It’s tough to love our clothes and keep wearing them for longer when we are faced with a tempting array of newness on offer in the shops. But before you head out into the January sales for those irresistible deals, spare a thought for the impact of fast fashion on the environment.
Fast fashion focuses on speed and low costs in order to deliver frequent new collections inspired by catwalk looks or celebrity styles. But it is particularly bad for the environment, as pressure to reduce cost and the time it takes to get a product from design to shop floor means that environmental corners are more likely to be cut. Criticisms of fast fashion include its negative environmental impact, water pollution, the use of toxic chemicals and increasing levels of textile waste.
Vibrant colours, prints and fabric finishes are appealing features of fashion garments, but many of these are achieved with toxic chemicals. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally, after agriculture. Greenpeace’s recent Detox campaign has been instrumental in pressuring fashion brands to take action to remove toxic chemicals from their supply chains, after it tested a number of brands’ products and confirmed the presence of hazardous chemicals. Many of these are banned or strictly regulated in various countries because they are toxic, bio-accumulative (meaning the substance builds up in an organism faster than the organism can excrete or metabolise it), disruptive to hormones and carcinogenic.
Polyester is the most popular fabric used for fashion. But when polyester garments are washed in domestic washing machines, they shed microfibres that add to the increasing levels of plastic in our oceans. These microfibres are minute and can easily pass through sewage and wastewater treatment plants into our waterways, but because they do not biodegrade, they represent a serious threat to aquatic life. Small creatures such as plankton eat the microfibres, which then make their way up the food chain to fish and shellfish eaten by humans.
The devastating impact of toxic chemical use in agriculture, for growing cotton, was shown in a documentary called The True Cost, including the death of a US cotton farmer from a brain tumour, and serious birth defects in Indian cotton farmers’ children. Cotton growing requires high levels of water and pesticides to prevent crop failure, which can be problematic in developing countries that may lack sufficient investment and be at risk of drought.
Most cotton grown worldwide is genetically modified to be resistant to the bollworm pest, thereby improving yield and reducing pesticide use. But this can also lead to problems further down the line, such as the emergence of “superweeds” which are resistant to standard pesticides. They often need to be treated with more toxic pesticides that are harmful to livestock and humans.