The Problem of Fast Fashion
In the recent years, the fashion industry in general has brought with it a massive negative impact on the environment that many people may not be aware of. The term Fast Fashion was recently born to describe the trend of low-cost highly fashionable garments that are sold by giant brands which led to accelerated damage to the environment.
Fast fashion focuses on speed and low costs in order to deliver frequent new collections inspired by catwalk looks or celebrity styles. But it is particularly bad for the environment, as pressure to reduce cost and the time it takes to get a product from design to shop floor means that environmental corners are more likely to be cut. Criticisms of fast fashion include its negative environmental impact, water pollution, the use of toxic chemicals and increasing levels of textile waste.
Polyester is the most popular fabric used for fashion. But when polyester garments are washed in domestic washing machines, they shed microfibres that add to the increasing levels of plastic in our oceans. These microfibres are minute and can easily pass through sewage and wastewater treatment plants into our waterways, but because they do not biodegrade, they represent a serious threat to aquatic life. Small creatures such as plankton eat the microfibres, which then make their way up the food chain to fish and shellfish eaten by humans.
The devastating impact of toxic chemical use in agriculture, for growing cotton, was shown in a documentary called The True Cost, including the death of a US cotton farmer from a brain tumour, and serious birth defects in Indian cotton farmers’ children. Cotton growing requires high levels of water and pesticides to prevent crop failure, which can be problematic in developing countries that may lack sufficient investment and be at risk of drought.
Most cotton grown worldwide is genetically modified to be resistant to the bollworm pest, thereby improving yield and reducing pesticide use. But this can also lead to problems further down the line, such as the emergence of “superweeds” which are resistant to standard pesticides. They often need to be treated with more toxic pesticides that are harmful to livestock and humans.
What shoppers can do
Can consumers reduce the environmental cost of fast fashion when out shopping? Choosing an eco-friendly fabric is complex as there are pros and cons to all fibre types. Garments which are labelled as being made from natural fibres are not necessarily better than synthetic, as fibre choice is only one part of a complex picture. Fibres still have to be spun, knitted or woven, dyed, finished, sewn and transported – all of which have different environmental impacts.
For example, choosing organic fabrics is better than choosing non-organic fabrics in terms of the chemicals used to grow the fibres, but organic cotton still requires high amounts of water and the impact of dyeing it is higher than the impact of dyeing polyester.
Patagonia was the first outdoor clothing brand to make polyester fleece out of plastic bottles. In 2017, it decided to rationalise its T-shirt ranges and from spring 2018, will offer only two fabric options of either 100 per cent organic cotton or a blend of recycled cotton and recycled polyester, recognising that even organic cotton has a negative environmental impact.