Fashion has a huge impact on people and the planet, and fast fashion owns a large and growing share of the problem. Fast fashion is growing, well… fast. The most successful fast fashion brands use influencers and other ploys to push trend driven items at ridiculously low prices, all while producing new clothing collections as often as every two weeks. Yikes. That all comes at a huge cost to the lives of the workers who make the clothes, as well as the environment. Read on to discover some hard facts about fast fashion—we guarantee you’ll put down that $10 t-shirt and back away slowly in case it bites.
Fast fashion retailers have made their name by giving us a chance to buy cheaply made pieces that look like designer clothes for next to nothing. But their sales techniques are having a drastic impact on consumer behaviour around the world. In particular, it changes our perception of the lifespan of the garments we buy, and tries to convince us that outfit repeating is a faux pas, when we know it’s a sustainability must do.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the industry and see the statistics that lay behind the ever-changing garments that won’t stop flying off the shelves.
1. “93% of brands surveyed by the Fashion Checker aren’t paying garment workers a living wage” (Fashion Checker, 2020)
It is commonly known that fast fashion production facilities are located in countries that are referred to as emerging or developing markets. Fast fashion retailers employ thousands of people from Bangladesh, India, China, Indonesia, and other developing nations as a cheap workforce. Not only do these people have to work exhausting hours, but the payment they get is far from fair.
The 2020 Fashion Transparency Index found that only 5 of the 250 large brands surveyed (2%) “publish a time-bound, measurable roadmap or strategy for how they will achieve a living wage for all workers across their supply chains”.
2. “Clothing production is the third biggest manufacturing industry after the automotive and technology industries. Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined” (House of Common Environmental Audit Committee, 2019)
The main goal of fast fashion giants is all about lowering production costs. This is precisely why they neglect the sustainability aspect of production, starting from using non-biodegradable fabrics that are fully processed with chemicals, to throwing production waste into water streams, lakes, and oceans.
3. “More than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilization and the lack of recycling” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017)
Where does your clothing go when it’s not needed anymore? Statistically, tonnes of fast fashion items are being thrown away every year. This is not only due to customers getting rid of their wardrobe items, but also due to retail stores. Instead of recycling or donating clothing that wasn’t sold, most fast fashion companies are often spotted tossing or burning the unsold stock, which leads to terrifying losses of natural and financial resources.
4. “Fast fashion brands like Fashion Nova, Boohoo, Revolve, Pretty Little Thing and Forever 21 all score less than 10% on the Fashion Transparency Index” (Fashion Transparency Index, 2020)
Sustainable fashion cannot exist without transparency. Transparency is a key precondition for industry action to eliminate human rights violations, treat workers and communities with respect and eliminate or reduce pollution and unsustainable resource use.
You should be suspicious of any brand that is not prepared to fully account for where and how it makes the clothes it wants you to buy. Of course transparency by itself is not enough – we need brands to commit to high standards and effective assurance systems to know if brands and their suppliers are actually delivering on their commitments.
5. “One in three young women, the biggest segment of consumers, consider garments worn once or twice to be old” (The Guardian, 2019)
As the industry of fast fashion grows, our ideas on what is fresh and socially acceptable to wear also face a massive transformation. Life in a world where our wardrobes can be upgraded with a couple of new pieces for the price of breakfast makes us neglect the terrible reality of fast fashion.
6. “Fast fashion brands use open-loop production cycles that pollute water and land” (The New York Times, 2019)
Speaking of the sustainability aspect, it’s also essential to know how brands avoid or dispose of waste products in the production process. As sad as it is, a vast majority of fashion retailers do not clean and reuse water from production facilities, using a so-called “open-loop cycle” method. It means that all of the waste goes straight outside to pollute waters and lands. So, the exact opposite of what we want!
7. “The fashion industry is responsible for 8% of carbon emissions” (UN Environment, 2019)
Some of the main sources of carbon emissions along fashion supply chains are things like pumping water to irrigate crops (like cotton), the harvesting machinery, general transport, and those pesky oil-based pesticides—all of which are inevitably increased in the notoriously overproducing world of fast fashion. By that score, we know that purchasing fast fashion items directly contributes to the global polluting machine that is to blame for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions.
8. “The textile sector still represents 10 to 20 percent of pesticide use.” The State of Fashion, McKinsey, 2020)
Cotton is one of the most commonly used fabrics when it comes to the fast fashion industry. By now it’s probably easy to guess that the conventional cotton fabric most often used in the fast fashion industry is made unethically. Shockingly, over one quarter of the world’s pesticides are being used to grow this conventional cotton. Combined with open-loop cycles, cotton production within the fast fashion industry poses a significant threat to health and well-being for agricultural workers, for eco systems and ultimately for all of us. Looking for alternative, more sustainable fabric options, is integral for improving the impact of the fashion industry.
9. “The average American throws away around 81 pounds of clothing yearly” (Saturday Evening Post, 2018)
Clothing has become more readily available than ever, triggering our consumer behaviors to change for the worse. By thinking of the garments we wear as short term tools rather than long term investments, we contribute to wasteful consumption patterns that inevitably lead us towards drastic climate change.
10. “Emerging markets take the biggest hit from the industry of fast fashion” (Changing Markets, 2019)
Fast fashion retailers save billions of dollars by locating their factories in emerging countries. The high cost of a large fashion industry in countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia and many more is the impact on the local environment and workers’ rights violations.
11.“68% of fast fashion brands don’t maintain gender equality at production facilities” (Ethical Fashion Guide, 2019)
As we’ve seen, most* fast fashion corporations locate their production facilities in emerging countries. The 80 million workers in the fashion supply chain are overwhelmingly women, but the majority of retailers show no little concern with maintaining gender equality in the workplace. Fast fashion is not just a sustainability problem, but a key feminist issue.
*Boohoo is a possible dishonourable exception – their final production is in Leicester UK to reduce time to market, but they have still been accused of labour rights abuses.
By thinking of the garments we wear as short term tools rather than long term investments, we contribute to wasteful consumption patterns that inevitably lead us towards drastic climate change.
12. “The effort that fast fashion brands put into sustainable production measures is decreasing” (Global Fashion Agenda, 2019)
The general trend of fast fashion brands trying to “do sustainable” is unsatisfying, to say the least. In reality, little to no retailers focus on making production transparent and eco-friendly. Don’t be fooled by baby steps like recycling and conscious collections, which may be no more than greenwashing.
13. “Volume-based business models simply cannot become sustainable” (Los Angeles Times, 2019)
It’s no secret that fast fashion’s modus operandi is to produce as much as possible as cheaply as possible. To make the fast fashion industry eco-friendly, it needs to focus on quality rather than quantity. You know, like its much nicer counterpart, slow fashion.
14. “Less than 11% of brands are implementing recycling strategies for their items” (Peppermint Magazine, 2019)
Some fast fashion retailers have introduced recycling programs that give customers a store discount in exchange for their old clothing. Most of these items never get recycled. But, offering discounts does act as a stimulus to drive more sales …
15. “It is estimated that around the world, about 107 billion units of apparel and 14.5 billion pairs of shoes were purchased in 2016” – (Common Objective, 2018)
In the end, it all comes to the way we treat our clothes. Buying new clothes without thinking twice is not only budget-unfriendly, but also unsustainable. It is our duty as consumers to look a little deeper to ensure that our hard-earned cash is going to companies we want to support.
16. “Three out of five fast fashion items end up in a landfill” (Clean Clothes Campaign, 2019)
Recycling is, unsurprisingly, a massive problem in the fast fashion industry. We rarely think about where our clothes go when we don’t need them anymore. Fixing your clothes instead of throwing them away can make an incredible contribution to the reduction in global pollution.
17. “Worker rights of fast fashion employees are strongly violated” (Euronews, 2019)
Once you know that over half of fast fashion employees don’t even get a living wage, the overall mistreatment of these workers doesn’t sound like breaking news. However, the working conditions are still worth mentioning—and prioritising. Fast fashion factories are often dangerous for workers. The most well known proof of this is the collapse of the Dhaka garment factory in 2013 that took the lives of 1,134 people and left around 2,500 injured.
18. “Washing, solvents, and dyes used in manufacturing are responsible for one-fifth of industrial water pollution” (McKinsey, 2020)
Eventually, every problem of fast fashion comes back around to the overall lack of transparency. By keeping water usage numbers secret, fashion giants leave the space for using open-loop cycles and polluting the environment with toxic water used during production.
19. “Nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used each year to make the world’s polyester fiber, which is now the most commonly used fiber in our clothing. But it takes more than 200 years to decompose.” (Forbes, 2015)
Crude oil is incredibly damaging to the environment, and it goes into a huge amount of garments produced for fast fashion. The resulting polyester AKA plastic-based materials also introduce the increasingly worrying issue of microfibres …:
20. Fashion accounts for 20 to 35 percent of microplastic flows into the ocean. The State of Fashion, McKinsey 2020
21. “63% of textile fibers are derived from petrochemicals” (Journal of Cleaner Production, 2018)
As terrifying as it sounds, well over half of fabrics that are used by fast fashion brands are actually made out of petrochemicals. There is also a problem with fabrics that brands claim as natural and organic. As much as the latter might be technically “organic”, the unsustainable production process often diminishes that statement. One way to combat the huge amounts of waste generated by these fabrics is to invest in clothes made from recycled plastic.
It goes without saying, fast fashion poses a huge threat to the planet and all of its inhabitants and is one big trigger for climate change. To put it simply, buying cheap items that will only be worn twice means contributing to the mistreatment of humans and nature. Thankfully for us conscious consumers, there are countless brands doing their bit to transform the fashion industry for the better.