Putting the Brakes on ‘Fast Fashion’
The eco-damage of the clothing industry is likely even worse than you think – but it’s not all bad news
In recent years the clothing industry has been accused of a raft of crimes against the environment. But how bad is the situation really? And what can be done – and more importantly, what can you do about it?
The True Cost
Arguably, it was not until the documentary film The True Cost came out in 2015, that the world really started to wake up to the damage being caused to the environment by ‘fast fashion’.
While part of the documentary focused on ethical concerns surrounding working conditions and textile workers’ rights, it also offered a damning critique of the massive environmental havoc wreaked on the natural world by the clothing industry.
Water wastage, reckless chemical pollution, and a disproportionate contribution to global landfills, were all major issues highlighted in the film, among others.
Since then there have been scores more scathing media reports outlining how ‘fast fashion’ in particular (see below), but also clothing manufacture in general, is responsible for a damning litany of ecological travesties worldwide.
Despite the fact that many of the originally cited statistics subsequently turned out to be from unverified sources, or have been completely debunked by journalists and academics, these figures set off a backlash of negative publicity toward the industry.
Several further studies have revealed that the textile industry is without a doubt responsible for numerous eco-ills – though due to a dearth of peer reviewed scientific data, no one really knows how much.
In fact, though exact global numbers for the actual true cost of the clothing industry remain wildly inconsistent, accepted figures from the UK reveal some worrying statistics.
For example: approximately 300,000 tonnes of textile waste, worth up to £140 million, goes to landfill or incinerators annually, and less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing at the end of its life.
The blame game
The complete disregard from the clothing industry towards the environment has been squarely blamed on their insatiable lust for profits.
In recent years, for example, big brand fashion collections have grown from a few a year, to one almost every week – giving rise to the term ‘fast fashion’, and in turn fuelling consumer demand.
To be fair, the relentless desire by consumers for new clothing is also to equally blame, with some studies indicating that collectively we now buy more than 60% in new clothing every year compared to two decades ago – but only hold on to each garment for half the time.
This reckless accumulation and waste has been exacerbated by the comparative nature of social media.
For example, recent research by the Hubbub Foundation has indicated that 17% of young people questioned said they wouldn’t wear an outfit ever again if it had already been seen on Instagram.
Clearly, this cannot go on. Whatever the actual numbers, the effect of the clothing trade on the world’s environment and natural resources is obviously brutal and is getting worse, not better, despite all the negative press coverage.
One report projects that by 2030 global apparel consumption could rise by 63%, from 62 million tons today to 102 million tons— equivalent to more than 500 billion additional T-shirts.
When you consider it takes up to 2,720 litres of water to manufacture one cotton t-shirt, that is a lot of wasted water – just so we can display a witty slogan or corporate logo on our collective chests.
And that is only one key metric, never mind the emissions, water pollution and other havoc caused by global clothing manufacturing every day.
No more Greenwashing
Fortunately, thanks to the alarm raised in recent years, industry itself has woken up to the damage it is causing. Numerous initiatives have been launched within the rag trade to provide improved ecological metrics in order to provide more accurate sustainability benchmarks to aim for.
Many larger, more established brands have also pledged to create more clothes made from recycled or sustainable sources, and more importantly, to ensure their clothes are also recyclable at the end of their life cycles.
(One major problem with manufacturing sustainable clothing is that different materials require different manufacturing processes and have to be recycled in different ways, creating an enormous challenge for eco-friendly clothing manufacturers to keep costs down.)
Unfortunately, upon closer scrutiny many brands are still merely delivering lip service to their eco-credentials, a phenomenon known as ‘green washing’.
This a strategy that is both cynical and highly risky, especially in an age where consumers are becoming more eco-aware and demanding eco-friendly products with increasing passion.
To fill this gap, in recent years many smaller start-ups have appeared in the sustainable clothing space, almost all espousing the virtues of the circular economy.
This is a system of eco-friendly manufacture and commerce, in which products are created solely from recycled or sustainable materials, omit little to no waste, and can be easily recycled or reused, once they have served their original purpose.
Most, however, only focus on very small niches, such as surf wetsuits, yoga leggings or rock climbing gear.
And all the while, most of the regular fashion industry is still churning out tons of clothing every day, most of it manufactured in ways that remain incredibly damaging to the environment.
The battle is far from won – and in fact has only just begun.
But it's COVID-19 Lockdown - what can I do?
Obviously, not enough is happening to mitigate the damage created by the clothing industry and to slow down ‘fast fashion’.
Here are some tips from Afterglow, the world’s first sustainable gym, sport and athleisure brand, to assist you in contributing to being part of the solution – and not part of the problem.
You can help by doing the following now during the current lockdown:
- Use your power as a consumer and only buy (online) clothing that has 100% clear eco-credentials.
- Ask yourself: do I really need this garment? If in doubt, don’t buy it.
- If you do still want it, do some research to determine what level of sustainability the brand you want to support is really committed to.
- Demand the same from your favourite high street retailers if you still buy from brick and mortar stores.
- Hammer existing brands via text, email whatsapp or the digital comms of your choice (or even go old school and telephone them) to demand that they produce more eco-friendly clothing.
What you can do once the lockdown restrictions are eased:
- Buy your clothing from thrift shops or second stores and online retailers.
- Recycle or donate your old clothing instead of binning it.
- Donate your time and/or money to organisations and companies supporting change in the clothing industry.
- Spread awareness, and help to empower yourself your fellow human beings to become more aware of the issues and to do what you can to eliminate waste and pollution from the clothing industry altogether.
Join the movement – and let’s do good together.
Afterglow is the world’s first fully sustainable sports performance and athleisure wear brand.
View our first collection of sustainable gym wear here.