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Fast Fashion: The Honest Truth

I have worked in fashion buying for over 20 years, experiencing both fast fashion and luxury sectors. As I strive to become a more sustainable consumer, I am faced with the reality that it’s not a simple task. Fully aware of the marketing ploys and influencer tactics used to promote fast fashion, I am earnestly hoping for a more responsible approach from the industry, one that treats us as the informed adults we are. Give us the facts, without the sugar- coating, so we can make informed decisions.

The Facts

The United Nations Environment Programme has highlighted the fashion industry’s significant contribution to global carbon emissions (10 per cent) and water waste (20 per cent). About 60 per cent of clothing material consists of plastic, including polyester, acrylic and nylon textiles. Despite the availability of recycled polyester (14.8 per cent of the global market share), the use of fossil-based polyester remains dominant due to its cost effectiveness. Interestingly, while clothing production has doubled in the last 15 years, the actual usage has decreased by 40 per cent, exemplifying excessive consumerism. Alarming reports indicate that a truckload of clothing is either dumped in landfills or incinerated every second, contributing to the growing environmental crisis. The data from the Environmental Protection Agency reveals the Irish to be one of the leading consumers of textiles in Europe, surpassing the continent’s average consumption rate. At 53 kg per person per year, we are above the European average of 26 kg per person and projected to rise higher still going forward. Per capita, the Irish are one of the biggest consumers of textiles in Europe.

There are a number of steps that the fast fashion industry can take to improve the situation. Here are four.

  1. Be More Transparent

The industry should take a more balanced approach in terms of how they tell their sustainability story.

In January of this year, the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive entered into force for the EU. This sets out rules for companies to report on social & environmental information for their business. It sets out criteria such as environmental matters, social matters and treatment of employees, respect for human rights, anti-corruption and bribery & diversity on company boards that businesses (and fast fashion retail will now fall under these rules) will need to report on at the end of year, in the same way that they publish their annual financial accounts.

These new rules come into play for the 2024 financial year, with companies submitting their first report in 2025.

Some retailers have already started to report in this way. H&M Group (who own H&M, Cos, & Other Stories), Inditex (who are responsible for Zara, Pull & Bear, Oysho, Stradivarius, Massimo Dutti) & Zalando all publish sustainability strategies on their platforms. And there are others who also share details of how they plan to reduce their carbon footprint.

While retailers are taking important steps to reduce their carbon footprint and find alternatives to non renewable resources, consumers should try to take a more conscious role in their purchasing decisions especially when it comes to buying synthetics: virgin polyester (made from crude oil) can take more than 500 years to decompose. Synthetic fabrics continue to shed, especially when washed - so every time you wash your leggings or polyester dress, this will emit micro & nano plastics, contributing to 40 per cent of the total microplastics in our oceans.

If a customer was made more aware of what a garment was made of, and importantly, the potential consequences for it when we finish wearing it, it might make an impact on whether they decide to buy it in the first place, and hopefully that they decide to hold on to it for a lot longer.

2. Be More Circular

Imagine if, instead of talking about the cost per wear of a garment, we actually spoke about a garment’s environmental life cycle, i.e. what happens to this polyester dress once I finish wearing it? Maybe after one or 20 wears, it’s put into a clothing (recycling) bin. Can this be recycled? If it can’t, how long will it take to decompose? If it’s not sent to landfill and instead burned, what emissions will it be responsible for?

Fast fashion needs to offer us more alternatives to a linear economy (where we buy the dress, wear the dress, dump the dress). Give us a circular alternative – where we can keep that dress in use at its highest value for the longest time (i.e. wear it out!!!), and then when we are finished, it can be repurposed into something else; this needs to be considered from the outset: designing with the end of each phase in mind.

Circular economy examples include take back schemes where retailers will offer to take back their products when the customer has finished with them. Levi Strauss and H&M, operate a three-pronged system: resell (for example, to charity shops), re-use (convert into other products, such as cleaning cloths or mops) or recycle (into carpet underlay, insulation material or mattress filling). While there is not much data available in terms of what per centage of clothing is re-used, re-purposed or recycled, it is a step in the right direction.

Other circular examples include designing with the end in mind, where careful consideration is given to the materials & components used in a garment, so that it can be easily broken down and re-purposed into something else after this initial use.

Finisterre is a UK clothing brand. They believe the most sustainable garment Is the one you already own. So alongside offering their waterproof, windproof outdoor clothing, they also offer a repair service where you can return any item purchased to their workshop and arrange for it to be repaired. They offer a trade in service, where you can trade in your old gear: they believe that “It’s circularity made simple; better for the planet, your wallet, and your wardrobe.” And they also offer a pre-loved section on their site.

Photo credit: Finisterre

3. Walk the Talk

Responsible fast fashion retailers talk about their sustainable collections in terms of their entire clothing offer in their sustainability report. H&M have stated their ambition “for 100% of their materials to be either recycled or sourced in a more sustainable way by 2030, including 30% recycled materials by 2025”.

Science-based targets show companies how much and how quickly they need to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The Science Based Targets Initiative “defines and promotes best practice in emissions reductions and net-zero targets in line with climate science".

Ganni are a Danish fashion brand who take accountability for their fashion producer actions. They declare right up front that they do not identify as a sustainable brand, “because at its core fashion thrives on newness and consumption, which is a major contradiction to the concept of sustainability. That’s the truth”. They have changed the sustainability conversation and transformed it into confronting what is realistic for them to change to be more responsible. In 2020 they launched their responsibility gameplan and have been producing an annual responsibility report and sharing this on their website since 2021. It shares their vision, mission and values along with over 40 goals they have set themselves to achieve by 2023.

One of the sections on their report covers materials & innovation. In this section the brand shares the total breakdown of the fibres they used in making their collections for that year. They give details on the amount of cotton, polyester, viscose, wool, leather and fabric mixes used, along with the amount which is organic and recycled along with the forward plan including any innovation on that fibre for the year ahead.

Ganni places importance on the total amount of fibre used in the business. Importantly, they also share how they are planning to transform their assortments with low carbon alternatives, attaching clear targets and timelines.

Photo credit: Ganni

4. Make Less

Fast fashion could slow down and produce less volume. We are wearing our clothes less and less. And throw away culture has become normalised. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation have estimated that more than half of the fast fashion produced is disposed of in under a year. There needs to be a shift in mindset for both the retailer and the consumer - none of this is sustainable. Global textile production has doubled from 58 million tonnes in 2000 to 109 million tonnes in 2020 and is predicted to grow to 145 million tonnes by 2030. To make a single cotton t-shirt, 2,700 litres of fresh water are required according to estimates, enough to meet one person’s drinking needs for 2.5 years.

What would be an interesting footnote to every fast fashion retailer’s sustainability report would be to include a figure showing the total number of unsold garments. Not everything sells in the volume produced. Trends sometimes just don’t translate. Sometimes markdowns are applied to reduce the price and push the product faster. But sometimes this doesn’t work either. The total amount of unsold inventory would be an interesting figure to compare to the total put on the market throughout that year. An environmental balance sheet


Is there a future for fast fashion? A future for fashion can exist if accelerated progress can be made to transition to more sustainable materials, along with investment & innovation into sustainable alternatives. Sustainable ambitions need to be accompanied with goals & targets and these need to align with global goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement (a legally binding international treaty to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels) & the UN Sustainable Development Goals (17 goals and 169 targets, an internationally shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and planet).

A balance will need to be addressed in terms of the volumes being produced: the earth does not have infinite resources and cannot continue to meet fast fashion’s extractive demands.

Fast fashion will need to become real and kind. The industry will need to be more creative about how it will stay relevant with a demographic that has a short attention span. They could focus on innovation and newness from a wholly different perspective.

As fast fashion adapts to the pressing need for sustainability, it has the potential to redefine its identity, appealing to a dynamic consumer base and contributing to a more hopeful future.


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