Spotlight on fast fashion
7 minutes reading time
“Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth.”
– Mary Creagh MP, Chair, UK Environmental Audit Committee
The Fast Fashion business model requires ever-increasing production and sales, fast manufacturing, low product quality and short product life cycles, all of which lead to unsustainable consumption, fast material throughput, substantial waste, and vast environmental impacts1.
This article puts a spotlight on Fast Fashion, its impact on the environment, and asks whether the world can afford Fast Fashion.
Influencers and dopamine
What Fast Fashion sells is not clothing, it is consumption addiction.
Fast Fashion relies on recurring consumption and impulse buying, instilling a sense of urgency when purchasing. Like gambling and video games, Fast Fashion relies on the brain’s production of neurotransmitters to engender addictive behaviour. The anticipation of buying apparel triggers a response in the brain’s pleasure centre, or nucleus accumbens2. This response is heightened if there is a perception that the price is low relative to the value of the item – what consumer psychologists refer to as “transactional utility”.
Fast Fashion feeds this neurological process perfectly. The clothing is incredibly cheap and is frequently marketed as on sale, and new deliveries to stores or websites are frequent, which means customers always have something new to look at and desire. Social media, influencers, and the fear of missing out (FOMO) all magnify this response.
The success of Fast Fashion as a business model has been nothing short of phenomenal. We buy 60% more items of clothing than we did in 20003. We now collectively purchase 107 billion items of apparel and 14.5 billion shoes4 annually. In the US, the average consumer now purchases one item of clothing every 5.5 days, and on average clothes are worn just seven times before being discarded.
The fashion industry is characterised by vertical disintegration and global dispersion. Supply chains are frequently complex and opaque including industries such as agriculture, petrochemicals, manufacturing, logistics and retail. Yarn and textile manufacturing processes use vast amounts of energy and water, involving wet processes such as bleaching, dying, and finishing, and create enormous waste. Garment construction remains labour-intensive and sourcing decisions are largely determined by labour costs. China dominates the market, exporting US$315.5 billion in garments in 20215. It is often difficult for manufacturers to know where raw materials have come from, or how they were processed.
Garments are typically shipped from where they are manufactured in developing countries in large quantities, to central retail distribution centres in developed countries. Increasingly, air cargo is being used to save time, which increases the associated CO2 emissions by 3,500%.
According to a 2020 paper published in Nature, impacts from the fashion industry include6:
- over 92 million tonnes of textile waste produced per year
- 79 trillion litres of water consumed
- over 4 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions
- 20% of industrial water pollution from textile treatment and dyes
- 190,000 tonnes of oceanic microplastic pollution
95% of the water used in garment manufacture results from the cultivation of cotton, typically in water-stressed parts of the world. It takes 5,500 litres of water to grow the cotton used in the manufacture of just a single pair of jeans.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates the garment industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions. Energy use and CO2 emissions are highest during initial fibre extraction, especially for synthetic fibres, such as acrylics, which are manufactured from petrochemicals. Polyamide production (e.g. nylon), uses 160 kWh per kg of fibre and is typically manufactured in countries such as China, which have high dependence on electricity produced using thermal coal.
A toxic timebomb
The garment industry uses around 15,000 different chemicals beginning with the cultivation of fibre. According to the United Nations, around 1,000 people die each day from acute pesticide poisoning which also causes neurological and reproductive problems including sterility, miscarriage, and birth defects7.
Chemicals used in the spinning, weaving, and finishing of textiles, which mainly occurs in developing countries using open cycle processes (meaning chemical waste finds its way into soils and waterways) also have severe impacts on the environment, workers, and communities. One Swedish study found 10% of the chemicals used in textile manufacturing were of high concern to human health8. The World Bank identified 72 toxic chemicals in Asian waterways because of textile dyeing alone9. In Bangladesh, the government has declared three rivers in the capital city Dhaka “biologically dead”.
Figure 1 – Buriganga River, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Source: World Bank.
Figure 2 – Pollution from upstream dye factories, Tullahan River, Philippines
It is well documented that fashion companies look to save production costs through manufacturing in locations with lax environmental regulation and where pollution-mitigating technologies are not needed. This mode of manufacturing leads not only to high environmental impacts from chemical usage, but also to increased health risks for farmers, factory workers, and fashion consumers.
A mountain of waste
Around 15% of the fabric used in garment manufacture is wasted, typically in the cutting and garment assembly stage. Significant wastage also comes from ‘deadstock’. Around 6.5% of garments are never sold, and find their way into waste processes, typically being incinerated10.
18.6 billion tonnes of clothing is discarded every year. On average, people in the UK and US discard 30kg of clothing each year, and Australia slightly less at 27kg11. Around 85% of discarded clothing goes to landfill, enough to fill Sydney Harbour annually.
Figure 3 – Waste from Kantamanto garment market, Accra, Ghana
Just 12% of clothing is recycled, typically mechanically shredded into fibre, insulation material or rags. Less than 1% is chemically recycled back to reusable raw materials.
The answer is slow fashion
In January 2022, a proposed bill was introduced to the New York State Assembly that would force global fashion companies to map at least 50% of their supply chains and disclose the environmental and social impacts of their products12. While regulation and improved disclosure represent a step forward, ultimately the long-term sustainability of the fashion industry relies on the total abandonment of the Fast Fashion model.
‘Slow Fashion’, a term coined by Kate Fletcher of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, is defined as an approach to fashion that considers the processes and resources required to make clothing. It advocates buying better-quality garments that will last longer, and values the fair treatment of people, animals, and the planet along the way.
The Slow Fashion movement has been growing steadily in recent years, as consumers demand higher sustainability and ethical standards.
What you can do
All consumers should know what they are buying and how it is made. Brands with inadequate disclosure should be avoided. There are a number of websites and apps which provide sustainability information on brands including GoodOnYou, Brightly and the Fashion Transparency Index.
Similarly, there are steps you can take to reduce the environmental impact of your wardrobe: buy quality, to quote Vivienne Westward “Buy less, choose well. Make it last”; wash your clothes in cold water and avoid the tumble dryer; look for GOTS (global organic textile standard) certified cotton; and never throw clothing in the bin.
The BetaShares Responsible Investment Committee considers supply chain issues such as those discussed in this article when deciding whether to exclude companies from our ethical products. To date, no companies have been excluded from our ethical products on this basis, but we will continue to engage with portfolio companies to ensure they are held to the highest standards.
1. Source: The environmental price of fast fashion Niinimäki et al, Nature Reviews, Vol 1 April 2020
2. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1876732/
3. Source: https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/popaganda/climate-anxiety-make-it-fashion
4. Source: https://www.commonobjective.co/article/volume-and-consumption-how-much-does-the-world-buy
5. Source: https://www.fibre2fashion.com/news/textile-news/chinese-textile-industry-recorded-double-digit-growth-in-2021-279220-newsdetails.htm#:~:text=Additionally%2C%20China’s%20garment%20exports%20grew,of%20%24315.5%20billion%20in%202021.
6. Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/s43017-020-0039-9
7. Source: https://gtr.ukri.org/projects?ref=studentship-2320524
8. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6133113/
9. Source: https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/614901468768707543/pdf/922610WP0P11950DEL0FOR0GREEN0GROWTH.pdf
10. Source: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319902973_MEASURING_THE_DUTCH_CLOTHING_MOUNTAIN_Data_for_sustainability-oriented_studies_and_actions_in_the_apparel_sector/link/5d65480392851c619d799937/download
11. Source: https://www.ecoinvent.org/
12. Source: https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=f48937f3-3529-4cca-99fc-b35593a11752
Ex Suncorp, Russell Investments, QIC and Mercer. Past Director of the Investment Management Consultants Institute (IMCA) and Management Committee of the Investor Group on Climate Change (IGCC)Read more from Greg.