Fast fashion brands have been around for decades, but they have suddenly found themselves in the spotlight. The rock bottom prices of brands such as Chinese online retailer Shein – whose items cost, on average, less than $8 a piece – have got the public asking questions. The human implications of fast fashion have been widely discussed, but its impact on the planet is staggering too. What are the main reasons for this? Why is fast fashion bad for the environment?
Firstly, what is fast fashion?
Fast fashion brands are so-called due to the speed at which they can design clothes and bring them to market. Catwalk-inspired designs (and more regular apparel) can be manufactured for the masses at affordable prices in a matter of weeks. Most fast fashion retailers do not just have one collection per season – they are constantly releasing new items. Shein, the most extreme example, adds 6000 (yes, six thousand!) items to its range every single day.
Why is fast fashion bad for the environment?
It is often seen as ‘disposable’
Although not always the case, fast fashion is often associated with cheaper prices. Shein, of course, being a prime example. This is great news for consumers – rotating their wardrobe doesn’t cost the earth – but it is a bit of a disaster in terms of the environment. Rather than investing in fewer, quality items and outfits, fast fashion encourages consumers to continuously keep up-to-date with new fashion trends. As a result, massive amounts of textile waste is created which typically ends up in landfill. Every year, on average, each American throws 80 pounds of clothing in the trash. Fast fashion brands contribute to this largely since they are regarded by many consumers as being disposable.
Synthetic materials used to keep prices low
To keep prices down, fast fashion brands often opt for a high proportion of synthetic materials, such as nylon and polyester, in their garments. Polyester, for example, is one of the cheapest materials out there – perfect for fast fashion brands to churn out items at a reasonable price. Synthetic materials often come with significant environmental impacts. They are largely derived from oil, a type of fossil fuel. Fossil fuels are, of course, non-renewable and even just extracting them can cause wide-ranging damage to the environment.
A further issue with synthetic materials is that they are, unfortunately, not biodegradable. Natural materials can, essentially, return to nature – in the right conditions they can be broken down naturally by micro-organisms such as bacteria. Synthetic materials, on the other hand, can persist in landfill for many years – sometimes even centuries. Or worse still, in the ocean causing havoc for marine species.
Vast resources used in production
Resources such as energy and water are needed in production. Nylon, for example, uses a vast amount of energy during the manufacturing process – and although it will vary from factory to factory, many facilities will not opt for renewable energy. Water is also needed in large quantities, particularly in the fiber cooling stage.
In term of resources, natural fibers are not perfect either. Cotton, for example, needs a huge amount of water resources. It is estimated that it can take up to 3000 gallons of water to make a single t-shirt and a pair of jeans can require a whopping 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of water in production. Quite incredible figures. This diverts fresh water from eco-systems that may need it to thrive. The WWF predict that by 2025 two-thirds of the global population may face water shortages if we carry on using water the way we do currently. The conventional production of cotton contributes significantly to this concerning prediction.
Pollution occurs at different parts of a garments journey – from manufacturing to laundering. Every part of the chain has potential to pollute the planet. Practices between factories vary significantly, but the fashion industry is heavily associated water pollution. Lots of chemicals are associated with clothes production and these are often pumped out into local waterways.
One of the main pollutions associated with fast fashion is plastic pollution due to the amount of synthetics used. The breathability (or lack of…) of some synthetic materials means that they may end up in the laundry pile after one use. And every time a plastic-based material, such as polyester, is washed it releases tiny microfibers into the water system. Although some of these can be filtered out by the water treatment plants, around 40% end up in rivers, lakes and the ocean. Worryingly, these can, ultimately, end up on our dinner plates…
The bottom line
Fast fashion, in many ways, is great for the consumer. Up-to-date outfits at reasonable prices – what’s not to like? However, its effect on the environment is huge. From supporting the fossil fuel industry to microplastics being introduced into our waterways. And to make matters worse, many garments are synthetic and non-biodegradable. All the polyester clothes thrown in the trash will, most likely, still be in landfill. Our advice? Avoid where possible!