The Problem with Fast Fashion
Google describes fast fashion as “inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends” (n.d.). From greenhouse gas emissions and excess production of waste to promoting excessive consumerism to health and safety violations and workers being exploited across the world… Fast fashion takes a toll environmentally, socially, and economically.
And when I say fast, I’m not kidding. Popular brands like H+M, Zara, and Gap can take products from sketch to rack in “as little as three weeks” according to ABC News (as cited by Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, 2015). This enables brands to keep stores freshly stocked with trendy pieces, restocking every few days with new items. As John Oliver says in the Last Week Tonight: Fashion segment, “buying clothes is easier and cheaper than ever… which means the only way brands make money is through volume” (2015). As always, he calls out the industry in his unique way, exposing a number of issues in a serious, but satirical light. In 2012 in the United States, that volume was somewhere around 64 items of clothing a year per person (Onstad, 2012). That’s about 20.8 billion items of clothing purchased every year, just by Americans. And Canadian statistics are very similar.
The problem with this huge number of clothes being purchased is where they end up. All this consumption takes place in a linear system, meaning products go from manufacturing to selling to disposal. And “with each step of the clothing life cycle” more and more potential for “environmental and occupational hazards” appear (Claudio, 2007). According to the World Resources Institute typical fast fashion goes through 50 cycles per year, instead of the traditional two (Drew & Yehounme, 2017). Not only that, but the “average consumer bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, but kept each garment half as long” (Drew & Yehounme, 2017). In terms of pollution, the fashion industry is only second to the oil and gas industry (TED, 2017). In the US every year, 85% of textile and garment waste generated ends up in the landfill -- almost 13 million tonnes (TED, 2017). That means only 15% is being diverted from the landfill, being “donated or recycled in some way” (TED, 2017). The Economist video does a great job of showcasing both the issues with clothing waste and different steps taken to reduce it. Amit Kalra focuses on the environmental issues associated with the fashion industry in his TED Talk, suggesting three creative ways to reduce the current waste problem.
This “throwaway culture” is getting out of hand (The Economist, 2018), but Hiller Connell and Kozar are optimistic for the future, saying “there are promising signs that a significant paradigm shift towards sustainability and a focus on the triple bottom line is gaining momentum” (2017). The triple bottom line consists of people, planet, and profit; coined by John Elkington in 1994, it is a holistic way for companies to assess their bottom lines (Hiller Connell & Kozar, 2017). This is being catalyzed by the “slow fashion” movement, “a new movement counteracting the demand for fast fashion” (Pookulangara & Shephard, 2013).
The “Slow Fashion” Movement
The counter-culture to fast fashion exists as a movement towards conscious consumption focused on environmental sustainability and the people behind our clothes. According to Kutsenkova, “sustainable fashion is a recent movement within the fashion industry that aims to reduce textile waste and environmental depletion while increasing ethical treatment of workers; the goal is to slow down the global production and consumption process in order to form an industry that will be more sustainable in the long run” (2017). In her TEDx Talk, Orsola De Castro says, “Today’s citizens are looking for a fashion industry that leads, combining modern technology and innovation to durability and a very strong emotional attachment” (2017). Along with Carry Somers, Orsola De Castro founded Fashion Revolution, whose vision states: “We believe in a fashion industry that values people, the environment, creativity and profit in equal measure” (“Fashion Revolution”, n.d.).
This vision will only be achieved through inclusivity and transparency. Last year, Calgary took part in its first Fashion Revolution Week, supporting the #whomademyclothes campaign. Emilie Maine, a Calgary-based ethics consultant, writer, speaker, and advocate, acts as the Southern Alberta RC. She believes “Fashion Revolution is a great week to really engage in activism, education, and connect with others who care about people and the planet” (“Fashion Revolution”, n.d.). Events around Calgary during the week featured diverse perspectives on ethical fashion and the issues surrounding the industry.
I was introduced to the problems surrounding the fast fashion industry from an environmental lens. After completing several research projects in the Spring 2018 semester, I became interested in minimizing my own personal waste. I started with a 1-month fast fashion ban, which has stretched into almost a year. I’ve experimented with a capsule closet, which became a very important piece of my life while living abroad last fall. After coming back home and unpacking almost fifteen boxes of clothing, I realized again how much work I still had to do. I’m currently using a 1-for-2 closet system, which means when one item goes into my closet I have to get rid of two items. When I attended the first Fashion Revolution Week in Calgary last year, I learned so much about the deeper issues associated with the fast fashion industry. I began following ethical fashion advocates and people shifting to more sustainable lifestyles on social media over the past few years. One of those people is Ally C Tran.
Ally is a Calgarian writer, educator, and speaker, advocating for a kind closet and intentional life through her Instagram following and blog. She became immersed in the ethical fashion world about two years ago, after seeing the documentary “The True Cost”. For some people, it’s a huge process to move away from fast fashion, but for Ally, it was all or nothing after seeing the devastating effect of the fashion industry on real people. Since then, she has been learning what it means to her and sharing her own perspective. The most important part, she told me during our personal interview last week, is being honest and showing her journey. On Instagram, the purpose is to show people its possible to dress sustainably and still dress well and Ally’s blog is an extension of her Instagram content. Instagram came first, but the blog allows for longer pieces and increased creativity. Ally’s main focus is on educating and showing people how they can adapt their current lifestyles. Calgary is a little behind, she told me, but places like Vancouver have better-developed communities. Sharing the story is what motivates Ally. For her, it isn’t about personal validation, it's about giving a voice to those who can’t speak up. Although social media is a huge tool for Ally, something that is becoming more important to her is the idea of public speaking. There’s something really impactful about connecting with people in person and sharing that story in a more real way than through social media. The Newsweek video focuses on some of the ethical issues Ally wants to give a voice to through her work. The Fashion Revolution video supports the idea that sharing the issues associated with the fashion industry will help to inform consumers to make better decisions. Chan & Wong found that people often have a “lack of understanding of how this behaviour affects the environment” (2012).
Awareness and knowledge around ethically and sustainably made fashion is growing, and with it, Calgary’s community is too. Another Calgarian working hard to promote ethical fashion is Morgan Hamel, founder of The Garment. First, she “went through the process of capsuling [her] own wardrobe and began telling that story on Instagram” (Liberty Sessions with Nada Jones, 2018). Similar to Ally, it was about the creativity in taking photos and writing about her journey. Now, she’s made it her goal to “connect women interested in fewer, better things to the companies who make them” (“The Garment”, n.d.). And even with the #10000garmentgoal well underway, for her, it’s more about the community that is being created than the sales. The Garment is careful to give people permission not to purchase unless they have really considered the item and how it will fit into their lives.
Shifting to More Sustainable, Ethical Practices
As consumers, we have more power than we realize in shifting the industry itself. Capitalism relies on the market (aka us!) to tell companies how to act and what we want. Like Anna Lappé says, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want”. Educating others and sharing our personal knowledge and experiences can be one of the best ways to create change.
Here are some of the best things you can do to create a more ethical, sustainable closet:
Do your research. Find out who made your clothes — look at the full supply chain.
Shop second-hand, thrift, and consignment. Do a clothing swap with your friends (or your mom).
Extend the life of the clothing you already own. Slow fashion items are created to last substantially longer than fast fashion items. In the long run, the seemingly high-priced, sustainably and ethically made garments will cost less per wear.
Dispose of clothing responsibly.
Support brands with the same values as you. Don’t support brands that exploit workers, don’t care about the environment, and are only interested in profit.
Curious for more? Here are some resources to keep you going:
Check out Ally C Tran’s blog, focused on a kind closet and intentional life.
Get the third bi-annual fanzine from Fashion Revolution.
Find cute vintage at Velour and fantastic consignment at The Clothing Bar in Calgary.
Watch The True Cost of Fashion documentary.
Attend Calgary’s Fashion Revolution Week from April 22-28, 2019.
If you love love love academic articles, read this one on “The Values and Motivations Behind Sustainable Fashion Consumption”.
Become part of The Garment’s preferred membership program.
Listen to Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard discuss his sustainable business philosophies with Guy Raz on the How I Built This podcast.
Pick up Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed.
Chan, T., & Wong, C. (2012). The consumption side of sustainable fashion supply chain: Understanding fashion consumer eco‐fashion consumption decision, Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management: An International Journal, 16(2),193-215. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1108/13612021211222824
Claudio, L. (2007). Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115(9). doi: 10.1289/ehp.115-a449
Drew, D., & Yehounme, G. (2017). The Apparel Industry’s Environmental Impact in 6 Graphics. World Resources Institute. Retrieved from https://www.wri.org/blog/2017/07/apparel-industrys-environmental-impact-6-graphics
The Economist. (2018, November 29). The true cost of fast fashion [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLfNUD0-8ts
Fashion Revolution. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.fashionrevolution.org/
Fashion Revolution. (2015, April 23). The 2 Euro T-Shirt - A Social Experiment [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfANs2y_frk
Google. (n.d.). Search: What is fast fashion?. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/search?ei=TGhkXNCVMIKc0gL1loXoBg&q=what+is+fast+fashion%3F&oq=what+is+fast+fashion%3F&gs_l=psy-ab.3..0l10.15907.15907..16330...0.0..0.68.68.1......0....1..gws-wiz.......0i71.tVWcAmG7eIo
Hiller Connell, K., & Kozar, J. (2017). Introduction to special issue on sustainability and the triple bottom line within the global clothing and textiles industry. Fashion And Textiles, 4(1). doi: 10.1186/s40691-017-0100-6
Joy, E. (n.d.). Sustainable packaging Q&A with leading eco-friendly shipping supplies company EcoEnclose. Conscious Life & Style. Retrieved from https://www.consciouslifeandstyle.com/sustainable-packaging-101/
Kutsenkova, Z. (2017). The sustainable future of the modern fashion industry. Honors Theses and Capstone Projects, 21. Retrieved from https://scholar.dominican.edu/honors-theses/21
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. (2015, April 26). Fashion [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdLf4fihP78
Liberty Sessions with Nada Jones. (2018, May 17). LS#055 - How one woman made it her business to marry style and ethics: Morgan Hamel pt 1 [Podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.libertyforher.com/ls-ep055
Newsweek. (2019, June 5). Who made my clothes? The people bringing transparency to the fashion industry. [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlIItSKHp1g
Onstad, K. (2012). The real cost of our 'fast fashion' consumption culture. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/fashion-and-beauty/fashion/the-real-cost-of-our-fast-fashion-consumption-culture/article5813041/
Pookulangara, S., & Shephard, A. (2013). Slow fashion movement: Understanding consumer perceptions—An exploratory study. Journal Of Retailing And Consumer Services, 20(2), 200-206. doi: 10.1016/j.jretconser.2012.12.002
TED. (2017, November). 3 creative ways to fix fashion’s waste problem, Amit Kalra. [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/amit_kalra_3_creative_ways_to_fix_fashion_s_waste_problem?language=en#t-84399
TEDx Talks. (2017, April 21). Why we need a fashion revolution? Orsola De Castro, TEDxUAL [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=geLZiTkFzvo
The Garment. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.thegarment.ca/
Tran, Ally C. (2019, February 8). Personal Interview.
This assignment was completed as part of my SINV 3302 Facilitation class requirements.