We seem to be constantly bombarded by all sorts of information about climate change, and what negative effects it has on the environment and humanity as a whole. But in light of those many gloomy facts, we’re not really given any options as to what we can do ourselves to counter the situation – making us feel more anxious and less in control with every passing day. We somehow see this whole climate-change thing as a governmental responsibility of sorts, but as things often are, the environment is usually pushed to the sidelines of policymaking, as if somehow the problem will solve itself.
There are, nevertheless, things that we can individually do to curb global warming. This isn’t called The Age of Efficiency for nothing, and we can do our part simply by becoming more efficient in everything that we do. And almost nothing is as wasteful as the clothes we wear. Known as fast fashion, this apparel industry has crept itself under the radar to become one of the leading causes of pollution in the world.
10. What is Fast Fashion?
Sometimes described as “low cost clothing collections that mimic current fashion trends,” fast fashion is a modern term used by fashion retailers to reference a particular segment of the fashion industry that focuses on getting new garment designs from the catwalk and into the hands of consumers as fast as possible. Its emphasis is on optimizing the supply-chain so as to lower the price as much as possible, and to offer an aggressive marketing campaign that will generate as many new trends as it labels others as obsolete. Fast fashion clothes are usually made out of low-quality materials so as to reduce costs, and are usually bought by young consumers who want to keep up with the latest trends.
Fast fashion, or cheap chic, got its start in the 1990s, when fashion designers were under pressure to increase their revenue as department store chains were beginning to create their own lines of cheap, but fashion-oriented clothing. A figurative war began to produce as many trends of clothing as possible, fueled in large part by the emergent manufacturing powerhouses from Asia. A Cambridge University study showed that in 2006 people were buying a third more clothes than they were in 2002. Moreover, people had four times as many clothes as they had in the ’80s. Today, retailers like ZARA, H&M, Primark, Peacocks, NewYorker, C&A, Forever 21, Topshop, and many others are synonymous with fast fashion.
9. Fast Fashion’s Worth
Fast fashion is big business, as you can imagine. But just how big is it? Well, according to the latest statistics, the global fashion market is worth at somewhere around $3 trillion – which represents roughly 3 percent of the world’s entire GDP, and $500 billion more than the GDP of the United Kingdom. The womenswear industry accounts for $621 billion, menswear is worth $402 billion, while the rest is comprised of childswear, sportswear, bridalwear, and all sorts of luxury goods. Fast fashion accounts for $1.2 trillion here, with $250 billion coming in from the US alone.
Among the high-earners here are people like Doris Fisher with $2.7 billion. She and her husband cofounded Gap. Philip and Cristina Green, the owners of fast fashion brands such as Topshop and Topman, Dorothy Perkins, and Miss Selfridge, are worth $5.3 billion. Stefan Persson, the owner of H&M, is worth $19.7 billion, while Amancio Ortega, the owner of Zara, Bershka, Oysho, Zara Home, and Pull&Bear, has a net worth of $82.5 billion. In 2017, he was the richest man in Europe and the richest retailer in the world. For a short time, he even surpassed Bill Gates as the official richest man in the world. Inditex, the parent retail company for all his other brands mentioned above, has business in over 7,200 stores worldwide.
8. Planned Obsolescence
Even though fast fashion isn’t the only one to make use of planned obsolescence, it is, nevertheless, an industry that’s entirely defined and dependent on it. A planned obsolescence, as its name suggests, is an economic strategy in which a product is purposefully made so as to last for a short period of time so as to incentivize continued consumption. Today, a low-cost shirt is designed to last for around 30 washes, and a pair of cheap trainers lasts for about 60 miles, on average. Up until fairly recently in our history, before synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon became popular, clothes were made exclusively out of natural materials like wool, cotton, silk and linen. These natural fibers are more durable than synthetic ones and thus last for much longer. But besides the fabric itself, clothes from 50 years ago were better made and of a much higher quality that they are now.
Daniel Milford-Cottam, a fashion cataloguer at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, said in an interview that there are also some deliberate measures being taken so clothes will not last as long. Some of these ‘tricks’ go from using inappropriate fabrics, to delicate materials roughly stitched together – things that accelerate wearing and tearing, especially during washing. Most clothes manufacturers are also aware that people don’t usually check washing labels too carefully, or use too much detergent, and take this situation for granted. Moreover, many clothes are a blend of two or more materials, such as cotton and polyester – which shrink differently in the wash, destroying the shape of the clothing in the process. Buttons are also not properly sewn on, and they’re almost guaranteed to fall off. Manufacturers also know that many people are too lazy to sew them back on, preferring instead to buy a new garment instead. But hey, what can you expect from a $5 shirt, right?
7. Fast Marketing
But in order to make this planned obsolescence go seemingly unnoticed by the average consumer, fast fashion retailers make use on an aggressive and continuously-ongoing marketing campaign that keeps shoppers always off balance. The sheer amount of new designs and collections that go on and off the shelves is simply staggering. Not that long ago, most fashion labels produced two collections per year – a spring/summer one and an autumn/winter one. But ever since fast fashion came into play, that number has skyrocketed. Today, most fashion houses are offering 18, or even more, new collections every year. This means a piece of clothing becomes fashionably outdated in about a month, or even less. And as a result, statistics show that we wear these low-cost clothes only 5 times, on average, and keep them in our closets for just 35 days before we throw them away (or just let them start to collect dust).
There are currently two main strategies in fast fashion. One is by investing heavily in their new collections with billboards, TV commercials, “on sale” seasons, and marketing TV shows, among other such advertisements. Primark, on the other hand, operates with no advertisements whatsoever. It instead relies on strategies like store layout, shop fittings, and visual merchandising to add for an overall pleasurable shopping experience and impulse buying.
Back in the 1960s, the average American was investing in roughly 25 pieces of clothing every year. Today, it’s over 80. Around 150 billion new clothes are being manufactured every year. That’s about 20 for every man, woman, and child on the planet. In 2010, an average family from the US spent roughly $1,700 on apparel every year, while the average ‘Manhattanite’ spent about $362 per month. In the United Kingdom, it’s estimated that roughly $46.7 billion worth of clothes exist in people’s closets, often having never been worn.
But once these clothes become outdated, or we no longer have any more room in our wardrobes, then, nine times out of ten, they end up at the dump. There is a surprising amount of clothes being thrown away. An average British person throws away about 66 pounds of clothes (about 235 million items in total for the whole country, or about 1.2 million metric tons every year). An average American is responsible for about 82 pounds. There is an estimated 13 trillion tons of clothes at landfills in the US. Now, to be fair, some fast fashion companies do have some recycling programs, trying to curb the so-called ‘throwaway culture,” but critics that this is just some sort of token gesture and it only ends up increasing consumption by offering a ‘guilt-free’ feeling to their customers.
5. Cheap Labor
As recently as 1990, half of the clothes that you’d regularly find in stores around the US were made in America. But since fast fashion, that percentage has dropped to only 2%. And as you can imagine, so have the number of jobs that revolve around this industry. If in 1990 there were roughly 900,000 people working in the apparel manufacturing business in the US, in 2011 that number dropped to 150,000. Roughly 42% of these imports come from China, with the rest being shipped in from other countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, or Mexico, among others.
You probably know already where we’re going with this – exactly where the manufacturing sector went. “Sweatshops” in developing countries. There are currently 75 million people in the world working long hours to produce the many cheap clothes that we buy, and 80% of those people are women. In fact, the garment industry boasts that it’s the top employer of women in the world – which is true. Unfortunately, however, what they oftentimes forget to mention is the fact that 98% of their employees are paid less than a living wage for up to 14 or even 18 hours per day of work. In Bangladesh, for instance, the median salary is around $340 per month. The average clothes maker, however, is paid just $68 per month. This means that these underpaid workers are caught in a poverty trap from which is incredibly hard to escape from.
And let’s not forget about child labor. There are currently over 168 million children involved in child labor across the globe – that’s 11% of the global population of children. And many of them are in the apparel industry. Well known high-street brands such as Nike, H&M, Gap, and Adidas, among others, have all employed the services of offshore manufacturers that were later exposed for using children working in unsafe conditions.
4. The 2013 Rana Plaza Collapse
The fashion industry’s supply-chain network is so convoluted and complex that Helena Helmersson, H&M’s Head of Sustainability, says that’s “impossible to be in full control” of it. And because of this complexity, these world renowned brands always have deniability in case something terrible happens, or is discovered. As we’ve mentioned before, the driving force behind fast fashion is keeping the entire supply-chain as cheap as possible. When relying on quantity instead of quality, some corners need to be cut, and this oftentimes means the safety measures. With increasingly high demand, manufacturers feel pressured to deliver on that order, most often by making the factory employees work extra hours, as well as to employ a sub-contractor of their own, a sort of ‘shadow-factory,’ if you will.
In principle, only approved factories can make the clothes for any particular brand, but as time has shown us, this is rarely the case. This is how North Korea’s second largest export after coal is textiles. China is subcontracting manufacturers in North Korea to make clothes on their behalf, which they then ship to the United States and the rest of the world. And if child labor is discovered or something bad happens with any of these shadow factories, high-street brands can cite deniability by saying that they had no idea their clothes were made there. Most of these brands have been caught multiple times with all sorts of safety irregularities or child labor, but always said that they had no idea their clothes were made there. But given the fact that this has been happening for more than two decades and there are no visible improvements, some begin to wonder whether these brands don’t actually prefer things to stay this way.
Anyway, the Rana Plaza collapse that occurred in Bangladesh is the largest clothing-related accident in the world. Some 1,134 people died and another 2,500 were injured after the building collapsed in 2013. Most of the victims were employed in the manufacturing of clothing, and many safety measures were cut and bypassed in order to increase profits and fulfill the orders. A week after the accident, a meeting between retailers and several NGOs was held in order to reach an agreement where the retailers would pay more for the clothing they bought from the manufacturers so they could improve their safety standards. Of the 29 brands that were sourcing their products at Rana, only nine actually showed up for the meetings. Walmart, Carrefour, Mango, Auchan and Kik did not want to sign the agreement. Most of these multibillion dollar companies found it extremely hard to put together $30 million for the victim’s families, and only after being, more or less, coerced by the leaders of the G7 summit.
3. The Resource and Energy-Intensive Fabrics
In 2015, the world produced roughly 155,000 square miles of fabric (about the size of California). Cotton is among the most common of these fabrics found in our clothes today. It makes up roughly 40% of all the fabrics used in the apparel industry. But cotton is an especially ‘needy’ plant. For instance, even organic cotton, which might seem a better choice, still needs roughly 5,000 gallons of water in order to produce a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. In Uzbekistan, which is the sixth largest producer of cotton, so much water was diverted away from its natural flow in order to irrigate it, that the Aral Sea (which was actually the 4th largest lake in the world), disappeared almost entirely. This was one of the largest man-made disasters in history. And even though cotton takes up just 2.4% of all the croplands available on Earth, it consumes 10% of all the fertilizers, as well as 25% of all insecticides used in agriculture.
Now, polyester and nylon are the other two major materials used to make cheap clothes. Both are derived from petrochemicals, and both are non-biodegradable. In the manufacture of nylon, large quantities of nitrous oxide (which is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2) are emitted. When it comes to polyester, it is estimated that around 70 million barrels of oil are used every year. Fortunately, however, clothing manufacturers are looking to recycle this material – mainly from used drinking bottles. But while the US recycles only 6% of these bottles, some clothing manufacturers, eager to get that “recycled” badge, have begun to buy unused bottles straight from the producer and to use it in their clothes.
Furthermore, with every washing, every polyester-based article of clothing sheds around 1,900 individual microfibers of plastic that eventually find their way in the ocean. These are then eaten up by fish and eventually find their way into our own bodies. Scientists have also discovered that 83% of all tap water across the globe is contaminated with these microfibers. The US had the highest concentration of 94%. Luckily, two inventors have designed a bag capable of catching these fibers while still in the washing machine. Lastly, but equally as important and devastating is rayon. This is a fabric made out of wood pulp and which is responsible for over 70 million trees being cut every year to produce it. Viscose, modal and lyocell are all specific types of rayon.
2. Your Cheap Clothes Travel More Than You Do
Even though most of the large apparel conglomerates are based in the United States or Europe, more than 60% of all the clothes made worldwide are manufactured in developing countries. And what’s more, the largest consumers are found halfway across the world in the already-developed part of the planet. This means that those clothes need to be shipped from one place to the other. The same thing applies for cotton and all the other materials that may not be produced in the same are that the clothes are. This means that over 90% of clothes in the world traverse at least one ocean to get in the hands of their owners.
Cotton will, most likely, travel by truck, train, cargo ship and even plane before it becomes a shirt or a pair of jeans. It total, cotton travels more than the circumference of the Earth. Fast fashion accounts for 10% of the planet’s greenhouse output. And when taken with all the other negative effects it has, like water usage and pollution, land degradation and dye toxicity, fast fashion manages to creep its way to the second place as the dirtiest and most pollutant industry after oil. But hey, it’s only a $5 shirt, what do you expect, right?
1. Slow Fashion
Like food and food waste, fast fashion and the garment industry was given little to no attention during the Paris climate agreement. This means that, even under the most optimistic predictions, almost nothing will be done about the issue. But from a brighter perspective, this means that more can be achieved than the Agreement set out to do in the first place. And what’s more, this issue is in our hands, and not in the hands of our governments. Because all that we’ve talked about up until this point is only half of the equation, while the other half is us, the consumers. And here is where Slow Fashion comes into play. And as its name suggests, this movement is focused on the quality of the clothing rather than selling or buying it by the truckload.
There are many ways to engage in this sort of slow fashion trend. You could buy your clothes from a thrift store, for instance, and then bring that piece of clothing to a tailor to modify it according to your size or design. If you don’t have time on your hands to scour for ‘hidden treasures,’ then there’s the option of looking for brands and companies that produce and sell ethically made, eco-friendly garments. There are even some mobile apps, like GoodGuide, that helps you find out more about a particular product – about how it’s made and what impact it has on your health and on the environment. You could chose instead to buy your clothes from a local small business, or you could even make it yourself. The point is that there are a multitude of ways to fight against fast fashion and its negative effects it has on the world.