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Why Fast Fashion's Environmental Impacts Are to be Examined

28 June 2018

Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth, yet after housing, transport and food, the clothing industry has the largest environmental impact in the UK.

'Fast fashion’ has come under increasing scrutiny in recent times for its potential negative contribution to pollution, climate change and resource consumption, which is set to triple by 2050. 

With the fashion sector continuing to grow, the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee has announced that they will be investigating the social and environmental impacts of fast fashion and the wider clothing sector in an effort to create a thriving and sustainable industry.

The inquiry, chaired by MP Mary Creagh, invites submissions until 3rd September 2018 for parties to comment a range of questions outlined by the committee. The full terms of reference of the inquiry (opens news tab) can be found here.

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion is a term used to describe inexpensive, quick-to-market clothing based on the most recent trends first seen on the catwalk. These latest styles are then designed and produced swiftly to be available in high-street and digital retailers for the mass market.

Fast fashion has become almost synonymous with disposable fashion and a throwaway culture, much like we are seeing with the plastic problem. The rapid turnover sees clothing items worn just a few times before being thrown away and replaced with other items.  According to WRAP, the average lifetime for a piece of clothing is around 2.2 years. Extending this by nine months can significantly reduce the environmental impact.   

fast fashion graphic

What are the negatives of fast fashion?

Despite the apparent benefits to the end consumer of fashionable clothing at low prices, there are growing concerns about the global impacts of this industry.

A report by WRAP in 2017 showed that 300,000 tonnes of clothing and textile waste is binned in the UK each year, destined for the landfill site. Although this figure has dropped since 2012 (350,000 tonnes), the sheer amount of clothing purchased has increased to 1.13 million tonnes – the equivalent of 17kg of clothing bought for each person in the UK every year.

water consumption graphicIt’s not just the end of the item’s life that brings problems. Upstream in the supply chain, the production of raw materials, dyeing and finishing all have significant environmental impacts in terms of carbon footprint, waste and water use. For example, it takes 2,700 litres of water to make one cotton shirt. 

Pollution can also be an issue throughout the clothing lifecycle. Toxic chemicals are used and potentially released during the production phase, as well as plastic fibres being released during the washing process, polluting our water systems and oceans with microscopic particles, known as microfibres.

Recently microfibres, a product of synthetic fibres such as polyester, and hazardous chemicals, such as PFAs or PFCs, have been found in streams, river beds, deep ocean locations, the pristine sea ice of Antarctica and even in the stomachs and tissues of marine animals, highlighting the extent of the problem. In short, nowhere is immune to the pollutants.   

How to increase fast fashion sustainability?

The inquiry into the issue of fast fashion is going to look at several areas, including the carbon impact, resource use and water footprint of clothing throughout the lifecycle and the supply chain.

Key points to be considered in terms of how to make the sector more sustainable also relate to consumer behaviour:

  • What can be done to encourage more people to buy fewer clothes?
  • How can consumers be encouraged to reuse clothes?
  • How to dispose of items when they are no longer wanted?

Our team has done extensive work on these areas for industry, government and consumer groups - see the sustainable clothing guide we produced for WRAP.

Further points to be considered by the inquiry include reducing carbon emissions during production, assessing whether workers’ rights and safe working conditions are guaranteed in manufacturing factories, and reducing the water footprint of clothing through shifting to sustainable fibres to make garments. Digital assessment tools – such as the Higg Index created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition – can help measure and improve a clothing brands’ sustainability performance, as illustrated in our clothing supply chain blog.

Get a FREE copy of our Apparel & Textiles service guide

You can learn much more on this topic by speaking to one of our Apparel sustainability experts - Susan Harris or Honor Cowen. Having worked on big projects with high-profile clients, we'll be able to help your organisation to make improvements. 


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