The global apparel industry is expanding at a 6.16% compound annual growth rate. Due to the rise of fast fashion over the last 20 years, clothing production and consumption of keeps growing.
Fast fashion is convenient, cheap, and accessible but will never be sustainable. Excessive clothing shopping leads to large amounts of waste, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Moving away from fast fashion is the only solution.
Trendy clothes for cheap
This year's summer fast-fashion styles are cheap, stylish, and readily available in high-street stores.
Fashion used to be slow and expensive. Fashion houses used to create new collections 2 to 4 times per year. Today's fast fashion brands and retailers design, produce and sell new styles every week.
Companies like Zara make more than 1 million garments every day. In the fast fashion industry, it's very common to produce more than what can be sold.
"One reason for this trend is globalization. Corporations have relocated their manufacturing operations to low-wage countries, making goods artificially cheap when sold in higher-wage countries."
- Steven Gorelick, Small is Beautiful Author
The high cost of cheap fashion
The global textile and apparel market is valued at USD 2.5 trillion (annual revenues). Clothing production has doubled over the last 15 years to meet consumers' demand.
Unfortunately, 16.9 million tons of textile wastes are produced each year in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That number has doubled over the last 20 years and is 10 times bigger than in 1960.
And less than 1% of all textile waste is recycled to make new clothing, as reported by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
“It is obvious that the current fashion system is failing both the environment and us."
- Ida Auken, Denmark Member of Parliament
The overproduction and overconsumption of cheaply made clothing make the fashion industry the second-largest polluter globally.
The fashion industry accounts for 20% of the world's wastewater, according to the World Bank, and for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, as reported by the Fashion Transparency Index.
Fast fashion releases 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. McKinsey estimated in 2016 that carbon emissions will rise by 77%, and water consumption by 20% from 2015 to 2025.
Conscious fast fashion
Fast fashion was created to offer new stylish clothes inspired by runway shows at a very low price. Consumers see many advantages in fast fashion.
Due to the regain interest in sustainability, large retailers are launching new collections made from organic or recycled materials such as H&M's "Conscious", C&A's "Wear the change", or Zara's "Join life".
However, mass-production isn't sustainable. One of the biggest problems of fast fashion is that too many clothes are being produced. Cheap fashion is simply not sustainable. It doesn't guarantee living wages for all workers in the supply chains.
Read up my article on eco-friendly clothing lines are the worst to understand the issues with this practice from fashion giants.
"Fashion brands are capitalizing on the fact that consumers are interested in buying fairly and ecologically produced items. Organic cotton is certainly a step in the right direction because neither genetic modification nor synthetic pesticides can be used in its production. But these own-brand sustainability labels rarely tell us anything about what happens later on in the production chain."
- Katrin Wenz, an agriculture expert at BUND
Greenwash to answer consumers' demand
Making misleading claims about the environmental benefits of fashion products is greenwash. Companies want to appear more environmentally friendly than they are to appeal to conscious consumers.
Fashion brands and retailers call their clothes natural, bio, organic, or recycled when in fact it only concerns a portion of the fibers used in the garment construction.
"Sustainability is not a protected or specific term, which leaves the door wide open for so-called greenwashing. [...] Fast fashion is the SUV of the fashion industry. It will never be sustainable. The fashion industry needs to shift away from production and towards service provision."
- Viola Wohlgemuth, Greenpeace textile expert
Sustainable and affordable fashion
Luckily, some excellent and upcoming fashion brands now offer responsible fashion at an affordable price, produced in a respectful way to the Earth, people, and animals living on it.
To be sure to pick the best environmentally friendly garments when shopping for new clothes, look for certifications that verify the fairness and eco-friendliness of the products.
To do so, you can follow my guide on the best certification standards for textiles.
"Ecological and social standards are important at every stage of production. That includes minimizing the use of harmful chemicals, managing water usage, and waste, limiting CO2 emissions and ensuring human rights, fair wages, protections for workers, and much more. Only then can fashion be called sustainable."
- Heike Hess, Berlin IVN Director
It's time for fashion brands to adopt more sustainable practices in their daily operations. Brands must move towards sustainable production.
As consumers, we must change our current consumption habits and move away from fast fashion. We buy far too many clothes in general. And we wear them only for a short period before discarding them.
Let's support sustainable fashion brands creating high-quality conscious clothing. Let's shop for fewer and longer-lasting items. Recycling, upcycling, clothing rental, and second-hand clothes all contribute to making fashion sustainable.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.