Good day? Bad day? Day with the letters ‘d’, ‘a’ and ‘y’ in it?
Our response to all of the above is often to head online to pick ourselves up a little t-shirt-based treat, or to nip to the shops to pick up a celebratory sweater. It’s not just you: we’re buying 400% more than we were just 20 years ago. To cope with this demand, roughly 80 billion items are manufactured every year.
According to Greenpeace, fast fashion items are worn on average less than five times and kept for a shockingly low 35 days. Look to your local shopping centre or open your wardrobe, and you’ll immediately recognise the culprits.
Retailers have done a great job of convincing us that we need new threads regularly, with some high street stores refreshing their lines up to 50 times a year (thought there was just Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter in the fashion calendar? Guess again!). These clothes are mass produced at a minuscule price, designed to give us that dopamine hit of ‘Woohoo! New stuff!’, rather than see us through the years.
That sounds like it might be a problem.
It doesn’t sound great to be producing anything at this kind of scale, but what exactly is the impact of all this mass production? It’s a question that is surprisingly difficult to quantify, because it’s unusual for a high street retailer to produce a garment end to end. With fabric being produced in one country, being shipped to another for assembly, before landing in stores all over the world, the supply chain is long and complex.
The dying and production process often releases hazardous chemicals that get released into local waterways (commonly China, Indonesia or Mexico). These have an immediate and devastating local effect, with many known to cause cancer, or disrupt hormones in humans and animals. From rivers they enter the sea, then the food chain, impacting communities around the world.
The treatment and dying of textiles is responsible for 20% of industrial water pollution. Synthetic material is particularly resistant to dye, therefore stronger and more harmful dyes are used - and this is the world’s most produced textile.
The emissions relating to the production and transport of our clothes is much debated, because the long supply chain makes the maths a challenge. Estimates range from it being the second to the fifth worst offending industry, with the United Nations confirming its responsible for 10% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions annually. That’s more than international flights and maritime shipping emissions combined. So while we're all cutting down on our flights, we might want to start looking just a few feet from our bed for a larger CO2 culprit.
Polyester is made of plastic spun into threads, woven into material. It’s cheap to make, doesn’t wrinkle, quick drying and maintains its shape. It’s now left its 70s appearance behind, and can be made to imitate the feel of silk, cotton or linen. A magic material, right?
But it’s also a petroleum-based fabric, and is hard to dye, which means manufacturers use harsher chemicals (often in places with lax safety regulations). The vast majority of our discarded clothes end up in landfill, and a large amount of that is made of polyester, which takes up to 200 years to break down.
Oil. Chemicals. Landfill. Not so magic after all.
And then there’s the effect on the water. The word ‘microplastics’ entered the collective consciousness a couple of years ago, but for those not keeping up, it refers to the tiny strands of plastic that get removed from your clothes every time you wash them (up to a million with every wash). They disappear from your machine via the water waste, before ultimately ending up in the ocean. One study estimates that 85% of the ocean’s plastic pollution comes from this.
Speaking of water, there’s the amount it takes to produce our clothes. A pair of jeans takes 2,000 gallons, mainly due to the distressing effect we all insist on. A cotton t-shirt takes 2,700. Overall, clothing manufacturing requires 25 billion gallons of water. With current estimates predicting 47% of the world will face severe water shortages by 2030, it's just another unsustainable element to the clothes on your back. Or legs. Or legs and back, if you're a fan of the Canadian tuxedo.
The good news interlude
OK, so the problems are many and varied. But if that sounds scary, take heart - the winds of change are already blowing. Or put simply: things are already getting better.
Greenpeace has been instrumental in ‘detoxing’ the fashion industry, convincing 80 leading retailers to eliminate hazardous chemicals from their manufacturing process by the end of this year. Innovation is happening all around us, with new materials and techniques on the horizon that have the power to revolutionise the industry.
But are we doing our bit?
If your answer is a variation of "yes, I sent the clothes I was bored of to the charity shop last week", it's bad news. In our heart of hearts, we probably all know that the t-shirt which cost us 4 euros originally isn’t going to get bought by an intrepid bargain hunter, when they can just go and buy a new one for a similar price. In fact, only 10% of charity donations get resold, benefiting your chosen charity. The rest often ends up being sent to landfill, costing the charity money, or sent en masse to the developing world, killing the local industry.
So if the answer isn’t to give away our clothes, what is it?
Extending how long you wear an item by nine months reduces its carbon, water and waste footprint by 20-30%. If you need #fashioninspo, take a note from Jane Fonda who, after vowing to stop buying new clothes, rewore her 2014 Oscars dress for the 2020 event. So fashion.
Renting clothes for events is becoming big business (how many times have you bought an outfit for a wedding and then decided you couldn’t rewear it in case you ran into the same guests?!). Rent the Runway offers customers a subscription package, where they can borrow four items at a time, swapping them either monthly, fortnightly or an unlimited amount.
Resale is also getting a makeover. While eBay can be hit and miss when it comes to quality, Depop, Poshmark and Mercari are used more thoughtfully by buyers and sellers alike. Sites like Thredup in the US act as a go-between, receiving the clothes from consumers and checking their quality before offering them online for you to buy. Their annual report states that the resale market has grown 21x faster than the retail apparel market in the last three years, and they project that spending via resale will be 1.5x bigger than on fast fashion by 2028.
When you do need something new (and you will! And that’s ok!), the key is to buy better. It’s easy to research. With 74% of 18-29 year olds preferring sustainably conscious brands, you’ll find that if companies are doing something good for the planet, they’re likely to shout about it online. Take a brand like Reformation, who now include the sustainability of each item in the description.
The outdoor/indoor-hipster clothing brand Patagonia is leading the way in ethical clothing. Their Recrafted collection is made from old clothes, you can buy second hand clothes via their site and send off your old ones for store credit, and they even have online guides on how to repair and sew your kit.
But this ethical consumerism can be a murky area, prone to greenwashing. H&M have conspicuous recycle bins where you can exchange your old clothes for in-store credit, but as one of the biggest fast fashion retailers (their eco-friendly Conscious collection makes up just 6.2% of their stock) you’re likely to use that store credit to perpetuate the cycle.
Online retailer Boohoo, the enemy of slow fashion, is often cited as one of the least sustainable fashion brands, and, perhaps in response, have launched a 34 piece UK-made range made with recycled polyester previously destined for landfills. But with 3,760 options just in the category ‘Tops’, that doesn’t really qualify as even the tip-of-the-tip-of-the-tip-of-the-tip of the fast fashion iceberg...
Meanwhile, retailers, manufacturers and clever people around the world should be working on making clothes in a better way. Greenpeace lay the responsibility at the feet of the industry, saying:
Smaller brands are doing exciting things (check out the trainers made of coffee beans we wrote about), but it’s the widespread adoption of new technologies and materials that is really going to make the difference.
Some brands are on it: Columbia's Outdry Eco jackets are made from water bottles, use no dye (a saving of 24 gallons of water per jacket), and can repel water without the use of harmful chemicals. Levi’s Water>Less denim techniques use 96% less water per pair of jeans. And it’s no one-off collection - by next year, they want to produce 80% of their jeans this way. Lee has countered with a denim that uses 30% less energy, 70% fewer chemicals and 50% less water.
It’s no coincidence that these two competing brands have taken this route. They’re simply reacting to what consumers are increasingly demanding.
Wear your values
The overall message is one of hope: things are moving in the right direction, and we need to all shop in a way that shows the clothing industry that we want to see it continue that way. By rewarding those that change with our hard earned cash and avoiding those who do nothing or merely pay lip service to sustainability, we hold the power to create change.