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Fast Fashion Facts : Are Your Wardrobe Choices Harming the Environment?

April 14, 2019


Clothing is so cheap on the high street these days that it's routine for people to purchase a new outfit for every occasion, or to even regularly buy items that they don't end up wearing. It's common to hear people excitedly respond how cheap their outfit was when complimented on it. I've definitely been guilty of all of this in the past. But after seeing 'sustainable clothing' and 'fast fashion' mentioned all over the internet, I started to research what the problems with today's shopping habits are and began trying to shop secondhand instead. Cheap clothing may seem like a good thing, but there are definitely hidden costs that we should be aware of.


What is fast fashion?

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 at breakneck speed.

Fast fashion items are inspired by the latest high fashion trends but available at a much more affordable price. The retailers often cut costs to produce the clothes more quickly to keep up with demand. The clothing is typically made of cheap, low quality materials designed not to last - possibly to ensure the consumer needs to keep replacing their wardrobe, ultimately giving them more business. The clothes often come from factories where workers are exposed to dangerous working conditions and paid a pitiful wage.  

How does the fashion industry harm the environment?


Water Pollution The fashion industry is the world's second most polluting industry. The dyeing of textiles is the second largest polluter of clean water, responsible for 20% of freshwater pollution. Other chemicals that are released into the environment as wastewater include polyvinyl chloride (used to size fabrics), chlorine bleach (used to lighten colours) and flame retardants. 

Carbon Emissions Each year, textile production contributes more greenhouse gases than all international flights and shipping combined, with 10% of global carbon emissions predicted to come from the fashion industry. More than 60% of textiles used to create our clothing are manufactured in China and India which still use coal-fuelled power plants, increasing the carbon footprint of our outfits even further.

Throwaway Culture The current throwaway fashion culture means landfills are being clogged with unwanted clothing. 350,000 tonnes (equating to around £140 million) worth of used but wearable clothing ends up in landfill every year in the UK. Disposing of clothing costs around £82m per year based on a 2014 study. Even brand new items that are returned after being bought online often end up in landfill as it's more profitable for businesses to throw them away than process them. Donating unwanted clothing to charity is no longer a viable option to counteract the waste of fast fashion as charity shops are being flooded with too many clothes, most they are unable to sell. 

5 clothing materials that are harmful to the environment


1. Polyester is the most common material used in clothing and it has an enormous carbon footprint. As a petroleum-based textile, a huge amount of energy is required to turn it into a wearable fabric. 70 million barrels of oil are used annually to produce it and it takes 200 years to decompose

2. The environmental impacts of plastic are commonly discussed. Materials in clothing contribute to plastic pollution, but aren't as widely discussed as items like plastic straws and disposable coffee cups. Polyester, acrylic and nylon are also forms of plastic which shed as microfibers and reach the ocean simply through being washed. These fibers are toxic and as they do not degrade they are commonly ingested by marine animals and can accumulate in the food chain. 

3. Cotton production contributes to the worldwide freshwater shortage - producing one cotton t-shirt can use 2,700 litres of water! Cotton crops use 24% of all insecticides globally - which is particularly concerning in regards to the latest news on insect decline

4. Viscose and rayon are made from cellulose fibers which sometimes come from old-growth trees in endangered rainforests. The production is extremely inefficient and wastes about 60% of the tree.

5. Nitrous oxide is released into the environment through the production of Nylon. This greenhouse gas is 300 times more dangerous to the ozone layer than carbon dioxide, with one tonne of nitrous oxide considered equivalent to 298 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

What can we do?

Buy less, choose well, make it last. 
- Vivienne Westwood

Buying second hand clothes has never been easier with easy access to charity shops and websites like eBay and Depop. If the sale of a new garment is replaced with a pre-loved item, this results in carbon savings and also prevents an item ending up in landfill. This is also a good way to still purchase items from high street, fast fashion brands if there is something you like, without supporting the brands.

With online retailers offering free returns, it's common for people to order more items than they need with the intention of returning most of their purchases. Avoid doing this because as mentioned earlier, most of these items are sent to landfill as it is cheaper than paying staff to process them. 

Try to repair clothes when possible instead of immediately throwing them away. Wrap have developed Love Your Clothes, a campaign designed to help change the way we buy, use and dispose of our clothing. The website has advice on how to buy better clothing, care and repair garments, upcycle, and how to deal with unwanted items. 

Contact brands that you enjoy shopping with and encourage them to become more ethical. Companies listen to feedback and will act if they think there is enough demand. Read more on this here

For further information, visit Good on You who have sustainable clothing guides, or check out The True Cost documentary. 

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