COP26 Fashion & Beauty

How is fast fashion failing the environment?

13 MAY 21 | 4 minute read

Clothes shopping used to be reserved for the changing of the seasons or when we outgrew our garments. 

Skip forward a couple of decades and clothes are cheaper, trend cycles move at breakneck speeds and shopping is more hobby than a necessity.  

In the UK we buy more clothing per head than any other country in Europe with over two tonnes of clothing bought each minute. Fast fashion has fed into the idea that wearing an outfit more than once is a faux pas and buying the latest look is the only way to stay relevant.  

Fast fashion chains dominate our high streets and online shopping experiences. But what is fast fashion, why does it impact the environment and how can we pick up more sustainable fashion habits? 

What is fast fashion?

Fashionable clothes that can be bought cheapy and are often gotten rid of as trends change are classed as fast fashion.  

The term was coined in the early 1990s by The New York Times when describing fashion retailer Zara’s aim to take a garment from the design stage to being sold in stores in just 15 days. 

Most fast fashion brands run with thousands of styles and have a short turnaround from when a trend is worn by celebrities or seen on the catwalk and when it hits the stores.

Often manufacturing takes place in developing countries where relaxed regulations around pollution allow wastewater into freshwater streams and rivers and use workers on low wages without adequate health and safety measures in place.  

To keep costs down low-quality materials are used, causing clothes to get worn out or degrade after just a few wears. If an item of clothing falls apart or goes out of style quickly, is it really a bargain? 

In the UK we buy more clothing per head than any other country in Europe with over two tonnes of clothing bought each minute. #HowToWasteLess

Person lifting a t-shirt from a clothing rail in a fast fashion store

How does fast fashion harm the environment?

When thinking about living more sustainably, cutting down on disposable items and using more environmentally friendly transport often spring to mind. But, when it comes to fast fashion and our clothes, the impacts are often less obvious. 

In the past 20 years, clothing production has roughly doubled. According to Business Insider, fashion production makes up 10% of total global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.  

If things continue as they are, that share of the carbon budget could jump to 26% by 2050

The industry’s water consumption, textile waste and use of chemicals not only risk environmental damage but also impact the health of workers involved in production. Cost-cutting and shortening production times means that corners are likely to be cut, including using cheap, toxic textile dyes.  

Cheap textiles, such as polyester, also increase fast fashion’s impact. Polyester is made from climate crisis contributing fossil fuels and can shed microfibers that add to plastic in our oceans. 
 
But even natural fabrics can cause problems at such large scales. Conventional cotton manufacturing needs huge quantities of water and pesticides.  

The speed at which clothes are produced also means that more and more garments are discarded by consumers, creating a monumental amount of textile waste. 

Recycling clothing and textiles or opting for eco-friendly fashion ranges don’t go far enough in combatting the decades of overproduction that’s led to the throwaway culture putting strain on our natural resources and causing a catastrophic environmental impact.  

What can you do to make fashion more sustainable?

Buy less. 
Have a good rummage through your wardrobe, you might be surprised what you already own. Could it be styled differently to make it feel new? 

Top tip: Box or bag up anything you’ve become a bit bored of and hide it away for a few months. Then, when looking for something new to wear, it’ll be like receiving an order in the post! 

Think before you buy. 
Do you already have something similar, or could it be borrowed from friends or family instead of buying new?  

Choose well. 
Keep an eye out for more sustainable fashion brands or shop second-hand. 

Make it last. 
Follow care instructions to help look after your clothes and mend them when you can. Try to avoid tumble drying, if possible, to keep your clothes from shrinking and fading. 

Give renting a go. 
Buying is so last season, companies such as HireStreet or Scottish based Sioda offer clothing rental options. Dutch firm Mud Jeans, leases denim items that can be kept, swapped or returned after a year.  

Box or bag up any clothes you’ve become a bit bored of and hide it away for a few months. Then, when looking for something new to wear, it’ll be like receiving an order in the post! #HowToWasteLess