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Editions

Sustainability

30 Apr 2020

How fast is fast fashion?

By Dr Kaushik Sridhar

Apparel sales have risen sharply in recent years, as businesses have used “fast fashion” design and production systems to cut prices and introduce new lines more often.

From 2000 to 2014, global clothing production doubled, and the number of garments sold per person increased by 60 per cent. In five large developing countries - Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and Russia - sales grew eight times faster than in large advanced countries, though the average advanced-country resident still buys more clothing each year.

Narrowing that gap represents a big opportunity for clothing companies, but the environmental consequences are clear. Making and laundering clothes typically requires large quantities of water and chemicals; fibre farms occupy vast tracts of land; greenhouse-gas emissions are significant. After consumers discard old garments - something that happens ever more quickly - current technologies cannot reliably turn them into fibres for new clothes. Without improvements in how clothing is made, cared for, and disposed of, apparel’s environmental impact will worsen.

The recent string of garment factory fires, building collapses and worker protests point to the fact that the mainstream fashion industry is a bit of a basket case. Overall, fashion has lost its grip on who is making our clothes and how they are made.

Despite most major fashion companies having policies in place that are meant to ensure fair and safe working conditions for workers and minimum impact on the environment, human rights abuses and the use of toxic chemicals are still occurring regularly. And fashion companies don’t make it easy for us consumers to know what we’re buying. There is no universal clothing label that is easily understood and spells out exactly what goes into our clothes.

Part of the problem is that the big companies themselves don’t know exactly how the clothing they sell has been made. A fashion company will sign a contract with one factory who, in order to meet the prices and quantities demanded by international buyers, will subcontract to another unauthorised factory.

The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world ... second only to oil. When we think of pollution, we envision coal power plants, strip-mined mountaintops and raw sewage piped into our waterways. We don’t often think of the shirts on our backs. But the overall impact the apparel industry has on our planet is quite grim.

Fashion is a complicated business involving long and varied supply chains of production, raw material, textile manufacture, clothing construction, shipping, retail, use and ultimately disposal of the garment. A general carbon assessment must consider not only obvious pollutants - the pesticides used in cotton farming, the toxic dyes used in manufacturing and the great amount of waste discarded clothing creates, but also the extravagant amount of natural resources used in extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping.

While cotton, especially organic cotton, might seem like a smart choice, it can still take more than 58,000 gallons of water to manufacture just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Synthetic, man-made fibres, while not as water-intensive, often have issues with manufacturing pollution and sustainability. And across all textiles, the manufacturing and dyeing of fabrics is chemically intensive.

A current trend in fashion retail is creating an extreme demand for quick and cheap clothes and it is a huge problem. While a majority of the world’s apparel conglomerates are U.S.-based, more than 60 per cent of world clothing is manufactured in developing countries. Asia is the major clothing exporter today, producing more than 32 per cent of the world’s supply. China is the leading world producer and supplier of clothing, providing nearly 13 per cent of the world’s exports.

But as production and labour costs rise in China, clothing companies are moving to countries where manufacturing is cheaper; places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Pakistan and the Philippines. These countries might not have the raw materials needed, so they’re often shipped there from countries like China, the U.S. and India. Once manufactured, the garments are put in shipping containers and sent by rail, container ships and eventually rail and trucks to the retailer. There’s no way to gauge how much fuel is used to ship clothes worldwide, but 22 billion new clothing items are bought by Americans per year, with only two per cent of those clothes being domestically manufactured. In total, some 90 per cent of garments are transported by container ship each year.

While we don’t know what percentage of cargo garments comprise on the world’s 9000 container ships, we do know that a single ship can produce as much cancer and asthma-causing pollutants as 50 million cars in just one year. The low-grade bunker fuel burned by ships is 1000 times dirtier than highway diesel used in the trucking industry. These ships do not consume fuel by the gallon, but by tons per hour. Pollution by the shipping industry, which has boomed over the past 20 years, is beginning to affect the health of those living in coastal and inland regions around the world, yet the emissions of such ships goes mostly unregulated.

Our clothes continue to impact the environment after purchase; washing and final disposal when you’re finished with your shirt may cause more harm to the planet than you realise.

The current system is not working. It’s not working for most people employed by the apparel and textiles industry globally, and it’s not working to protect our increasingly fragile ecosystem. It’s not even working for mainstream fashion brands, who continue to face the risk that a tragedy much like Rana Plaza could happen again - and this time they’ll be responsible.

But fashion doesn’t have to cost the earth. And people shouldn’t have to face poverty and death to ensure that we can keep buying cheap, fast fashion •

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