Fast fashion: the industry that undresses the planet

See how fast fashion, a highly polluting and controversial business model, is present in virtually every shopping mall at an affordable price.

Fast fashion: the industry that undresses the planet
The fast fashion style can be found in virtually any shopping center. Photo: Stock image

Fast fashion has a presence in practically any shopping center and captivates us because with it we can look modern at an affordable price. However, it is a highly polluting and controversial business model.  Our way of dressing influences how we relate to people gives us a sense of belonging and places us in a certain social stratum, whether we like it or not.

In different places and times in history, laws were passed that dictated the types, colors, and materials of the garments that could be worn. The aim, according to the English historian Aileen Ribeiro, was that no one should dress above their social class. Although today there are still dress codes, what we choose to wear now depends more on fashion trends and our budget. During the second half of the 20th century, the price of clothes increased at a lower rate than other products due to consumerism in this sector.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that we buy 60% more clothes today than in 2000. In 2017, the Grupo AXO distribution company reported a 75% increase in sales in Mexico compared to 2013. This increase is also due to more availability. Another of the WRI's calculations is that the volume of clothing produced annually is enough for everyone in the world to buy at least 20 garments each year, more or less at the rate of one garment every three weeks.

But the dream of available and affordable clothes turns into a nightmare when we look at the whole picture: from what has to happen for the clothes to get to the stores to what we do with them after we buy them.

The impact of fast fashion

Fast fashion is an accelerated business model that drives people to buy more clothing motivated by low prices and multiple micro seasons per year. It is estimated that the fast fashion industry will grow by 50% by 2030, yet the growing demand for clothing already has a strong impact on the environment.

The fast fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global emissions and 20% of global wastewater production.

When synthetic clothes are washed, micro-particles are released; thus, 30% of the plastic waste in the ocean is textile micro-fibers.

On a global scale, cotton cultivation occupies only 2.4% of cultivated land but consumes 6% of pesticides and 16% of insecticides; currently, less than 1% is organic cotton.

In 2015 the fast fashion industry produced 92 million tons of waste.

Recycling and use

The recycling process damages textile fibers which reduce their uses (more than for new garments they are used for insulation, etc.); it is cheaper to make new garments with new fibers than to recycle old ones.

It would take 12 years to recycle 48 hours of fast fashion production.

1 % of the textiles are recycled.

73 % of the clothes received by charities and textile scavengers around the world are burned or buried.

Fleeting profit

To make a handmade garment, first, you have to take measurements, then you have to make or choose a design, then you have to choose the fabric, and finally, wait until the garment is ready to try it on and fall in love with it or make the appropriate adjustments. We could say that this individualized form of production is a kind of slow fashion. Nowadays, clothes are practically no longer made this way, but under the scheme of clothes produced with standard measures that wait on shelves for us to go and buy them. The idea of speed in fast fashion is not only related to the speed of the production and sales processes of the clothes, but also to the brevity of the time we use them. This type of clothing is usually made with poor quality materials and poor finishes, so it soon wears out or breaks. Although we could use it for longer if we make some compositions, there is a second reason that makes us decide to discard it: it goes out of fashion.

The clothes, as well as the shoes, accessories, hairstyles, and makeup that complement our image, will be fashionable or considered outdated depending on the seasonal trends. Trends have always changed, only today they do so at an unprecedented pace. Until about 30 years ago the fashion industry was developed around two major seasons: spring-summer and autumn-winter. Today, however, the WRI has come to count more than 50 micro-seasons a year, in addition to new cycles such as back-to-school and graduations. If they don't want to fall behind, stores would have to change their clothing assortment every week.

Another characteristic of fast fashion is that it costs little; to maintain a good profit margin there has to be a very high volume of sales all the time. To achieve this goal, advertising campaigns use psychological strategies to convince us to buy clothes that we don't need: beautiful clothes at incredible prices that open the door to the world of popularity or the social class we aspire to. If the price wasn't enough of a hook, then they use the discount card: unbeatable offers that give us a second chance to enter that world. The reality is that they intend to take out all those clothes to make room for the new collection. For decades, the fashion business model has gone from "produce what you can sell" to "sell what you make".

The inhuman side of fast fashion

The manufacturing industry employs approximately 75 million people worldwide, half a million in Mexico. Although the majority are women between the ages of 18 and 24, this industry has been the subject of multiple scandals for employing children. It is also no secret that these people are exploited with long working hours and poor working conditions.

One of the most infamous events occurred on April 23, 2013, when the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring 2,500 others. During the two earthquakes of September 19 in Mexico City, hundreds of seamstresses perished when their work buildings collapsed. Unlike the collapse in Bangladesh, where we don't know for sure who or how many they were.

As if this weren't enough, there is the issue of wages. Dana Thomas, an American journalist specializing in fashion and culture, estimates that a person is paid only about four pesos to make a $400 garment. Fast fashion is a $35 billion a year industry that is scandalously unequal: in 2017 Forbes magazine estimated that it takes a seamstress almost two years to earn what a director earns in two hours.

Emissions of fear

It is very difficult to have precise figures on the environmental impact of fast fashion because it is a global industry whose processes occur in different countries. Even so, estimates can be made. In 2017 the forum for sustainability in fashion Global Fashion Agenda and the U.S. consulting The Boston Consulting Group published a report in which they estimate that in 2015 the fashion industry was responsible for the generation of 1 715 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions, consumption of 79 000 million cubic meters of water and production of 92 million tons of waste. They also estimated that, if the fashion industry does not change its processes, these numbers would increase by 50% by 2030.

CO2 equivalent is a measure of total greenhouse gas emissions and is calculated from the direct or indirect production of the emissions. In the case of natural fibers, emissions from fossil fuels used by machinery and irrigation systems are counted, as well as those from fertilizers, animal feces, and burns. For synthetic fibers, which are derived from oil, the emissions meter starts from the search for crude oil deposits.

Before continuing, it is worth remembering that our economic system is capitalist and, consequently, companies will set up in places where production costs are kept to a minimum to maximize profit. In the case of the fashion industry, the main producers are China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Turkey; Mexico appears a little further down this list from the World Bank. The main consumers are the United States, European Union countries, China, and Japan. It is not unreasonable to imagine a scenario in which a garment sold in the United States was made in China from cotton grown in Egypt. This means that hundreds of land, air, and sea vehicles will be needed to move the inputs to all these places, which represents another pile of emissions to be accounted for. And let's not forget the emissions generated by the fuels needed to operate tools and machines throughout the production chain, and to generate the electricity that lights up the factories and outlets.

A research group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimated in 2015 that the manufacture of a single polyester shirt emits approximately 5.5 kg of CO2 equivalent. To this accumulated, we still have to add the emissions generated when we throw away the garments. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation proposes this image to put the global waste of clothing into perspective: every second a textile truck is discarded or incinerated. Yes, much of the unsold clothing is incinerated to reduce the volume of garbage in landfills or to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands, as one luxury brand declared in 2018 after burning more than $38 million worth of merchandise. Luxury practices are no longer the law, but luxury brands would rather burn their inventory than risk having their products vulgarized.

The water issue

The most attractive countries for fast fashion companies are those where social, environmental, and economic standards are less strict.

Clothing requires water at various points in the production chain. To estimate more accurately how much, one should not forget to consider the water used to water the plants or the water given to the animals from which the fibers were extracted. To produce a kilo of cotton, for example, approximately 10,000 liters of water are needed (enough for a person to stay hydrated for 13 years), and this amount of cotton is barely enough for a T-shirt and jeans. The fabrics are then immersed in baths of water mixed with different chemicals to whiten them, make them more malleable, disperse and fix the pigments, and finally wash them. In India alone, where drinking water is a luxury, these wet processes require 1.6 billion liters of water daily.

All these watery wastes are dumped into the local rivers without any consideration. In Indonesia, for example, some 200 textile factories discharge their wastewater into the Citarum River, considered the most polluted river in the world. Mexico is not exempt from this dirty reality: in 2012 Greenpeace denounced that the companies that manufacture Kaltex and Lavamex denim have been polluting the San Juan River in Querétaro and the San Pedro River in Aguascalientes for years. While in developed countries water pollution is considered a crime, in developing countries this activity seems to go unnoticed.

The issue of water pollution does not end there, as half a million tons of microfibers reach the oceans every year, roughly the equivalent of more than 50 billion plastic bottles. These microfibers are practically impossible to clean and will most likely enter the food chain, as they will be ingested by the fish that we will then eat.

Alternative practices

According to the United Nations, the fast fashion industry is responsible for 1012% of global emissions and 20% of global wastewater production. It is one of the most polluting industries and recycling is not yet a real alternative. According to the Ellen MacAr-Thur Foundation, 60% of the clothing produced ends up in landfills or is incinerated. Less than 1% of the materials used in clothing are recycled to make other garments and less than 13% is used to make other products. In December 2019, in an article in the Revista del Consumidor, the Federal Consumer Protection Agency (PROFECO) estimated that in Mexico only 0.5% of the textiles that are thrown away each year are recycled. These low percentages are due, in part, to the fact that there are not many options for recovering reusable fibers.

What to do then? Given that the dynamics of fast fashion consist of buying more and using less, something we can do to stop this trend is exactly the opposite: buy less and use more. So the immediate thing is to avoid buying clothes that you don't need. Wear the clothes as much as you can, and when you don't want them anymore, consider giving them to other people who can use them longer, or look for a barter market. In Mexico City, there are several bazaars where they receive clothes in good condition and, in exchange, you receive credits to buy other clothes in good condition. If you need to buy clothes that you know you will only wear once, such as a formal dress or a tuxedo, consider that you don't need to buy them, since in Mexico there are several companies dedicated to clothing rentals.

Support local companies, those with ethical standards, those that use sustainable materials, and those that produce garments with compostable materials. Avoid shopping at stores with brands that perpetuate this unsustainable business model: Bershka, C&A, Calvin Klein, Espirit, Forever 21, Gap, Guess, H&M, Lefties, Levi's, Old Navy, Mango, Nike, Oysho, Pull & Bear, Shasa, Stradivarius, Benetton, Uterqüe, Urban Outfitters, Victoria's Secret and Zara, among others identified by PROFECO. Although the clothes are beautiful, don't forget that the labels do not reflect their environmental cost or the negative impact they leave on the populations where they are produced.

Author: Claudia Hernández García studied mathematics and philosophy of science at UNAM. She is dedicated to science communication and since 2015 is part of the team of magazine ¿Cómo ves?, where the original article was first published in Spanish.