe is a set of 30-40 pieces which allows multiple logical combinations to fit an entire wardrobe year. It is composed of your important cornerstone pieces and well-thought accessories that you love wearing, and are functionally practical and versatile.
Fashion fade, style is eternal, - Yves Saint-Laurent
The bonuses of a capsule wardrobe are to, you guessed it, minimize waste and also avoid "mental decision fatigue" by saving you the time to stare at your wardrobe for 30 minutes and still be undecided on the what to wear.
To go further: we published this post on how to turn your closet into your everyday ally.
What Are My Possible Shopping Alternatives?
Thinking outside our usual go-to shops and favorite brands can be daunting so here we are presenting different alternative to consider.
One timeless alternative is to get a vintage piece in second hand market either in the neighborhood or online as well.
One great alternative is from Vinokilo which as online shop and create pop up event. VK is a social enterprise founded in Mainz that runs Germany's biggest pop-up event for second hand clothes. Clothes are being sold at a kilo price at their events. Second hand clothes are handpicked out of clothing waste containers. They are curated by their pros, cleaned, repaired, and sold on to you so you know you have the best possible vintage on offer. You can purchase their vintage on their pop up events across Europe where you shop and pay per kilo or directly on their online shop.
The company claims to have saved to date more than 262 tons of clothes from the landfills.
Attend or create a Swap/Clothes Event
According to the number presented above, we do not use our garderobe to the fullest of its potential, meaning we only use a fraction of our clothes. A great way to socially renew your garderobe is to either go to a swapping clothes event (check the dedicated facebook page/group) or organize your own.
Plus, swapping clothes is most likely better than giving away to charities overrun with clothing nobody wants (a tip is to ask them in advance their actual need), getting denied to secondhand shops or get a few euros after 1 hours of uploading on a web marketplace.
You can have a look at great craftman and woman in your direct neighborhood and city, or online at Etsy. Plus before considering a new purchase, check if the item you have cannot be mended. If you lack the expertise, I am sure you can find one nearby. It is also a great way to show support to your local businesses and know your neighborhood.
Ethical / Sustainable
If you need to buy something new, try with what you are learning now (or knew before) to see through greenwashing tactics and screen to know how the chosen brands produced the clothes that you are coveting now. You can then either fin dit on the street in responsible fashion store such as Glore or online with the list in our next section.
Unsustainable but made to last
If no other option will get you any satisfaction in your clothing crave and what you seek is very specific, then make sure it has at least been built to last.
If buying those four pieces would have saved thousands of gallons of water, then, by declining to buy them, I had put six hundred and two dollars in the bank. - Jia Talentino
Green Carnet - the Good Addresses
Here are a few websites of great European brands to shop consciously (most suggested by Good On You).
For everyone - Armed Angels: Affordable, ethical and on-trend, Germany’s brand Armedangels covers all the basics for women, men and kids. Armedangels quality and long-lasting pieces are made from eco-friendly and certified materials, like Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified cotton. The brand also adopted the Fair Wear Foundation Code of Conduct to protect its workers abroad.
For everyone - ThokkThokk: German label ThokkThokk creates a beautiful range of sustainable, fair trade casual wear for men, women and children. Most of its products are made from organic cotton that is Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified and Fairtrade certified, so you can be sure that the highest standards are upheld when it comes to sustainable organic farming and the fair payment of cotton farmers.
For everyone - Ecoalf: the spanish brand Ecoalf was created after the birth of the founder, Javier Goyeneche’s first son – which inspired him to create a brand more aware of its impact on the planet for future generations. By integrating breakthrough technology, they create clothing and accessories made entirely from recycled materials, without actually looking like it. It is a new generation of sustainable fashion. Ecoalf is certified B Corp.
They offer stylish ranges across jackets, coats, knitwear, shirts, sweaters, pants, footwear and accessories like bags and washbags.
Underwear and basics - Organic Basics: The danish label Organic Basics offer underwear, activewear and essential clothing for men and women with great traceability of its sustainable impact through its whole supply chain. OB is certified B Corp and offers clients the possibility to offset their carbon emission.
For men only - Asket: From t-shirts, chinos & sweatshirts, to socks, belts & beanies Swedish label Asket makes stylish mens pieces to build a flexible wardrobe of what they call ‘meaningful essentials’ that stand the test of time – both in terms of craftsmanship and design.
The passionate team are on a mission to slow down fashion, rejecting the disposable nature of fast fashion, and encouraging shoppers to reduce their impact and be conscious of fair labour conditions.
Denim - MUD Jeans: Dutch denim brand MUD Jeans is all about sustainability. Not only does it offer a repair service, but it also provides a rental service where you can lease a pair of jeans for up to a year! MUD Jeans has also adopted the Fairtrade International – Small Producers Organizations Code of Conduct, and it ensures that a large proportion of its suppliers pay a living wage.
Shoes - Veja: Veja is a French brand designing ecological and fair trade footwear, and is also a sustainable fashion pioneer. The brand uses eco-friendly materials, like GOTS certified cotton and vegetable-tanned leather! Veja pays their co-operative cotton growers and rubber tappers between 30% and 100% above the world market price. By not advertising, they are able to invest more money into strengthening their ethical practices.
Kids (0-8 years) Little Green Radicals: Little Green Radicals creates ‘organic clothing for free range kids’. Their colorful range of childrenswear is always made from 100% organic, Fairtrade-certified cotton, so you know the brand cares about the planet, workers, and your little one, too
- To have an exhaustive list of women, men and children clothing brands
- Looking for Rating of garment brands sustainability "Good On You" publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals.
Change is complex and never unilateral, especially for a large scale impact. According to an article from Environmental health, it would depend on four combined factors : textile innovations with the manufacturing of sustainable fibers, companies being accountable for their sustainability pledge, global trade policy and consumer habits.
By innovation, it means the sustainability of a fiber. It refers to « the practices and policies that reduce environmental pollution and minimize the exploitation of people or natural resources in meeting lifestyle needs ».
Natural fiber are overall more sustainable than what has been mainstreamed manufactured (polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex…), but technological designed fibers can be even more sustainable. Lyocell for example comes from bamboo cellulose and has been made in a close loop production cycle with 99% of the chemicals used to develop fabric fibers are recycled. The use of such new products is key in minimize textile production environmental impact.
Independent certification organizations are flourishing and while some brands get certified others are more shifting their effort towards « Greenwashing » : marketing their product as green in order to jump on the customer appeal towards eco friendly products and services without doing the work to meet criteria. To fight such practices, supply chain certification criteria should be agreed on internationally and adopted industry wide.
Sustainable companies cannot compete head to head with fast fashion, especially on price. Virtuous supply chain are difficult and expensive to maintain and audit. High income countries will have to advocate for virtuous regulations shaping new trade policy standards. However, regulations are often only enforceable within local borders. But global environment health hazards could still emerged. The EU could « increase import taxes for garments and textiles or place caps on annual weight or quantities imported from LMICs ». At the other end of the clothing lifecycle, some LMICs have begun to regulate the import of used clothing, eg “Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda are raising taxes on secondhand clothes imports and at the same time offering incentives to local manufacturers”.
The role of the end consumer
Political decisions (trade policies and regulations) are the most effective solutions in bringing lasting and worldwide positive change to the fast fashion industry. Consumers in high-income countries still have a big part to play and use their everyday money as a vote for the world they wish to see emerge. They can do this by supporting humanly and environmentally virtuous companies. Awareness must be created on the potential hazardous impacts of unsustainable supply chain and greenwashing techniques, so customers can see through the broad, non-binding claims and practices of unethical companies. They can do they part to support greener processes by adopting some of the new materialistic habits we depicted through this article:, become daily activists by getting informed to select the righteous companies and be critical towards those which do not or make false claims, consume less but of lasting quality, buying from secondhand sources and acquire the knowledge to take better care of the clothes already hanging in their closet. Less is more.
Bick, R., Halsey, E. & Ekenga, C.C. The global environmental injustice of fast fashion.Environ Health17,92 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-018-0433-7
Anguelov N. The dirty side of the garment industry: Fast fashion and its negative impact on environment and Society. Boca Raton: CRC Press; 2016.
Akhter S, Rutherford S, Chu C. What makes pregnant workers sick: why, when, where and how? An exploratory study in the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh. Reprod Health. 2017;14(1):142.