In today’s digital age, we demand fast everything. Fast food, high-speed internet, next day delivery. The consumer mindset of the need for speed ties back to the modern vice of instant gratification. Whether that’s checking your social media likes for a quick boost of dopamine, or ordering a takeaway that will arrive on your doorstep in half the amount of time you could make it yourself, it’s a mindset which even extends to our clothing choices—birthing the modern phenomenon of fast fashion. In 2019, the global market value of fast fashion was reported to be 36 billion dollars, and the industry accounted for 66% of all online fashion traffic in the first half of the year.
Fast fashion was first introduced on the high streets in the 2000s, satiating consumer appetite for affordable, trendy clothing, and earning its namesake by the quick turnover of designs. In the last decade, a new generation of retailers has accelerated the fast fashion model, aided by globalisation, digitalisation and a shift in consumer mindset. The newcomers have built strong e-commerce platforms and large social media followings, using influencers to drive sales and producing trend-driven garments for the digital generation. Boohoo and Missguided have the shortest supply chain cycles of all, producing products in as little to one to two weeks. The latter of the two launches 1,000 new products each month and updates its site once a day with new stock, if a popular trend arises, the retailer aims to have it available for sale in under a week. The new players have even challenged the original fast-fashion retailers—popular fast-fashion retailer Zara used to produce a few collections a year, but currently has a design-to-retail cycle of 5 weeks.
To the untrained eye, fast fashion pieces could almost pass for the design you saw on the runway—but of course, sans coveted logo and of compromised quality. On the surface, it makes sense. Why would a consumer splash out, when they could essentially buy a similar style for a fraction of the price? But with every shortcut comes a catch. Because of its low price tag, garments are made of synthetic materials, which are cheaper and easier to produce in large quantities. Check the wash tag on your clothing, and you are likely to spot rayon, polyester, acrylic, acetate or nylon, materials which have all been treated to harmful toxic chemicals. Unbeknownst to most consumers, studies have shown that over time, the chemicals embedded in synthetic fabrics may penetrate the skin of the wearer, and adversely affect their health.
The highest concentrations of toxic substances were discovered in none other than polyester, which happens to be the most commonly used fibre in our clothing. The synthetic material is composed of plastic threads, and plastic is made from petroleum, which is harvested from fossil fuels. Simply put, when you choose to buy an item crafted of polyester, you are wearing the very same oil and gas used to power your car. The use of fossil fuels in garment production contributes to considerable environmental damage incurred during extraction, manufacturing and the shipping of synthetic clothing and material. Because synthetic materials are non-biodegradable, it takes more than 200 years to decompose, fabrics sitting in landfills eventually break down into microbeads which contaminate our soil and water. The alternative disposal method is the incinerator, which releases vast amounts of greenhouse gas into our atmosphere, a process rapidly accelerating the global climate crisis. But the damage doesn’t end there—every consumer who has purchased a garment made of synthetic materials is contributing to irreversible ecological damage. Every time a polyester garment is washed, it is estimated to release 1,900 individual plastic fibres into our waterways, polluting the environment and harming marine life. The tiny pieces of polyester shed from our clothes account for 85% of all human-made debris found on shorelines around the world. And if that isn’t scary enough, recent studies have found microfibers from petroleum-based synthetic fabrics in 83% of the world’s drinking water.
Amid the doom and gloom, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, calling for new innovations to tackle fashion’s plastic problem. Polyester is recyclable, and an increasing number of businesses have opted to trade in synthetic fabrics for rPET, which is created by melting down discarded plastic bottles and re-spinning it into new polyester fibre. Recycled polyester gives a second life to non-biodegradable materials which would otherwise end up in landfills or the ocean, reduces toxic emissions from incinerators, and curbs additional plastic production, preventing further extraction of crude oil and natural gas from earth. According to a 2017 study by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, the production of recycled polyester requires 59% less energy compared to regular polyester. WRAP concedes, estimating rPET's production to reduce CO2 emissions by 32% in comparison to virgin polyester. But despite it’s advantages, rPET still generates microfibres, which sheds millions of microscopic plastics with every wash cycle. Nevertheless, it is still a step in the right direction, especially with the advent of many fashion pacts outlining goals to reduce single-use plastics by 2030, the pool of opportunity within the market remains open for innovative new businesses.
Where once upon a time, you may have prayed to the fast-fashion gods to mimic the pieces you see on your Instagram feed, the next time you checkout, you might think twice. Fast fashion products are fundamentally made for obsolescence, and the low prices entice you to buy more, but most worryingly, beneath the exterior of shiny polyester, it encourages a consumer detachment from the underlying issues of sustainability. Changing consumer mentality is key to combat irreversible climate change, and we must unanimously pivot away from purchasing disposable fast fashion, this entails relinquishing the desire to change outfits weekly, and opt for higher quality or vintage pieces that will serve us for life. As the saying goes, less is more—and even more so when it comes to the environment.