Fast fashion – this industry needs an urgent makeover

With London Fashion Week about to get underway, it’s time for this wasteful industry to clean up its act.

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Starting this weekend London Fashion Week, one of the fashion industry’s showpiece events, will be in town. The fashion industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and fast fashion is increasingly being viewed in the same basket as single-use plastic. 

The similarities between plastic and fast fashion aren’t immediately obvious, but when you dig a bit deeper they are striking. Clothes are increasingly being produced using oil, the same raw material as single-use plastic, with the proportion of oil-based synthetic fibres in our clothes having doubled since 2000. This is driving continued exploration for fossil fuels that need to stay in the ground. 

But even more strikingly, the fast fashion industry has quite deliberately developed a consumption model that is very similar to that of single-use plastic. The relentless insistence on novelty has created a constantly running conveyor belt producing items intended to be discarded after one or two uses, with the vast majority ending up in landfills or an incinerator. The industry’s extraordinary wastefulness is at the centre of its problems.

In the last 15 years, production of clothing has doubled – and at the same time, between 2000 and 2015 the number of times a garment was worn before it was thrown out decreased by 36%. £140 million worth of clothing is sent to landfill every year in the UK, and more than half of clothing given to charity shops or textile recyclers ends up in landfills or is incinerated.

Illustration depicting a model wearing polyester fur, superimposed over textile waste piles. Text overlaid says "Since 2000, we buy twice as much and wear it only half the time. Time out for fast fashion!"

Impact on our planet 

The production of fast fashion, the vast majority of which gets thrown away after barely being used, also has a significant impact on our planet.

The industry’s textile production accounts for global emissions equivalent to 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 every year. That’s a bigger carbon footprint than all international flights and shipping combined.

The industry’s desire for oil-based synthetics, if it continues to grow at the current rate, is projected to take up 26% of the global carbon budget by 2050. Replacing synthetics with cotton also isn’t a sustainable solution because of how much land and water cotton needs to grow. It takes 10,000 to 20,000 litres of water to produce just 1kg of cotton clothing and vast quantities of pesticides.

Clearly the industry has a lot of work to do to clean up its act. Our planet can no longer afford lavish celebrations, like London Fashion Week, of an industry that recycles so little and wastes so much. 

“The industry’s textile production has a bigger carbon footprint than all international flights and shipping combined. ”
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Changing the industry 

Their model needs to change, and that needs to start at the drawing board where new clothes are designed. We need garments that are easier to mend, reuse and resell. We need to reduce the water, chemicals and fossil fuels that go into making them. We need big fashion brands to stop incinerating millions of perfectly good, unsold clothes. And we need the industry to send a different message: not ‘buy more, use less’, but ‘buy much less, use much more’.  

Stockholm has cancelled their fashion week this year, in order to ‘explore more sustainable alternatives’. One place to start looking is 55 miles outside the city in Eskilstuna, where they have a second-hand shopping centre just about to expand off the back of its success. Similar outlets are prospering elsewhere in Scandinavia, and beyond. 

Stockholm may have realised that they have a chance not just to lead but to inspire, with better products that no longer come with an immediate expiry date. Instead of transforming our planet’s dwindling resources into waste which people wear once on its way to the tip, transforming that waste into something people want to keep could give the industry a way forward from their soon-to-be-obsolete business model. Something has to change and, in the fashion world, being behind the times is not a good look.