Fast Fashion – stylish and trendy clothing at affordable prices – is doing serious harm to people and to our planet!
There’s a big chance you are a fan of fast fashion, but do you know its dark side? Well, let’s talk about that.
The dark side of fast fashion
Sustainability is not only about the environment but also about people and the economy. Let’s start by discussing the work conditions in this fast fashion industry where new collections are launched in a few weeks. The fast-paced nature of this industry puts a lot of pressure on workers. They are forced to work 12 hours and sometimes 24 hours a day during peak times and are often still unable to afford life’s basic necessities. Child labor estimates in 2017 approached 151.6 million children aged 5 to 17 working in the industry. Women, who make up 80% of the workers, are paid less if pregnant and can even lose their job for being pregnant. Can sustainable development be achieved without fair wages, workers’ safety, and good work quality?
The fast fashion industry is adversely impacting the environment in a myriad of ways. Here are a few hard facts:
- 10,000–20,000 liters of water are needed to produce a shirt or a pair of jeans, creating water stress in some areas.
- The industry is responsible for 8-10% of carbon emissions. Therefore, it contributes to climate change more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
- Fashion accounts for 20-35% of microplastic in the ocean.
Fast-fashion companies are making a lot of money with this business model. But, if they continue to do business as usual, it is unlikely they can sustain it for very long. If the fashion industry continues on its current path, projections to 2030 show that the industry profit will decline by approximately USD 52 billion. It appears the industry is also missing some huge economic opportunities. With only 1% of materials recycled and 14% losses during production, collection, and processing, the industry is generating a loss of more than USD 100 billion worth of materials each year.
Rethinking the system
The fast-fashion industry is highly resource-intensive. Therefore, the current linear business model built on the principles of “take, make, and waste” with high volumes of non-renewable resources and underutilizing clothes doesn’t work anymore. The lack of transparency is also another huge problem. With more than half of the brands participating in the fashion transparency index scoring 20% or less and 28% of brands scoring 10% or less, sustainability is far from being achieved.
Traditional measures to reduce the negative impacts of the fashion industry are not enough. To change all this, we need a NEW system. We need to move from fast fashion to slow fashion that aligns with the principles of a circular economy: a model regenerative by design that delivers better resource productivity.
So what are some of the actions the industry needs to take to enable this transformation and reach the full value potential of the circular economy?
Changing the whole system with all its complexity is not something that can be done overnight. The change will be a long process with continuous improvements where all stakeholders collaborate and share the same objective: making the fashion industry sustainable. A lot of effort and initiatives will be needed to make this goal achievable. Here are four steps needed to enable a slow, circular and sustainable fashion industry:
1. Renewable resources and circular inputs
As discussed earlier, the fast-fashion industry is resource-intensive. Reducing resource usage can be done by replacing non-renewable resources with recycled feedstock and using fashion waste as a circular material. These actions do not only reduce the environmental impact but also lower costs.
C&A, the international chain of fast-fashion retail clothing stores, was the first fashion brand in the world to launch a GOLD Cradle to Cradle Certified™ garment. It means that products are produced with 100% safe materials, renewable energy, recycled water, and social fairness. This success is due essentially to the selection of the right suppliers, transparency and collaboration with these suppliers, eco-design, and the in-store take-back.
2. Waste management in production
By adopting intelligent and innovative technologies, fast-fashion companies can reduce waste and energy use, moving toward efficient production. For instance, H&M, the multinational company of fast-fashion retail clothing, is investing in digital waterless dyeing technology provided by Alchemie. It’s called Endeavour technology, and it delivers over 95% water waste reduction, over 85% energy reduction, and a cost reduction of over 50% in the dyeing process.
Transparency is an important stepping stone towards sustainability. Fast-fashion businesses that are transparent and share information like materials used, percentage of waste, their whole supply chain actors, and work conditions, will enjoy the benefit of loyal customers.
Some fast fashion brands are already making progress concerning transparency. For instance, H&M has been disclosing its supplier list since 2013. Everlane, an American clothing retailer, shares with its customers the cost of every product they make. They call this way of doing things Radical Transparency.
4. Technology and innovation
By harnessing a combination of technologies like IoT, AI, and Blockchain, companies can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce waste, ensure transparent transactions with suppliers, and improve worker safety. AI, for instance, can be accurate in predicting customer demand, so companies only manufacture and ship what customers are going to buy, thus reducing waste and environmental impact.
With the use of Blockchain integrated into garments, for example, companies can be transparent as long as customers can know the journey of each item from the production of raw material to the shop floor. A connected IoT technology can track and have real-time visibility of all goods from their point of origin to their destination. Therefore, companies can reduce all kinds of loss, theft, and damage. 3D printing is another technology that has the potential to be a sustainability solution as it improves production efficiency and reduces waste.
The industry still has a lot of work to do to make fashion circular. But, we shouldn’t forget that we, as customers, have a big responsibility for making that happen. “The sustainability of fashion is not only determined by the material, the design, and production conditions, but also by consumers and their intentions, behaviors, and habits.” Samira Iran – Collaborative fashion consumption and its environmental effects.
Customers who think about the impact of their shopping decisions on the environment and society before making a purchase will be major influencers in the fashion industry. Customers who consider purchasing garments in this context will lead the way.
Play your part. Be responsible.