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Can Fast Fashion Be Sustainable?

Have you ever wondered what impact your clothing can have on the environment? If not, it is time to reconsider your clothing choices. According to McKinsey data, the clothing industry is responsible for 4–8% of GHG emissions across the globe. And "fast fashion," as they call it today, is proving to be an environmental disaster.


Fast fashion, in simple terms, is stylish and trendy clothing at cheap rates. With social media glamour and exposure increasing exponentially, fast fashion is picking up pretty fast. People today tend to own a collection of clothing according to changing trends. Popular fast fashion brands like H&M, Shein, Uniqlo, Zara and others have established their foothold worldwide. Their stores can almost be seen everywhere and their clothes are vastly loved by consumers. Everyone around them has levelled up their fashion game.


Such a change in lifestyle makes a person shop mindlessly and they tend to throw away the fashion accessory after using it only a few times, especially teenagers and young adults. Increased consumption results in greater production and greater waste. According to the Fixing Fashion report, "Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined." The high price of cheaper clothes is sadly paid by the environment. Fast fashion, in reality, is a dark industry that has a lot of ugly truths attached to it.


Abusive labour practices

Most of these clothes are manufactured in third-world countries because of cheap labour and thus the items are less expensive. This makes these clothes an attractive buy for consumers. However, a lot is hidden behind such cheap prices. The labour in clothing factories is made to work ruthlessly for a long number of hours each day only because companies have to meet consumer targets. They are made to work in dangerous conditions and are exposed to toxic textile dyes. Companies cut themselves loose on health and safety measures to cut costs. Workers are very often paid below minimum wages, thereby flouting all human rights regulations. The majority of garment workers are deprived of living wages.


Greenwashing is a dominant issue

The fashion industry is filled with a lot of greenwashers. A lot of companies and manufacturers who claim their fashion products to be environmentally friendly are in reality making false claims to garner attention and avoid criticism in the public domain. They pay heftily to social media influencers who help propagate such false claims. And a lot of people fall prey to this ostensibility.


These strategies do come to light sooner or later. For example, a consumer bought clothes from H&M’s Conscious Choice clothing line last year, which she later found to be unsustainable. She then filed a class action lawsuit against the company for greenwashing.


Disposed in landfills

The recyclable materials in clothing are hardly recycled and are mostly disposed of in landfills. Around 87% of the fibre used for clothing is ultimately incinerated or sent to a landfill. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a non-profit environmental group, only 1% of materials from excess inventory or returns are recycled. These landfills are a breeding ground for methane production. Earlier, cotton used to be a primary material for the production of clothes. Shocking statistics reveal that around 20,000 litres of water are required to produce 1 Kg of cotton. This means that a single t-shirt that you are wearing has consumed equivalent litres of water. The procedure of farming cotton, dyeing it and further washing it is extremely water-intensive and consumes a lot of pesticides as well. Today, polyester is widely used in fast fashion products to make apparel less expensive. Polyester leads to environmental degradation as it is a major source of microplastic pollution. Polyester is not biodegradable. Microplastics are synthetic particles smaller than 5 mm or 0.2 inches. These are extremely dangerous for the marine life that ingests these synthetic particles and die. According to data, the oceans currently have more than 578,000 tonnes of microplastics.


How can things get better?

Companies should recycle as much as possible by implementing a recycling strategy. People all around the world should promote a circular economy, which includes reuse, repair, sharing, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling. This will minimise waste production, resource consumption, pollution and emissions. They should try creating evergreen fashion styles that last longer. They should use good-quality materials that make garments durable. Companies can opt for eco-friendly packaging. They should try sourcing raw materials from sustainable suppliers. Upcycling is also highly encouraged. By resorting to environmentally friendly practices, companies can improve their brand value.


Transforming fabric materials from polyester and cotton to sustainable materials can also be a game-changer. A few alternatives that could be used are organic hemp, organic linen, tencel (a cellulose fabric created by dissolving wood pulp), pinatex and econyl.


Development and serious actions being taken can be seen by some brands on this front because of the growing awareness. For example, a Dutch company named Dyecoo reached its target of becoming the world’s first commercial supplier of water-free and process-chemical-free dyeing technology for garments. The company’s CO2-based dyeing process makes dyeing clothes clean and sustainable. A few other brands have also stepped into making sustainable textiles.


Conclusion

A lot of innovation needs to be brought into this industry to contribute to sustainability. Fashion is not just a statement. It is a lifestyle. By its nature, fast fashion is not sustainable. It does not appear likely that fast fashion and sustainability can get along. It can only be made less deleterious. As rightly expressed by Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, "If your business model is based on volume, that’s not what’s part of the sustainable movement in any industry."


You can become an ESG expert and raise awareness on this subject through CPD-Accredited ESG Expert Certification from Directors’ Institutes, which is one of the leading organisations in the ESG space.


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