Putting the brakes on fast fashion

Fast fashion describes the increasingly rapid movement of designer-inspired clothing from the catwalk to the mainstream consumer at affordable prices. 

The problems with a linear fashion industry

In the past 50 years we’ve moved from a fashion industry centred on four seasons a year to one where a ‘season’ may last for as little as a week.

At the same time, developments in supply chain and production processes have helped to reduce costs to the point where garments are viewed as effectively single-use. When a dress can cost as little as £5, it is perhaps unsurprising that a fashion conscious consumer won’t think twice about wearing it once and then throwing it away, ready to move onto the next trend.

This focus on fast-moving trends and low prices clearly contributes to a growing problem of waste and unsustainable resource use. Pressures on the fashion industry (valued at $3 trillion or roughly 2% of global GDP) to sustain profits also often mean that corners are cut on environmental stewardship, working conditions and safety.

After agriculture, textile dyeing is the second-largest polluter of clean water in the world with workers and ecosystems regularly exposed to highly toxic compounds. Textile production also requires large amounts of water. Almost 20% of global wastewater is produced by the fashion industry and processing 1kg of cotton, for example, can use up to 20,000 litres of water.

Textile waste isn’t solely attributable to consumers either. The Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimates that clothing demand in the UK alone results in 800,000 tonnes of production waste each year.

Moving to more circular practices  

In December 2017, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation published ‘A New Textiles Economy’, a report aimed at designing waste out of the fashion industry, eliminating pollutants and claiming back an estimated $500 billion value loss in wasted and underutilised clothing.

Central to the circular production model is a phase out of toxic chemicals and the increased use of renewable or recycled raw materials. Redesigning clothes to reduce the volume of plastic microfibres they release into wastewater was also highlighted.

On the consumption side, the report focused on methods to help counter the culture of disposability in fashion. In addition to promoting the design of durable, high-quality clothing and shifting the focus of marketing to make these desirable attributes, the report also proposes more innovative methods such as clothing subscription services and short-term rental options.

With almost 90% of clothing material going into landfill worldwide, the report also proposes a massive scale-up in recycling rates alongside better repurposing technologies to preserve the quality of recycled materials and incentivise their use in new clothing production.

Innovation in action

An increasing number of producers and retailers are working to close the loop on resource waste and transform the way we buy, use and dispose of clothes.

Outdoor clothing company Patagonia was the first to produce a polyester fleece from recycled plastic bottles. It also offers a repair service for its product lines, as well as a Worn Wear platform for consumers to buy and sell pre-owned clothes.

Sharing and resale platforms are also growing in popularity. For example, YCloset is a Chinese start-up that allows users to pay a monthly subscription fee and then rent clothing and accessories free of charge. Closer to home, sites such as Depop and Thredup allow individuals to buy and sell second-hand clothes online.

A number of collective actions are also underway, including WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan. To date, over 80 organisations in the UK have signed up to a series of pledges to reduce the carbon and water footprints of the fashion industry while reducing waste across product lifecycles.

Sources include: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, WRAP