Beth Kayser

What is fast fashion?

7 min Read
Woman shopping amongst clothing racks

Fast fashion is clothing which is produced cheaply and wears out quickly. According to Investopedia, retailers often introduce new products multiple times a week to stay on trend. The cost of this conduct may look kindly on the consumer, but behind the scenes it’s wreaking havoc on people and the planet. 

Let’s dive into what really makes fast fashion so fast. 

Low pay and dangerous conditions for garment workers

The last decade is strewn with stories of garment workers bearing the brunt of the fashion industry’s dark side; from growing hunger and food insecurity due to falling incomes, to gross neglect of basic health and safety standards. 

In a survey of 396 garment workers in September 2020, 88% reported that they’d had to reduce the amount of food consumed each day by their household, due to diminished income. (Hunger In The Apparel Supply Chain, WRC)

Tragically, it was a horrific disaster – when a factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,133 garment workers – that shocked the world into action. In 2013, trade unions banded together to produce the first-of-its-kind, legally-binding Bangladesh Accord. It essentially held brands accountable to building inspections, workers’ rights training and safety standard reviews at their supply chain factories in Bangladesh.

In August 2021, the Accord was expanded to include other garment-producing nations, where workers’ lives are put at risk daily. It’s now called the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry and is believed to have saved countless lives. You can track which brands have and haven’t signed the Accord here.

Intensive use of resources

A report published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment puts the fashion industry’s annual water consumption at 79 trillion litres. To put this into perspective, that’s 13 times more water consumed than by the whole of the UK per year. (At Home with Water, Energy Saving Trust

Water is a natural, finite resource. In the UK, it might be hard to imagine experiencing water scarcity, but it’s a real-life threat to frontline communities around the globe - 2.7 billion people find water scarce for at least one month of the year, according to WWF. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. 

So just make clothes that use less water, right? There are many companies out there doing just that, but of course fast fashion – which relies on cheap production – is lagging far behind. Fabrics and processes that require less water typically cost more, you see. 

Then there is the issue of waste; where fashion gobbles up water, it spits out waste. 90 - 100 tonnes of textiles end up in landfill every year, ‘equivalent to a full rubbish truck of clothes getting dumped on a landfill site every second’. (BBC). 

The good news (phew - there’s good news!) is that secondhand/thrift stores and apps are popping up everywhere. ‘Resale has the power to reduce fashion’s accelerating impact on the planet, moving us one step closer to circularity.’ (ThredUp) By buying secondhand clothes, we’ll drastically reduce the demand for new – saving water, waste and (as you’ll learn in the next section) oh-so-important CO2e emissions. 

Moral Fibres has compiled a handy list of some of the best places to buy second hand garments: check it out!

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Draining the remaining carbon budget

The fashion industry is responsible for about 6% of global emissions (How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, 2020) and ‘is on track to consume 26% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.’ (ThredUp

The most recent IPCC report made it very clear how carefully we must spend this over the next 8 years; if we fail to reduce our emissions ‘we will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.’

According to a report by McKinsey, all participants in fashion’s value chain – ‘from farms and factories to brands and retailers to policy makers, investors, and consumers’ – have a role to play in its decarbonisation. Brands and policymakers should work together with those on the ground to define a 1.5℃-aligned path to sustainability; one that works for everyone. After all, we cannot achieve climate justice without social justice

Interestingly, materials like hemp, organic cotton, organic linen and bamboo – known as vegan fabrics – are typically considered more ‘sustainable’ because they are natural. And in one sense, they’re better because they don’t shed harmful microfibers (see ‘Disregarding nature’). But when Mike Berners-Lee crunched the carbon numbers, he found that whilst synthetic fibres are more carbon intensive at production phase, their lightweight, quick-drying, ever-lasting (if made well) quality makes them more carbon efficient per item. 

In the case of cotton jeans vs synthetic trousers, the former can be up to 7 times more carbon expensive from cradle to grave. Fast fashion – even when made from ‘good’ materials, is bad.

Disregarding nature

Lastly, there’s the damage our clothes are doing to nature

Microfibers from synthetic fabrics are released into our waterways – and, from there, into our rivers, lakes and oceans – every time they go in the wash. They are then consumed by fish and other wildlife. (The Guardian

If you don’t like the sound of that, your instincts are on point. Microfibers hold the potential to poison even larger animals through bioaccumulation. This is horrible in and of itself, but gets even scarier when you think of how far up the food chain it could travel… 

What can I do to reduce the impact of my clothes?

Carbon expert Mike Berners-Lee suggests that you:

  • Buy stuff that’s easy to wash and dry
  • Buy stuff that’s built to last. Repair it when it breaks and use it until it falls apart (or pass it on)
  • Buy second-hand
  • Donate, recycle, or upcycle clothing over putting it in the bin

Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of Remake – ‘A community of fashion lovers, women rights advocates, and environmentalists on a mission to change the industry’s harmful practices on people and our planet.’ – suggests that you:

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