Each time you drag a new item of clothing into a virtual shopping basket, you may be supporting an industry responsible for 10% of global CO₂ emissions – not to mention widespread social harm. Fast fashion, the industry trend which whisks the latest catwalk designs into stores by way of polluting factories and sweat shops, is incompatible with the changes needed across all sectors to avert environmental breakdown. So what can you do about it?
To really understand how fast fashion hurts the planet, it helps to follow the course a single garment takes. Mark Sumner, a lecturer in sustainability at the University of Leeds, charted the journey of a t-shirt from the field to your wardrobe. He reported that “it takes one-and-a-half Olympic swimming pools of water to grow one tonne of cotton”, and this is often in regions plagued by drought where farmers may only have “10 to 20 litres of water a day for washing, cleaning and cooking”.
“But the negative impacts only begin with growing the fibres,” Sumner says. Spinning and knitting the cotton into fabric generates 394 million tonnes of CO₂ per year, he estimates. Adding colour to that fabric uses yet more fresh water, which is often washed into waterways untreated afterwards – harmful chemicals and tiny fibres included.
“In Cambodia, for example, where clothing comprises 88% of industrial manufacturing, the fashion industry is responsible for 60% of water pollution,” Sumner says.
The dyed fabric is washed, dried and prepared for garment making. The whole energy-intensive process costs about 2.6kg of CO₂ per t-shirt – “the equivalent of driving 14km in a standard passenger car,” according to Sumner.
As you’ve probably guessed, the environmental calamity doesn’t end there.
“Over the past 15 years, clothing production has doubled while the length of time we actually wear these clothes has fallen by nearly 40%,” say Samantha Sharpe, Monique Retamal and Taylor Brydges, researchers at University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures in Australia. Their recommendation for people concerned about the fashion industry’s ballooning climate impact is simple:
“It would mean each of us cutting how many new clothes we buy by as much as 75%, buying clothes designed to last, and recycling clothes at the end of their lifetime.”
And for clothing manufacturers and retailers:
“It would mean tackling low incomes for the people who make the clothes, as well as support measures for workers who could lose jobs during a transition to a more sustainable industry,” they say.
Fashion fasts can phase out fast fashion
Urgent action is needed to head off what the team call “ultra-fast fashion”, which is responsible for “releasing unprecedented volumes of new clothes into the market”. It’s also leaning on some of the most exploited workers worldwide, in countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Vietnam where garment manufacturing presents an extreme risk of modern slavery.
Sharpe, Retamal and Brydges propose a movement towards “slow fashion” as the remedy, buying secondhand or renting clothes, prioritising clothing quality and classic styles over fleeting trends and reviving long-lost skills like mending and sewing.
Amber Martin-Woodhead, an assistant professor of human geography at Coventry University, has another recommendation for people eager to embrace slow fashion: shrink your wardrobe. During March, she took part in The Great Fashion Fast, launched by UK charity Tearfund.
“To take part, you choose ten main items of clothing (with some exceptions such as sportswear, underwear and uniforms) and wear only these ten items for the whole month,” Martin-Woodhead says.
“I’ve previously taken part in UK campaign group Labour Behind the Label’s Six Items Challenge, where you only wear six items over six weeks. As the research suggests, I found it really helped me realise just how few clothes I need.”
If you’d like to do something similar, you might find Martin-Woodhead’s tips useful. These include picking “a few matching colours so that everything goes together”, “pick[ing] different items that can make lots of different outfits” and choosing “versatile items that can be layered and worn in different ways”, like a jumper that can also be worn as a cardigan.
Your reward for doing all this may be more than a sense of satisfaction. According to new research by Louise and Martin Grimmer, experts in marketing at the University of Tasmania, shopping secondhand may mean you’re more stylish:
“In our study, we found the higher people rate on style-consciousness” – essentially, how passionate they were about expressing themselves through their clothes and developing a personal style – “the more likely they are to shop second hand. In fact, style-consciousness was a bigger predictor of second-hand shopping than being frugal or ecologically-conscious.”
Dressing well and looking good needn’t cost the Earth, it seems.