Fast fashion still has a long way to go when it comes to sustainability. In fact, the nature of fast fashion – the intense turnaround times for new ranges and products – almost makes it impossible for fast fashion to ever truly be sustainable.
According to the United Nations (UN), the textile industry is the second-most polluting industry coming in right behind big oil. The precise negative environmental impact of the fashion industry remains unknown, but it is sizeable. The industry’s boundaries spread globally and its multitiered supply chain remains complex and opaque.
The fashion industry not only produces 10% of global carbon emissions but also contributes 20% of wastewater production.
Speaking of the textile industry, it is alone producing more carbon emissions in comparison to the aviation and shipping industry combined. If the industry maintains its course, an increase of 50% in greenhouse gas emissions is expected within a decade. Fast Fashion might offer consumers the most affordable cost but to the environment, it is going off the charts.
The numbers are astronomical: You will be surprised to know to make one pair of jeans, it takes close to 8,000 litres of water—the amount a person drinks over seven years. Even a simple cotton shirt requires close to 3,000 litres of water. Within 10 uses, these jeans and shirts will be discarded for newer, trendier items, contributing to the 21 billion tons of textiles sent to landfills per year, according to the UN Economic Commission for Europe.
Today’s “fast fashion” is largely to blame for the unsustainable state of the industry. Fast fashion is inexpensive yet stylish, cheaply produced and soon discarded, replaced by newer styles. It is not only putting our natural resources at risk but also impacting many human rights areas where their industries are exploiting cheap labour and violating environmental laws on a daily basis.
According to Media reports, back in 2012, Many leading brands were able to design, produce and deliver a new garment in a few weeks. Today, a new generation of ‘ultra-fast fashion brands can add as many as 7,000 new styles to their website in a week. With less inventory and no brick-and-mortar stores, these brands emerged relatively unscathed from the pandemic, leveraging data-driven insights into consumer behaviour faster and more effectively than their predecessors.
By analysing the root causes of the problem, the next steps are easier to understand as we can connect the dots and create solutions. Fashion Industries need a model that doesn’t compromise on ethical, social and environmental values and involves customers, rather than encouraging them to binge buy ever-changing trends.
How Can Fashion Be More Sustainable?
Many designers, brands, and scientists including students in Columbia University’s Environmental Science and Policy program are exploring ways to make fashion more sustainable and circular.
80 to 90 per cent of the sustainability of a clothing item is determined by decisions made during its design stage, new strategies can do away with waste from the get-go. To eliminate the 15 per cent of a fabric that usually ends up on the cutting room floor in the making of a garment, zero waste pattern cutting is used to arrange pattern pieces on fabric like a Tetris puzzle. 3D virtual sampling can eliminate the need for physical samples of material. A finished garment can sometimes require up to 20 samples. A digital fashion house The Fabricant replaces actual garments with digital samples in the design and development stage and claims this can reduce a brand’s carbon footprint by 30 per cent. Some clothing can be designed to be taken apart at the end of its life; designing for disassembly makes it easier for the parts to be recycled or upcycled into another garment.
Some apparel companies had bucked up with new trends by joining initiatives to cut back on textile pollution and grow cotton more sustainably. The idea of sustainability cannot completely rely on industries but can be influenced by the choices of consumers.
Another way to reduce waste is to eliminate inventory. On-demand product fulfilment companies like Printful enable designers to sync their custom designs to the company’s clothing products.
A lot of brands are using textiles made from natural materials such as hemp, ramie or bamboo instead of cotton. Bamboo has been touted as a sustainable fabric because it is fast-growing and doesn’t require much water or pesticides; however, some old-growth forests are being cut down to make way for bamboo plantations. Moreover, to make most bamboo fabrics soft, they are subjected to chemical processing whose toxins can harm the environment and human health.
In 2016, Theanne Schiros, a principal investigator at Columbia University’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center and assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), mentored a group of FIT students who created a bio-design award-winning material from algae. Kelp, its main ingredient, is fast-growing, absorbs Carbon dioxide and nitrogen from agricultural runoff, and helps increase biodiversity.
The Need For Transparency
In order to ensure fashion’s sustainability and achieve a circular fashion industry, it must be possible to track all the elements of a product from the materials used, chemicals added, production practices, and product use, to the end of life, as well as the social and environmental conditions under which it was made. Blockchain technology can do this by recording each phase of a garment’s life in a decentralized tamper-proof common ledger.
Transparency is also important because it enables consumers to identify greenwashing when they encounter it. Greenwashing is when companies intentionally deceive consumers or oversell their efforts to be sustainable.