Fast-fashion is clothing with a very short life cycle – going from production to consumption to disposal in rapid succession. This is becoming increasingly common, with fashion trends changing more rapidly than ever and clothing consumption increasing exponentially. Where there used to be two clothing seasons, autumn/winter and spring/summer, there are now 'microseasons', with new stock hitting the shelves every few weeks. This rapid turnover of clothing is creating huge levels of waste, resulting in environmental havoc. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions annually.
65% of clothing is made up of synthetic fibres, such as polyester, which are derived from fossil fuels. These synthetic fibres also require more energy to produce than natural ones. Moreover, they take around 200 years to decompose, often ending up in huge waste piles in developing countries. Clothing waste from these dumpsites regularly finds its way into the ocean in the form of microplastics. Which can end up being consumed by fish and accumulating in the food chain.
During the dying process, a variety of chemicals are used, many of which are toxic. The majority of clothing is manufactured in developing countries, where there are less strict environmental laws. This means that wastewater from this production process is frequently released directly into rivers and streams, without treatment. This not only has an impact on the surrounding ecosystems but also poses a health risk to surrounding communities.
There were discussions at COP26 with the fashion industry regarding this issue. A target has been set by the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action “to drive the fashion industry to net-zero Greenhouse Gas emissions no later than 2050 in line with keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees”. Many fashion brands are taking steps to find sustainable alternatives for clothing production.
Cotton is often seen as a more sustainable fabric as it is made from natural material and breaks down quicker than synthetic fibres. However, cotton is a water-intensive crop and requires large quantities of water to grow. Due to this, some companies are trying to find natural fibres such as wood to use as a more sustainable material.
What can the individual do to help? As a consumer, we can try and buy clothing from sustainable, organic retailers and donate used clothes to extend their lifecycle.