Every year the fashion industry churns out billions of items of clothing at rock bottom prices. Where we used to see a few seasons a year, fast fashion brands now launch 50–100 ‘micro-seasons’ annually. Zara produces 20 collections and H&M 16 collections each year, with production times varying from a few weeks to six months. Others, such as Boohoo, ASOS and Missguided, can produce merchandise in just 2–4 weeks, some for as little as a few pennies. For example, in its November 2020 ‘Pink Friday’ sale, retailer Pretty Little Things slashed prices by up to 99%, offering some items for as little as 5p.
For fashion brands to make profits at these low prices means that costs have to be cut elsewhere. The prevailing fast fashion model and current purchasing practices by brands allow suppliers to disregard labour rights and environmental protection. As demonstrated by the fashion industry’s $16 billion debt to garment workers in 2020. This was due to demand shortfalls from COVID-19, and the mountains of discarded clothing pouring into landfill at a rate of one garbage truck per second.
Fast fashion is also a false economy for consumers. The average consumer buys 60% more clothing compared to 15 years ago, yet due to the lower quality of items, wears each item of clothing for half as long. This creates a vicious cycle in which we buy ever more clothes: great for the bottom line of fast fashion brands, bad for our wallets and the environment in the long run.
What is greasing the wheels of fast fashion?
A closer look at clothing stores, and even peering into our own closets, reveals that most textiles today are made from synthetic fibres, which are produced from oil and gas. Our recent report 'Fossil fashion: the hidden reliance of fast fashion on fossil fuels', revealed that the fast fashion industry has become dangerously dependent on synthetic fibres, such as polyester, which have become the backbone of their 'pile them high, sell them cheap' business model.
While this model was born in the 1990s, it is the early 2000s that are regarded as the era when fast fashion flourished – tallying with the moment when H&M first opened in New York, polyester overtook cotton as the most in-demand fibre, and dramatic changes were made in the production and consumption of clothing.
Nowadays, polyester costs half as much per kilo as cotton and allows the fashion brands to crank out more clothing items every year. In the last 20 years there has been a striking correlation between the rise of polyester as the darling of the fashion industry and the explosion in cheap and low-quality clothing.
The use of synthetic fibres in textiles has more than doubled since 2000 and is already present in over two thirds (69%) of textiles we use today. Fashion’s addiction to fossil fuel-based fibres has resulted in runaway consumption, mountains of clothing waste lost to landfill or incineration, and billions of plastic microfibres ending up in our environment and in our bodies.
Recent research by the Plastic Soup Foundation found that both nylon and polyester microfibres – which shed from synthetic clothes – can enter people’s lungs and impede recovery of those with COVID-19, as well as affect children, whose lungs are still developing.
What’s worse, the use of synthetics is projected to skyrocket by 2030, meaning that if nothing changes, in 10 years nearly three quarters of our textiles will be made from synthetic fibres, with 85% of this coming from polyester. If the situation looks dire now, by 2030 it will be disastrous.