Fast Fashion could not have the same corrosive impact without digital. Instagram Culture is ravenous for the new, for the fast, for the flashy, for the fake. The reason why a design idea can be turned into an actual product within days is primarily down to digital accelerants. Digital has the world on speed, turning fashion’s seasons into a frenzied blur of continuous releases. These ultra-cheap, disposable items have a business model based on selling large volumes of low-quality, eye-catching clothes at slim margins.
What this means is that those at the bottom of the production chain (mainly female workers) work as little more than slave labor in order to meet our fleeting whims. They are ground down by grueling 12-hour-plus days in horrible conditions to produce clothes that we throw away without a thought. These practices always existed but the slave-driving, ramped-up, frenzied speed could never have been possible without MacBooks, iPhones, Adobe, logistics software, the Cloud, and all that digital jazz.
Digital makes humans work faster than is good for our wellbeing. Why? To get stuff done faster. Why? Because everyone wants stuff fast these days? Why? Because it’s so important to be new and up to date? Why?
The history of textiles is interlinked with the history of sugar. If African slaves were not being brutalized under the Brazilian or Caribbean sun to cut sugar cane, they were being brutalized in the United States to pick cotton. Just as the raw sugar was sent to England and Portugal to be processed, so the raw cotton was sent to England to be spun. Finished product was then often sold on to countries like India, undermining and destroying native industries. Nothing much has changed. Fast Fashion creates slave-like conditions and undermines and destroys native fashion industries.
Fast Fashion pollution is increasingly plastic. Polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other plastic fibers make up about 60% of the material used to make most modern clothes. Plastic is cheap, versatile and convenient. It stretches and breathes and can be warm and cool where required. The vibrant colors and fabric finishes are usually achieved through the liberal application of chemicals, making textile dyeing one of the biggest global polluters of water.
“Sulphur, naphthol, vat dyes, nitrates, acetic acid, soaps, enzymes, chromium compounds and heavy metals like copper, arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, nickel, and cobalt and certain auxiliary chemicals all collectively make the textile effluent highly toxic,” Rita Kant, assistant professor at Panjab University, India explains.
Fast Fashion is a truly globalized industry, highly dependent on the Internet and other networks. Where the clothes are made is rarely where they’re sold. To get its disposable items to the marketplace, massive container ships are used. These lumbering colossuses burn gigantic amounts of the lowest-grade, filthiest fuel imaginable—1,000 times dirtier than truck diesel. According to a 2018 report by Quantis, an environmental consultancy, the global apparel and footwear industries annually emit nearly four metric gigatons of pollution, almost as much as the entire European Union.
We’d need to plant 400 billion trees to offset that sort of pollution. That’s 80 times more trees than are currently being planted in a year. Actually, it’s much worse. As they rot, clothes emit methane, which is 30 times worse for global warming than CO2. Thus, we would need to plant 12 trillion trees to deal with Fast Fashion pollution, which happens to be four times more trees than currently exist on Earth. We must consume much less or else we will bestow a wasteland to our children and grandchildren.
In Europe, fashion houses began to develop in the nineteenth century, with France leading the way. Until quite recently, there were two fashion seasons or collections: Spring/Summer, Fall/Winter. Fast Fashion and digital changed all that. By 2011, there were an average of five collections, and by 2019, Fast Fashion creators like Zara had 24 collections a year.
Clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014. The average consumer bought 60% more garments in 2014 than at the beginning of the decade, while wearing them for half as long, with many having at least two items in their wardrobe that they had never worn. In the UK alone, more than two tons of clothes are bought every minute, with each ton producing 23.3 tons of CO2. We’d need to be planting 2,300 trees per minute for a year to deal with that pollution. (That’s 1.2 billion trees in a year.)
Globally, every second, the equivalent of an entire garbage truck full of textiles is dumped or burned. Every second. Not every minute, not every hour—every second. Nearly 60% of all clothing is dumped or incinerated within a year of being produced. Most of it is dumped; the plastic living forever, with the stewing mess of chemical goo releasing methane.
It’s estimated that as much as 20% of a fabric may be discarded during the manufacturing process. Excess inventory is another issue. Companies are known to incinerate unsold clothes to protect the “integrity” of the brand, like Burberry did in 2018 when it burned $37 million worth of new clothing and cosmetics to maintain its “brand value.”
Fast Fashion finds humanity at its most obscene, wasteful worst, dressed in the riches of ruins. Try explaining to an alien how a brand manufactures a new pair of jeans and then goes to the extra cost and effort to send it through another process to tear it in order to make it look “old” and “worn.” The alien would think you’re crazy. Humans. We’re crazy.
Fast Fashion clothes shed micro- and nanofibers. Like skin is always shedding dead scales, every time you put on these clothes, every time you walk down a corridor or street, your clothes are shedding thousands and thousands of micro- and nanofibers, some of which you breathe in. (Gives a new meaning to the term “breathable clothing.”)
It gets worse when you wash them. A single load of laundry can release hundreds of thousands of plastic fibers into the water supply. These fibers are so small that there aren’t any washing machine filters that can catch them. The more water used, the more fibers released, so delicate wash cycles are the most polluting.
Using lots of natural materials is not the answer. Cotton is very popular, but it is a highly water-intensive plant. Also, even though only 2.4% of the world’s agricultural land is planted with cotton, 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of pesticides are used in cotton production.
Of the clothes that are reused or recycled, it is estimated that up to 90% of them are exported to poorer countries, collapsing native fashion industries and/or overloading poorly regulated dumps. “This act of exporting charity clothing to struggling nations [has] turned into a multi-billion-dollar industry, which targets and makes victims of some of the world’s poorest countries, forcing them deeper into the cycle of poverty and further away from any type of development, freedom and identity within their own fashion industry,” journalist Ola Onikoyi writes.
Millions of poor Bangladeshi and Vietnamese women are paid a couple of dollars to work all day for Fast Fashion’s throwaway style. Working in horrible conditions in factories prone to collapse and fire. At least we’re giving them a job, the logic goes, even if the job pays so poorly that their children at home are often starving because their mothers don’t earn enough to put enough food on the table. Fast Fashion is in a spiraling race to the bottom, with prices always under pressure, and a mad rush for flexibility. The convenience of the fickle customer trumps everything. These promises of speed, these promises of convenience, they come at a cost, a cost the poorest workers pay. A cost the Earth pays.
Fast Fashion is a part of fast commerce, like what Amazon practices, where the pressure on the workers at the lowest level is unrelenting. Digital makes you work faster. If you’re a warehouse worker, it tracks your every second, monitoring and measuring, setting limb-busting targets. Where you find Amazon or Uber workers, you will find pee bottles hidden somewhere because they don’t have the time to go to the toilet. Exhaustion and injuries abound. (In the US, Amazon workers are twice as likely to get injured as the national average.) Our convenience trumps worker rights.
Convenience trumps health. The US—the digital homeland—is the only “modern” country where life expectancy is dropping, as millions die of preventable illnesses. “Mortality from deaths of despair far surpasses anything seen in America since the dawn of the 20th century,” a US Congress committee stated in 2019. This is the house Facebook and Google built. This is the house Fast Fashion built. This is the house Amazon built, that Apple and Microsoft built. After 50 years or more of digital “innovation,” where is the better society?
This is the cliff convenience, efficiency and speed are driving us off. We need to slow down and think a lot more. The fashion designers on their MacBooks in Stockholm, London, New York, Paris or Barcelona, who have thought up the latest fashion that is actually a copy of the latest fashion two years ago that was a copy of the latest fashion four years ago, because when you’ve got 24 collections a year and you’re under intense pressure to deliver, everything begins to blur into everything else, yes, they will not suffer as much as the poor factory worker when the demand is made that their latest copy, fake, Fast Fashion gets made in ultrafast time.
Rather, it will be the poor woman in some far-off place who cannot get home this weekend—even though she hasn’t been home in months—to see her children because her boss has told her that she must work overtime and she will be fired if she doesn’t because there’s always someone poorer, someone more desperate. It will be the poor worker in some Amazon-like warehouse driven to despair and exhaustion, peeing in a plastic bottle, under the hammer of robot-time, as they rush to pack another pair of torn jeans into another plastic and cardboard box made from trees that didn’t need to be cut down so that someone somewhere will have another item in their wardrobe that they will never even wear or will return because they’ve changed their mind about the color.
And yet the designers do feel the whiplash of Fast Fashion too. It is surely not the dream of a young fashion designer to exploit poor workers, encourage disposability and fill dumps with toxic waste, and work in a relentless blur of busyness. As the nature of digital adds more and more speed to Fast Fashion—and to every other industry—the designers are being ground down and burnt out too, not as cruelly as the factory workers—but strung out on speed they surely are. Why?
Buy fewer clothes, pay more for them, wear them until they are genuinely worn and with holes in them, and if you don’t like the holes, get them mended. Make genuinely old and worn a style, not fake new clothes that try to look old. Wash only when necessary.
Taking more individual responsibility is good but it is not nearly enough. The big brands are the root cause of the Fast Fashion epidemic. If they were forced to take back and reuse their clothes once the consumer had finished wearing them, then we would see real change. These brands have the most sophisticated digitally-driven processes imaginable when it comes to the making and the marketing of their products, but when it comes to the paltry initiatives for recycling and reuse, that’s still all done by hand, a slow manual process that has no possible hope of dealing with the masses of waste that Fast Fashion churns out every day. Big Fashion has grown rich by impoverishing the Earth. We must force the brands to turn their waste into raw materials. Then, real change will occur.
Go to the effort of finding local brands that have sustainable models. Here, the Web can help. Reader Ernst Décsey told me of how he bought a dress for his wife from a local brand, hopaal.fr, which he discovered through search. The dress was made from 100% recycled materials. They also offered delivery with a re-usable packaging option from originalrepack.com.
Boycott the big brands. Buy local. Repair local. Wear the hell out of your clothes and proudly show off your real patches and real tears.
World Wide Waste
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- More than ever, our clothes are made of plastic. Just washing them can pollute the oceans, Brian Resnick, Vox, 2019
- Vicious cycle: delicate wash releases more plastic microfibres, Ian Sample, The Guardian, 2019
- A more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, methane emissions will leap as Earth warms, Morgan Kelly, Princeton, 2014
- The environmental costs of fast fashion, Patsy Perry, The Independent, 2018
- The True Cost: documentary on the downsides of the Fast Fashion industry, 2015
- The ugly side of fast fashion: This is the scary impact it’s having on our world, Geraldine Carton, Image, 2019
- Who’s Really Paying for Our Cheap Clothes? Lorraine Chow, EcoWatch,2015
- Textile dyeing industry an environmental hazard, Rita Kant, Scientific Research, 2012
- One garbage truck of textiles wasted every second: report creates vision for change, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017
- Charity Clothes—A Bane of the African fashion Industry, Ola Onikoyi, Medium, 2019
- Fast fashion produces more carbon emissions per minute than driving a car around the world six times, Oxfam, 2019
- Long-Term Trends in Deaths of Despair, United States Congress, 2019
- Time to make fast fashion a problem for its makers, not charities, Mark Liu, PHYS.org, 2019
- Style that’s sustainable: A new fast-fashion formula, N. Remy, E. Speelman, S. Swartz, McKinsey, 2016
- Environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry, Nikolina Šajn, European Parliament, 2019
- How polluting is the fashion industry? Cameron Boggon, EKOenergy, 2019
- The high cost of fast fashion, Alacoque McAlpine, RTE, 2019
- Slow Fashion 101, Kyle Kowalski, SLOWW
- Can Recycled Rags Fix Fashion’s Waste Problem? Winston Choi-Schagrin, New York Times, 2019
- Cotton on: the staggering potential of switching to organic clothes, Rebecca Smithers, The Guardian, 2019
- Ruthless Quotas at Amazon Are Maiming Employees, Will Evans, The Atlantic, 2019