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Sustainable fast fashion: is it possible?


Fast fashion depends on cheap mass production, frequent consumption, and short-term clothing use. We have been allowed to buy more and more clothes as the price of the garment has dropped in the last 20 years.

In fact, this continuous collection of cheap clothing is possible only because of the continuous reduction in production costs. As a result, it has had devastating consequences on our health, our planet, and the lives of garment workers.

However, some brand has a ‘sustainable’ collection with cheap fashion and a clean environmental conscience such as H&M’s CONSCIOUS, Zara’s “join life” or C&A’s “wear the change”.

Fast Fashion reality: Mass-production of cheap, disposable clothing, and countless new collections each year makes us feel constantly out of date and encourages us to continue purchasing more.

However, wearing clothes more than five times has become a challenge, because:

  • The quality of the garments is declining every year. As a result, our clothes look faded, shapeless, or worn out.
  • The trend is changing so fast that we cannot keep up. We continue to purchase to stay up to date.
Figure 1: Fast fashion reality

Fast fashion is going green?

Fashion brands are attesting to the fact that consumers are interested in buying fair and environmentally produced items. Organic cotton is certainly a step in the right direction, as neither genetic modification nor synthetic pesticides can be used in its production. But companies creating their own sustainability labels and criteria but rarely tell us anything about what happens next in the production chain.

Environmental effect

The fashion industry is the second-largest industrial polluter after aviation, contributing up to 10% of global pollution. Despite the widely circulated environmental impact, the industry continues to grow.

Figure 2: Environmental effect of fast fashion.

Among the effects of the fashion industry are the generation of 92 million tons of waste every year and the consumption of 1.5 trillion liters of water, as well as chemical pollution and high levels of CO2 emissions.

Textile manufacturing often uses harmful chemicals, especially during wet processing when threads are formed, dyed, and woven. According to the United Nations Environment Program, about 20% of the world’s wastewater is generated during textile dyeing and processing. Communities and ecosystems are most affected in textile producing countries across Asia.

Growing cotton also requires a huge amount of water and vast areas of land along with pesticides. However, organic cotton is only sustainable when grown in rainy regions like India.

The sustainable production chain is necessary

It is not enough to use organic cotton alone to make fashion truly sustainable, and manufacturing garments involves a more involved production chain. After growing in the ground, the cotton fibers must be separated from their seeds, cut, dyed, printed, and sewn to make garment items.

Ecological and social standards are important at every stage of production. That includes minimizing the use of harmful chemicals, managing water usage, and waste, limiting CO2 emissions and ensuring human rights, fair wages, protections for workers, and much more. Only then can fashion really be called sustainable.

Figure 3: Sustainable Product chain management

Independent environmental certifications, including the Global Organic Textile Standard Label (GOTS) and IVN Best Certificates, provide better indicators of the eco-certifications of a product, including the labor conditions of the workers involved in the production.

Organic cotton: a sustainability parameter

H&M uses its own “Conscious” label for products that contain “at least 50 percent sustainable materials such as organic cotton and recycled polyester.” However, according to the Bremen Cotton Exchange, the price of organic cotton is 10 to 50% higher than conventional cotton. Premium fibers raise the maximum price; not necessarily raw material is the most important factor in terms of cost.

As per the Bremen Cotton Exchange data, just 0.7 percent of the global cotton harvest in the 2017/18 season was organic.

Quantity is the real problem

Even if the big fashion brands wanted to move further towards truly sustainable production, current consumption habits would make that almost impossible. The real problem is that far too many clothes are being produced. According to a 2015 Greenpeace study, there are more than five billion items of clothing in German wardrobes alone.

‘Green Button’ label: a step to the right direction

Major fashion brands try to go green with their own standards and labeling while selling most of their products are still traditionally produced.

Figure 4: Germany with its government is pursuing a new approach to green certification called ‘Green Button’ label.

Germany with its government is pursuing a new approach to green certification called ‘Green Button’ label. A company can only use the label if all its products comply with high environmental and labor standards. Although these standards are not as strict as those demanded by organic certifiers, it is a step in the right direction according to experts. It prevents producers from offloading responsibility to subcontractors in the production chain.

To make the fashion sustainable

The industry needs to be open to accepting large-scale changes in practice, consumers also have an important role to play and their usage habits must change. Such systematic changes can improve the long-term sustainability of the fashion supply chain.

To be sustainable, it requires moving rapidly from fast fashion to functional fashion, introducing sustainable practices across the supply chain, and a shift in consumer behavior to reduce the amount of new clothing purchased and increase the lifespan of garments.

This shift would need consumers to get on board through buying fewer and longer-lasting items, repairing damaged clothing, passing on unused clothes, and choosing to buy second hand. Perhaps then, sustainability in fashion could be more than just another trend.

In this shift, customers have to get on board by buying few and durable items, repairing damaged clothing, passing on the unused clothing, and choosing to buy second hand.


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