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Fast Fashion: The Consequences and the Changes

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

Fast Fashion: A Briefing

In the age of digitalisation, everything is instant; from multinational fast food chains, to next day deliveries for those fortunate enough to have Amazon Prime. Given the pace of our current lifestyles, it is no surprise that the fashion industry has also been hit by this wave of accelerated consumerism. This is recognised as fast fashion: the phenomenon of ever-changing trends and never-ending wardrobe clear-outs.

In the past two decades, global clothing consumption per year has increased four-fold. This increase in consumption has led to growing pressures on natural resources across the world; the copious amounts of textile-production-advancing land consumption and water pollution poses some serious threats to our climate. Furthermore, the predicted growth of the global population to 8.5 billion by 2030 implies that these issues will magnify if major structural

reforms are not introduced and implemented in the industry.

The Consequences of Fast Fashion

1. Land shortages

Materials, such as cotton and leather, used in the production of apparel require a large amount of land in order be farmed and produced. This creates a trade-off between land used for textiles and land used for food production. With the population on the rise, and demand for the two outputs increasing, it is likely that the price of arable land will inflate in the future.

This may result in decreases in income for small- to medium-scale cotton farmers, but simultaneously create incentives for textile producers to switch to materials that use less land-intensive production techniques. Innovation and research into the development of new materials and synthetics to use in clothing may arise as corporates look for ways to reduce costs. For instance, Singtex, a Taiwanese textiles firm, are using the particles of used coffee grounds and recycled plastic bottles to produce new fabrics.

The high demand for new fashion also means that older items of clothing are being discarded at a faster pace than before. The Global Fashion Agenda’s (GFA) review of the fashion landscape predicts that the waste produced by the industry will rise by 60% between 2015 and 2030 - most of which will end up in landfill sites or be incinerated, as only 20% of all textiles waste is recycled. This has devastating consequences on the environment, as landfill sites disrupt local ecosystems, create groundwater pollution, and increase the health risks of nearby residents - with studies showing that increased exposure may lead to higher chances of lung cancer.

2. Water Consumption and Quality

Currently, the world’s consumption of freshwater is within the planetary boundary, indicating that it is at a sustainable level. However, with projections of the growth rates in the population and water-intensive textiles production (e.g. cotton farming) as a result of the fast fashion fad, it is estimated that by 2030, regions with high levels of cotton farming will experience severe water shortages. Countries such as China and India will have to choose between continuing production and supplying enough clean drinking water. This is because the consumption and production of textiles is very water-intensive: the average household uses an astounding 12,000 gallons of water per year for their washing machine.

Additionally, the cultivation of cotton makes heavy use of insecticides and herbicides that pollute the water system. This has severe health consequences, as the chemicals that infiltrate our water supply are consumed by households - allowing toxins to build up in the body. Not only is this bad from a household perspective, but the GFA calculated an annual cost of $7 billion in healthcare damages incurred by the global economy.

3. Labour and Working Conditions

The key to fast fashion is low prices. The rise of high street stores such as H&M and Zara over the last few decades, selling the latest fashion trends at budget-friendly prices, undoubtedly fuelled the acceleration of fashion cycles. More consumers can now afford to change their wardrobe in accordance with the latest styles. However, the low prices that consumers enjoyed were a result of low costs and wages from the producer side; fashion retailers outsourced production to emerging markets, with cheap labour and low health and safety regulations. In developing Asian markets, the minimum labour wage is around 50% of the average living wage, with similar salary patterns occurring in Eastern European countries. The GFA reports that the clothing industry on average has 5.6 injuries per 100 workers per year. This illustrates the implications of a low-cost t-shirt, and sparks debate around the fast fashion industry - is it really worth it?

The Changing Scene

Aside from time efficiencies, the new ‘instant’ generation has a heavy social conscience. More and more retailers are recognising this, as they re-brand to become more sustainable both within and outside of the fashion industry.

New initiatives have been taken by high street brands such as Zara to ‘do their bit’ for the environment, introducing schemes such as their ‘Join Life’ campaign: where they help their customers to up-cycle their unwanted clothing by providing recycling bins in their stores . The company then organises the donated items, and either donates or recycles the clothes. Similar campaigns can be seen with other retailers such as ‘Urban Renewal’ for Urban Outfitters and ASOS’ ‘Eco Edit’.

Despite the fashion industry having a long way to go in terms of sustainability, from these initiatives we can see that there is movement towards a sustainable future for the industry. Retailers are becoming more conscious of the consequences of fast fashion.

Factors & inputs are distinct things. Factors in Econ usually refers specifically to the “four factors of production”, but here you’re talking about textiles & food.

Helen Sun


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