Fast fashion: the industry that destroys the environment.

by Nefeli Athanasaki,

Why is the fashion industry the second biggest polluter in the world? Its carbon emissions reach 10% of the global carbon emissions, (UNECE, 2019) rendering them larger than the ones produced by the aviation and maritime shipping industries combined. (McFall- Johnsen M., 2019) Fast fashion is the main reason why the industry poses an environmental threat since it is an unsustainable process of producing inexpensive clothes rapidly. In order to do so, clothes are massively being produced and only made available for a limited amount of time resulting in them becoming disposable.

As a result, many clothes, which have never been sold or are considered outdated, end up in landfills or are incinerated.  At the same time, the dyeing and finishing process of the garments as well as cotton usage consume thousands of tons of fresh water. In addition, synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic are made from fossil fuel, which during laundry releases 1.900 individual microfibers that eventually go into the ocean and are digested by fish that humans eat. (Sustain Your Style, 2019) These textiles like polyester produce toxic wastewaters that contain mercury, arsenic and, when dumped in the river by the factories, can endanger aquatic life. (Perry P., 2018)

Despite all of the above fast fashion remains a billion- dollars industry that people won’t let go easily. The amount of clothes bought in the European Union per person has increased by 40% in a few decades. Consumers use huge amounts of chemicals, water, and energy so that they can wash their clothes, hence continuing the non-eco-friendly life choices. Only 1% of clothes are recycled into new ones since the technology necessary to recycle them into virgin fibers is now starting to emerge. (Šajn N., 2019)

The United Nations has encouraged and helped many corporations to shift to a more sustainable business model so that they will achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. (United Nations Climate Change, 2018) But global markets have different perspectives and financial interests, over the fast fashion sector. The United States of America consumes more clothing and textiles than any other nation in the world. Approximately 90% of apparels sold in the U.S.A. are made of cotton or polyester. Moreover, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 84% of unwanted clothes went into a landfill or an incinerator where it will take thousands of years for them to biodegrade or, even while being burned, they will release toxins from the textiles in the air. (Wicker A., 2016) EPA estimates that if a recycling program was realized so that the textiles could be recycled, it would be the equivalent of taking 7.3 million cars and their carbon dioxide emissions off the road.

What’s more, trashing the clothes costs a lot of money. The Department of Sanitation and Housing Works in cooperation with the Re-Fashion NYC program provides big bins to buildings in order to collect and redistribute the clothes. This is mainly happening in order to avoid the cost of textile transportation to landfills. A secondary reason is for the clothes to become available on second-hand markets where, often, due to their low quality, they never get sold. When this happens clothes are sold to textile recyclers or are sent to the Trans-Americas Trading Co. (Wicker A., 2016)

Not only in the U.S.A. but also in the United Kingdom, fast fashion has taken over the markets. Furthermore, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee states that British shoppers buy more clothes than any other nation in Europe, double the rate and quantity as they did the last decades. Simultaneously, synthetic fibers released from washing clothes have been found in fish. (Harrabin R., 2018) There are so many new clothes being bought in the UK per minute that their carbon emission exceeds a car’s emissions that drive around the world six times. (Wightman-Stone D., 2019) If the UK’s fashion industry’s bosses don’t swift action they will be responsible for a quarter of the total impact on climate change by 2050.

On the other hand, Germany is trying to adopt a more sustainable way of living. Trying to do so, the German multi-stakeholder initiative Partnership for Sustainable Textiles (Bündnis für nachhaltige Textilien) has over 150 members making it possible to believe that sustainability can be achieved in fashion. Through making their own textiles in the capital, Berliners hope to regain control of the market. Since 2017, Berlin Fashion Week focuses on sustainable clothing resulting in many young businesses setting up in Germany, as German catwalks become greener. (Cortizo F., 2018) In addition to the above, the German Federal Ministry funded a few measures in order to improve the textile industry, such as recycling processed water. German fair-fashion labels are growing, with 332 brands being certified by the Global Organic Textiles Standards label. (Berg K., 2019) On top of that, Germans continuously educate people on what fast fashion exactly is so that the eco-friendly life message will spread among the population. (Visitberlin.de., 2019)

Every problem comes with a solution. In reality, various efforts are made both from private and state initiatives, ensuring that the fast fashion phenomenon is settled. First and foremost, there are companies that produce clothes from alternative and sustainable materials. With the help of some applications like the “Good on You” or the “Higg Index”, which was developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, (Osmanski, S., 2019) consumers can locate these eco-friendly stores and make their shopping in a more conscious way. There is also the thrift-shop option available. Shoppers should also check if the materials are organic, linen or made of recycled fibers if the clothes are made in countries with stricter environmental regulations (EU, Canada, US, etc.). Furthermore, they should ensure that the garments have certification labels controlling the chemical content (OEKO-TEX, BLUESIGN, GOTS) and, last but not least, buy less clothing of high quality and recycle any old ones.

In conclusion, if consumers pay more attention to what they buy and from whom, if they recycle their old clothes and contribute to this circular economy, combined with other state or international initiatives, the fashion industry could diminish fast fashion’s value and become more sustainable.

 References

Unece.org. (2019). “UN Alliance aims to put fashion on path to sustainability.” Available here.

McFall- Johnsen M. (2019). “The fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Here are the biggest ways it impacts the planet.” Businessinsider. Available here [Accessed 27 Dec. 2019].

Sustain Your Style. (2019). “The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter in the world: Fashion’s Environmental Impacts.” Available here. [Accessed 27 Dec. 2019].

Perry P. (2018). The environmental costs of fast fashion. Independent.co.uk. Available here [Accessed 27 Dec. 2019].

Šajn N. (2019). “Environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry; What consumers need to know.”  European Parliamentary Research Service, Members’ Research Service, PE 633.143. Available here [Accessed 27 Dec. 2019].

United Nations Climate Change. (2018). “UN Helps Fashion Industry Shift to Low Carbon.”  Available here. [Accessed 27 Dec. 2019].

Wicker A. (2016). “Fast Fashion Is Creating an Environmental Crisis” Newsweek.com. Available here. [Accessed 27 Dec. 2019].

Harrabin R. (2018). “Fast fashion is harming the planet, MPs say”. BBC News. Available here [Accessed 27 Dec. 2019].

Wightman-Stone D. (2019). “New survey reveals environmental impact of fast fashion.”  Fashionunited Available here [Accessed 27 Dec. 2019].

Cortizo F., (2018). “Going Green on Germany’s Catwalks.” Marketsgermany Available here. [Accessed 27 Dec. 2019].

Berg K. (2019). “Fashionable step forward.”  Deutschland.de. Available here. [Accessed 27 Dec. 2019].

Visitberlin.de. (2019). “Fast Fashion.”  Available here. [Accessed 27 Dec. 2019].

Osmanski, S. (2019). “What Is Fast Fashion? (Plus Alternatives That Are Sustainable and Affordable)”. Greenmatters.com. Available here. [Accessed 27 Dec.2019].

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