The “fast fashion” end of retail clothing is having unsustainable impacts on our environment – and both business and consumers are starting to take notice. 

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion usually takes the latest design trends and creates cheap pieces in those designs for quick mass consumption – a short production cycle that can take as little as a week.

This lower-cost clothing is made to last only around one season, and the high turnover means customers are enticed to come back frequently to those stores to buy new clothes. Fast fashion is a largely a 21st century phenomenon, originally driven by international chains like H&M, Zara and Topshop.

The rise of these low-cost, low-quality garment sales channels means Australians are buying and disposing of more clothing than ever before. For example, Roy Morgan Research recently revealed that 1.7 million Australians are buying at least one pair of jeans in any four-week period. Australians are also now the world’s second largest consumers of textiles, buying an average of 27 kilograms of new clothing and other textiles each year.

The environmental impact

Of all the clothing items donated by Australians to charities, it is estimated only about 15 per cent are resold within Australia. The rest are sold as industrial rags, sent to landfill, or sent overseas to developing nations.

The ABC’s excellent short video The Frontlone of Fast Fashion documents what clothing charities are currently dealing with.

Clothing made from polyester, which is essentially a plastic, takes up to 200 years to breakdown in landfill. While natural fibres like cotton or wool can biodegrade and compost, landfill is not the right conditions for composting those either. Wool, for example, leaks a type of ammonia when it becomes landfill.

At the manufacturing end, pollution by factories has grown to be a major issue. A  new documentary film called River Blue details how rivers and waterways around the world are being polluted by the textile industries servicing the fast fashion supply chain.

How are businesses responding?

A 2016 report from Euromonitor titled The New Consumerism found more consumers are embracing sustainability in goods and a circular economy, defined as an industrial economy that produces no waste or pollution.

The report concluded: “It is the antithesis of the linear build-buy-bury model of a one-way stream of raw material to factory, to user, then landfill. It has the potential to completely transform the way in which we do business.”

Initiatives include:

  • A sustainable design methodology created by designer and researcher Clara Vuletich which is being used by brands including H&M and Gucci. Clara is currently developing several programs for Australian organisations and individuals to work with her.
  • Some Australian designers and boutique labels such as Lonely Kids Club are making longer-lasting clothes and producing them locally, helping to cater for those wanting to know exactly where and how their clothes are made.

How are consumers responding?

Consumers wanting to know more about the clothing supply chain practices of brands have a growing number of options to help them make more sustainable choices, such as:

  • Using smartphone apps like Good On You, a shopping app for checking a brand for its impact on people, the planet and animals. Users can also congratulate brands that are doing well and encourage other brands to do better on the issues that matter to them.

Watch the videos

The trailer for River Blue, the documentary about pollution of waterways by clothing factories in countries like China:

A 7-minute interview with author Clare Press and designer Clara Vuletich about the rise of fast fashion globally, and its far-reaching consequences on both the industry and labour markets: