The principles behind the fast fashion business model are low prices, quick consumption, and rapidly changing trends. Recently, some operators in the sector have adopted sustainability programs that include the return of used clothing, the repair of damaged clothing, the introduction of "conscious" or recycled materials in the production chain, taking a few steps in the direction of circularity.
According to some no-profit organizations in the sector, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, promoter of the Make Fashion Circular program, intervening significantly on consumption habits in this particular fashion sector will require a significant effort to eradicate the widespread mentality among fast fashion consumers.
According to a study by the Caledonian University of Glasgow on consumer habits, a t-shirt costing $5 is perceived as a "disposable" garment; the user of the item considers it more convenient to dispose of it and buy it new, rather than mending it to prolong its use.
The consulting firm McKinsey & Company highlighted in its reports on the sector that putting several collections on the market during the same year, with mass production that goes beyond seasonality, entices consumers to buy clothing regardless of the real need, with consequent unjustified waste.
The consumer has no evidence of the global impacts of their purchases. The company Quantis, which provides climate consulting services in the fashion industry, has calculated the environmental impact of clothing and footwear at all stages of their useful life. It is estimated that the production of a cotton T-shirt emits about 5 kg of CO2 and uses up to 1,750 litres of water; manufacturing a pair of jeans requires 3,000 litres of water and emits 20 kg of CO2. Washing is also an activity that has a significant impact on the environment, not only because of the water consumption but also because of the release of synthetic fibres that, by transforming into microplastics, can damage marine fauna.
These numbers are expected to grow, the Global Fashion Agenda estimates a 50% increase in water consumption by 2030 and expresses concern for the leading cotton-producing countries, given the speed with which they are running out of water.
There are more sustainable ways to grow cotton, as well as technologies that can reduce water consumption during the production process. These are still niche products, techniques that are not widely used and with uncompetitive results. Today the textile industry cannot rely on a technological infrastructure developed to the point of making the recycling of fabrics systemic. It is difficult for fast fashion houses to keep prices low, to which they have accustomed their customers, on garments made with organic or second-life materials.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, what can be done in the meantime is to counter the perception of disposable fashion by promoting more sustainable consumption habits and communicating the efforts made towards a more sustainable fashion with transparency.
Orsola de Castro, designer and founder of the Fashion Revolution movement, points out that allocating a budget for limited experimental circularity projects is not only not enough, but can even prove counterproductive in terms of sustainability. There is a risk that companies will pass on the message that mass production and uncontrolled purchases are possible thanks to the fact that in the future everything will be recycled, thus legitimizing the maintenance of the current business model.
Photo credits: congersedign; artem; jim black from Pixabay