Fast Fashion: the ugly side of an industry

written by Sofia Di Cesare

Image Credits: Tim Mitchell, Mutilated hosiery sorted by colour, 2005 (detail)

What is fast fashion?

“Fast fashion” is a term indicating the design, creation and marketing of cheap clothing,  focused on moving as quickly as possible from catwalks to stores to meet current fashion trends.  H&M, Zara, Primark are among the undisputed leaders among big fast fashion names. Indeed, they have on average 20 different collections throughout the year (outnumbering the two traditional “spring/summer” and “fall/winter” typical of the haute couture). The rapidity with which new items are issued, together with extremely low prices, push people to buy impulsively and much more than what they actually need.

Environmental and social impacts

The fashion industry (but generally the entire textile sector), is well-known - and criticized- for the exploitation of their workforce in developing countries such as Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, and Cambodia. Perhaps, it is because of this social aspect that the environmental unsustainability has been overlooked by most.

The environmental damage is not due exclusively to the overproduction, but each stage of the production process (from the choice of the fabric to the energy sources employed- fossil fuels obviously) provokes a hazard for the environment. The synthetic fibers used, polyester and viscose, are promoted as “sustainable alternatives” compared to cotton. On the contrary, however, their production entails highly polluting chemical processes. Accordinq to the enquiry “Dirty Fashion” made by Changing Markets Foundations, major fast fashion brands buy these textiles by industries dumping pollutants in the surrounding rivers, causing devastating impacts on the local populations.  

The effects have been dramatic especially in terms of the amount of waste generated. Clothes are cheap, yet, they are short-lived and of low-quality making reuse and recycling of garments problematic.
Therefore, every single item of clothing we buy has a cost. For us, for the society, and for the environment.

A change in the paradigm?

Major business (H&M, Zara, Tesco) started to discolose information about their viscose suppliers on their website. While the effort in the pursuit of more transparency is of course greatly appreciated, however, this usually doesn't match with a change in business model and practices. This is particularly true where a legislation imposing certain standards does not exist or is not enforced.
An encouraging example in the apparel industry is illustrated by Patagonia, which has established a closed-loop recycling plan since 2005! The “Worn/Wear” program repairs Patagonia’s garments so as to extend their life which -ultimately- is the most effective way to reduce their environmental footprint. Recycling is the very last option. Patagonia knows it and calls upon its customers to reduce, repair and reuse their clothes.

We cannot expect companies to change their behavior unilaterally given that their practices, in the end, pay off. But we, as consumers, can reverse the trend by becoming more aware and responsible when making choices on where, what, and how much to buy.