I’m far from a fashionista. I have no idea what’s in style. I prefer comfort and weather-appropriate clothes over passing trends, I’m not that good at matching colors, and I’m pretty lazy at accessorizing. That said, I’m also aware of the importance of the fashion industry, not just because of how it influences—and is influenced by—other businesses (magazines and other publications, the entertainment industry, beauty and self-care products), the impact it has on culture (JLo’s green Versace dress, Björk’s swan dress, everything Rihanna wears to the MET Gala), but also because, even if I may be unable to understand the difference in textiles and types of sleeves, a lot of people can.
But how does this affect us, beyond what we opt to wear? Learning about the environmental impact (which we’ll get to in a moment) could lead to eco-anxiety, and the repercussions go beyond pollution—although they’re nothing to scoff at. To keep prices low, production costs are as reduced as possible, and this includes matters from waste management to control over pollution during production, salaries and working conditions, and health costs in terms of how our bodies may be affected by unsafe products.
The fashion industry is worth around 406 billion dollars. Yes, you read that right. However, it also generates a whole lot of pollution—around 4% of the world’s annual pollution is a product of the fashion industry. Most of this is waste that is created during the manufacturing process, but there are brands that also burn or discard those items that weren’t sold throughout the season, to bring added value and exclusivity to the collection (which also leads to fumes and greenhouse gases).
The fashion industry has also been connected to lacking, at best, or inhumane, at worst, working conditions, as many companies pay minimum wage (which is often not enough to cover even minimum living conditions, or it’s barely enough), working hours—usually over 10 hours per day—questionable health and safety conditions, alleged child labor, nonexistent workers’ unions… So, it’s a lot to unpack.
Is every single company within the fashion industry like this? Fortunately not, but there’s still a lot that can be done to improve not only how clothes are made, but also how, when, and why they’re bought.
While some companies maintain sustainable practices in the production of raw materials and packaging, as well as fair trade policies, the impact of fast fashion is still significant.
Maybe by now you already know what fast fashion is. In case you don’t, or you could use a reminder—fast fashion usually: takes advantage of cheap materials and labour, takes ideas from culture to create garments quickly and at a cheap price, is not made to last, and is made to be replaced with another item sooner rather than later.
One of the biggest issues with fast fashion is that the objective is to create fast garments at reduced cost by skipping environmental measures, using toxic dyes, and generating a speedy consumption from customers as well. During the manufacturing process, the industry uses enough fresh water to help 5 million people, dumps enough microfibre in the ocean to equal or 3 million barrels of oil, and produces more carbon emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Fast fashion is considered the second most polluting industry, behind oil, per the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
So, what’s the opposite of fast fashion? Slow fashion. Let’s look into it!
It’s a movement that aims to change the culture around production and consumption, replacing numerous purchases of items that aren’t often used and their subsequent discarding, with a more conscious and ethical approach to production and purchasing.
The idea behind slow fashion is to recycle and reuse clothes, to buy second-hand, to shop from smaller producers, and to choose quality items that last longer.
Some brands focus on a model of retail that includes multiple collections every season, which leads to high consumption and purchase rates, as these garments aren’t always made for long-lasting use and their quality means that they have to be replaced rather often.
On the other hand, slow fashion brands focus on recycling unsold or unused items, selling second-hand clothes, opting for classic and versatile designs (instead of trends that will be ‘out of fashion’ sooner rather than later), choosing higher quality materials, and an overall more ethical and environmentally-friendly approach to fashion.
What can be done?
As I mentioned, there are some companies that focus on slow fashion. There are also others that include sustainable habits in their production and packaging, opting out of unnecessary plastic use, recycling unused textiles, and ensuring workers’ rights and that they’re working in appropriate conditions.
We can also take stock of what we have in our closets and see what we really need and what we actually wear. It’s always good to check which garments may need some improvement or replacing. If need be, make sure to replace them with quality, long-lasting ones. When getting rid of clothes, you can donate, sell, or even find out if there are companies that would accept them for recycling purposes.
And next time you’re going shopping, consider making a ‘want’ versus ‘need’ assessment, think about the purpose of the purchase, and also go for the product that won’t require a quick replacement.
Other tips? Check out the label and even company information to look for sustainable certificates that guarantee that your purchase—or rental or trade-in—follows the standards that reveal a commitment to improving consumer impact on the environment.
There’s always something we can do, no matter how small it may be, to try to make things better. Good to know, right?