The term ‘fast fashion’ is a phrase used to describe the public’s desire to access the latest designs from the runway in the shortest time possible. Otherwise branded as ‘high-street knock off’s’. Unfortunately, these reimagined couture pieces are only designed to last a few months. From the very beginning, their lifespan is limited thanks to the quality of materials and manufacturing methods.
Thankfully, protests from environmentalists have now prompted the government to intervene. They’ve asked committee bosses at 10 leading British brands to reveal their environmental record. So, why are fast fashion brands facing such pressure to change their ways – and is their environmental impact really that bad?
The Toll on the Environment
Eye-catching designs and vibrant colours are often appealing features of fashion garments. However, to achieve this look, many brands use toxic chemicals. It may surprise you, but textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally (just after agriculture).
Greenpeace tested a number of items from various brands and confirmed the presence of hazardous chemicals. Such chemicals are not only toxic, but also bio-accumulative, which means that the substance builds up in an organism faster than it can excrete it. This is harmful to the planet as well as humans.
Not only is water polluted because of fast fashion, but it’s also excessively consumed to make the garments. The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world. However, due to fast fashion, it’s drastically shrunk from the impact of irrigation canals channelling water from the 2 major rivers that feed the sea. This is damaging to the local communities who rely on water from the river.
The impact of the aforementioned toxic chemicals in agriculture is affecting the cotton farming industry. Cotton makes up roughly 90% of all natural fibres used in the textiles industry, making it an in-demand material for clothing manufacturers. Sadly, cotton farmers can have serious health problems due to the toxicity, which has also been shown to cause serious birth defects in Indian cotton farmers’ children.
Much of the cotton grown worldwide has been genetically modified to be pest resistant, improving yield and reducing the need for pesticides. However, this can lead to problems further on, such as weeds that have adapted to be resistant to standard pesticides. Consequently, this cotton then needs to be treated when even more toxic pesticides that is very harmful to both livestock and humans.
Swapping cotton for more natural fibres such as hemp, flax and nettle can improve sustainability, requiring less land and water to produce clothing. For example, cotton uses 4 times the amount of water and land than hemp.
Material wastage is perhaps one of the biggest reasons as to why fast fashion companies are being scrutinised. Whether they’re designing luxury belts or silk dresses, a huge amount of all unused fabric such as cut-offs is redirected to landfill. Chemicals from such materials then have even more opportunity to seep into the land. Rather than being binned, fast fashion brands are being encouraged to do something else with the cut-offs, whether this is combining them to make new garments or recycling the fabric in their production process.
Unfair Employment Rights
It’s not just the environment that’s affected by fast fashion. Many clothing companies have come under fire for their treatment of employees manufacturing their clothing. Sports Direct, Primark and GAP are among the many popular names being asked to explain their production process. Unlike the food industry, Fair Trade isn’t the norm for clothing companies. Unless a business uses Fair Trade cotton or another regulatory body for clothing standards, there’s no way to prove that they are sourcing their cotton ethically from worker’s treated fairly.
Who’s Leading the Way to Sustainability?
H&M and ZARA are among the brands trying to better their ways in a bid to become more sustainable. However, they’re not perfect. Though they are focused on being more transparent about their production process, being less bad than your competitors isn’t something to celebrate just yet. H&M have launched their own ‘Conscious’ range of clothing made from natural and recycled materials.
They also encourage customers to come into the store and recycle their old clothes – no matter where they were originally purchased from. However, more and more brands are becoming well-known for their sustainable and ethical approach to fashion, so we can expect this year to be one of the biggest for the sustainable fashion movement, and rightly so!
About the Author
Natalie Wilson is a freelance writer with a particular focus on sustainability and eco-friendly living and has worked with many up and coming brands, including Black & Brown. Whether you’re looking for a new meditation method or some facts on plastic pollution, she’s your girl! When not writing, Natalie can be found heading to the gym or walking her dog. You can connect with her on Twitter @NatWilson976.