Online fast fashion giants Zara and Boohoo have started charging consumers for returning online purchases for the very first time. The real question is whether the charge will make consumers think twice before ordering multiple plastic packages. Given the previous success of this approach, it’s entirely possible. The UK government reported a 95% slash in sales of plastic bags when supermarkets introduced the 5p charge, so it’s entirely possible this approach could work again.
In a world of social media and influencers, fast fashion is bigger than ever, and we look to those who have the biggest impact on consumers to help tackle the problem. This year ITV2’s Love island — a show that is synonymous with fast fashion brands — has taken sponsorship with eBay to encourage viewers to shop for pre-loved items and upcycle where possible to help combat fast fashion.
eBay has reported a 700% rise in pre-loved fashion searches since the show aired, which suggests a step in the right direction for slowing down fast fashion.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion is extremely cheap, stylish, mass-produced clothing usually made of polyester derived from fossil fuels and heavily contributes to global warming.
The clothes are created to keep up with the latest trends but are not designed to last very long and often break quickly through wear and washes.
As well as this staggering amount of damage to the planet, fast fashion problems also include an expensive price tag of worker exploitation. If a fast fashion item is extremely cheap to purchase, the chances are the worker who created it was paid much less.
Why is fast fashion bad?
Online shopping and fast fashion are great for consumer convenience. There’s no running around multiple shops to find the perfect outfit, just a quick Google search, add the item to your basket, one click, and it’s on the way.
Fast fashion problems arose when brands started producing clothing from synthetic materials that use a lot of our natural sources, such as fossil fuel and water, creating greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. The overuse of raw materials ultimately has a heavy environmental impact.
Most synthetic fibres are produced from crude oil, which undergoes the process of cracking to produce ethylene. This creates polyester fibres or propylene, The production of plastic-based fibres for textiles uses around 350 million barrels of oil each year. Sadly, the cotton alternatives aren’t much better. Cotton grown for the industry uses roughly 2.5% of the world’s farmland. Cotton farming accounts for 69% of the global fibre production’s footprint and uses around 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed for just one t-shirt.
The change in shopping habits and rise in consumer convenience has added to the continuous demand. Shockingly a 2018 study found that 9% of UK consumers order clothes to post on social media and then send them back. The majority of these returns can’t be re-sold, so are either sent to landfill or burned. Approximately 10,000 items of clothing end up in landfill every five minutes, devastatingly impacting wildlife and the planet.
The mountain of problems fast fashion has built only worsens as time goes on.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation blames the fashion industry for 10% of global CO2 emissions from production, delivery and waste. About 20% of our world’s wastewater directly results from fabric dyeing and treatment, which can create a toxic cocktail of harmful chemicals.
Denim is the second largest polluter of fresh water on this planet. It is estimated that 70% of Asia’s lakes and rivers are contaminated by approximately 2.5 Billion gallons of waste, causing a massive ecological and public health crisis.
Exploitation of workers
The ugly truth behind fast fashion is the exploitation of workers with little or no human rights. Many fast fashion brands source garments from countries where forcing female garment workers to work 14-16 hours per day for less than minimum wage is the new normal.
Behind every pretty fast fashion brand is a factory full of people in dangerous situations. The people creating the garments for fast fashion are usually surrounded by extremely poor working conditions, unfair wages, unreasonable hours, child labour, and a lack of benefits for workers, which is a costly price to pay for a cheap item that doesn’t last.
Harmful to Animals
Sadly, marine life is also heavily impacted by fast fashion. Ocean pollution happens when the synthetic particles in fast fashion garments are washed off after every machine wash. The particles can be so small they aren’t picked up by water treatments and eventually enter the ocean and poison marine life. While microfibers are very hard to capture, an estimated 500,000 tons of microfibers enter wastewater every year, equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles.
With many fast fashion companies offering faster payment and delivery options such as Klarna and next-day delivery, customers now feel the dangerous joy of instant gratification.
Compared to ordering online 10 years ago, clothes shopping is much quicker and easier. Younger consumers are now corrupted with how fast they can search, choose, order and receive items.
Fashion United UK have reported that return rates are on the rise, and 30% of returned items are due to incorrect sizing. However, the majority of these returns will end up in landfill, taking 100 years on average to decompose.
Fast fashion brands to avoid
As consumers become more aware of the problem of the fast fashion industry, some brands are trying to maintain their consumers through ‘greenwashing’. This involves making false claims and throwing words like ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ into product descriptions when in fact, these clothing lines are equally as bad for the environment, if not worse.
Statistics show the leading fast fashion brand is Zara, followed closely by H&M. Both brands have been accused of greenwashing and continue to use virgin synthetics. Despite promising to use recycled plastics, they are still major contributors to microplastic pollution.
Is fast fashion improving?
The fast fashion industry carries a range of issues that can’t be resolved overnight but are they improving? Maria Malone, who founded the Fashion Business Hub, said younger generations like Gen Z are snubbing fast fashion brands in favour of more sustainable options. Hopefully, more consumers will begin to opt for slow fashion options in the coming years and help slow down fast fashion.
The collapse of fast fashion brand Missguided in May 2022 also suggests changes in consumer habits. Missguided was once one of the leading fast-fashion brands and Love Island 2018 partner. It seems like fast fashion is improving alongside consumer awareness. While there is still a very long way to go, there are things you can do to help.
How to shop sustainably
One of the ways you can do your part is to shop sustainably the way to shop sustainably by purchasing high-quality clothing not made of synthetic materials. Although it may be slightly pricier, it will last longer, reducing plastic pollution and the workforce needed to create items.
Ensure you avoid fast fashion brands such as SHEIN, H&M and Zara, as these are currently the leading brands for fast fashion turnover and suspected greenwashing.
Instead of buying new and mass-produced items, shop secondhand online from reseller platforms like eBay, Etsy, Depop, and Vinted. You can find quality items in good condition that can be given a new lease of life. Although you won’t have the convenience of searching for the exact item you want like fast fashion websites, you will find something unique to refresh your wardrobe.
If you prefer to wander the high street, pop into your local charity shops. Even if you don’t like the first item you see, have a second look and consider where adjustments can be made.
How to upcycle clothes
The rise of upcycling clothes could see a greater decline in fast fashion purchases. But what do we mean by upcycled clothing and how do you do it?
Well, it’s rather simple. Upcycling clothes allows you to be creative with what you have and use what you know.
If you know the sewing basics, you can do just about anything you want to your garment. You could add new materials for a patchwork effect, sew intricate designs if you’re an advanced sewer, or simply fix loose ends to keep the original item for longer. If you are unsure how best to get creative with what you have, check out Pinterest, blog posts, or upcycling books to get a sense of direction.