Are Fast-Fashion Companies Really Sustainable?

Daria Paterek

With the emergence of new evidence accusing various fast-fashion companies of  greenwashing, Daria explores weather these brands can really be considered as sustainable. 

Through increased social media, watchdog organisations, and citizen fashion journalism, consumers have become more aware of the sustainability practises of fashion brands.

Brands have been consistently shocking consumers with their unethical and unsustainable practices, like when Burberry burned £90 million worth of goods to prevent them from being stolen or sold cheaply.

If  the fast fashion  model  relies on cheap and speedy production, can it ever be sustainable?

To understand whether fast fashion is sustainable, it is essential to understand what fast fashion is, how the fast fashion industry operates, and whether these practises are sustainable. 

The very definition of fast fashion outlines the main problem with it

Fast fashion has always been known to have a massive effect on the planet by creating an environmental havoc. Fast fashion refers to cheaply produced garments that replicate runaway trends and get pushed quickly through stores to maximise current trends.

The very definition of fast fashion outlines the main problem with it. Since fast fashion needs to be produced quickly and cheaply, drastic methods are used, thus almost always exploit the planet.

The growth of fast fashion is unsustainable, but many brands continue to replicate these practises to stay competitive. Rather than selling clothes at a higher quality at a higher price, brands will reduce the cost and quality of their clothing and encourage shoppers to buy more of them, leading to many environmental problems outlined later in this article.

Despite clothing production roughly doubling since 2000, this has not increased the longevity of the garments. Though individuals bought 60% more garments in 2014  than in  2000, they only kept the clothes for half as long.

This causes a toxic cycle; fashionable and trendy clothes are produced, worn only a few times, then they are disposed of by companies when they become out of trend. This leads an increase in clothing production to quickly to fit in with newer trends.

Then comes production. Most fibres that makeup clothes are polyester, which is a plastic found in around 60% of garments. Producing polyester releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton, and polyester does not break down in the ocean.

 Fast fashion [has] devastating effects on the environment

This causes increased water pollution, which leads to the destruction of biodiversity, contamination of the food chain, lack of clean water, and increased infant mortality in areas without clean water. Not only do the effects of fast fashion have devastating effects on the environment, but also on human life.

“700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt!”

This is followed by clothes washing to remove toxic chemicals. Washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year which is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles! Textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water as leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams, or rivers.

The fashion industry is also the second-largest consumer of water worldwide, requiring 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt! This is an unacceptable figure  especially when 780 million people worldwide don’t have access to an improved water source.

Additionally, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions and that figure equals more than the emissions caused by all international flights, and maritime shipping, combined! 

Even after production and distribution, fast fashion relies on producing new clothes quickly and to fit fashion trends; the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second. 

Some brands have adapted through performative measures, such as greenwashing

However, fast fashion trends have been changing. Due to more consumer interest in eco-friendly and sustainable products, more brands have been adapting their products to fit these demands. Some brands have adapted through performative measures, such as greenwashing.

Greenwashing refers to the process of providing false and inaccurate impressions about how environmentally friendly a company’s product is. Greenwashing is an issue as it provides consumers with a false impression of the eco-friendliness of the brand; it is the outright lying to consumers at the stake of the environment, to increase sales.

While this incentive may inspire customers to recycle, it also prompts further consumption

Yet more brands are hopping on the sustainability  wagon. H&M, for example, has launched their recycling scheme, where customers receive £5 off a £25+ shop by submitting a bag of unwanted clothes or materials. While this incentive may inspire customers to recycle, it also prompts further consumption. Additionally, H&M has set a target of using 100% recycled materials by 2030.

Are these measures proof of  fast fashion companies recognising and wanting to reduce their environmental impact, or are they simply hopping on a trend?

On the surface, H&Ms Conscious- Sustainable Style Collection seems like a revelation; a way to continue shopping at a fast-fashion brand without feeling like you are contributing to the environmental crisis. Yet upon closer inspection, there is no specific information as to how these items are better for the environment.

This has led the Norwegian Consumer Authority to criticise H&M for misleading consumers in its marketing due to ‘insufficient’ information about the sustainability behind the collection.

H&M’s greenwashing issue represents a bigger problem within the industry. Zara has recently come under criticism after their sustainability targets were released, claiming that they would only use cotton, linen and polyester that was ‘organic, more sustainable, or recycled’. But what does ‘more sustainable’ entail?

If you are looking to reduce your environmental impact, consuming fast fashion is not the answer, even if brands claim to be sustainable. Ways to reduce your fashion environmental impact range from buying less better-quality items, donating instead of discarding used items, and shopping second hand via charity shops, or online platforms such as Depop.

Overall, it is unlikely that fast fashion can ever be fully sustainable; the principle of fashion being produced in a ‘fast’ manner means that it can never be fully sustainable. After all, fast fashion brands lack the transparency and accountability needed when tackling the effects it!

Daria Paterek

Featured image courtesy of Simplr Solutions via Flickr . Image license found here. No changes made to this image. 

In-Article images courtesy of Fabio Coatti via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

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