Tuesday 13 September 2016

Drowning in Fast Fashion

As more and more mainstream publications are noticing the big problems with fast fashion, we're seeing some heavyweight journalism pointed at the sector. And worryingly, the news is worse than we thought. As a forensic investigation from Newsweek makes clear, the model that most clothes retailers have adopted is leading us into environmental disaster.

The problem is that fast fashion is all about cheap, low-quality clothes, and lots of them. Inditex, the business behind well-known names like Zara, refreshes their retail line not seasonally, not monthly, but weekly. That means a lot of clothing that simply isn't built to last. Worse, the clothing is of such poor quality that goodwill and second-hand stores simply won't take them. They're even being rejected by charities that re-route second hand clothes to the needy in third-world countries. The items are simply not fit for purpose. Indeed, some African countries are now calling for a ban on imported second-hand clothes. According to recent figures, over 80% of unwanted clothes will go into the incinerator or landfill, with the associated environmental impact.

That poor quality even impacts the traditional route for low-end textiles–down-cycling for industrial use like wiping rags and insulation. Clothes made from this fabric falls apart much more easily. What happens when they can't be used anymore? You guessed it... Back to landfill.

You can't even safely compost modern clothing, even if they're made from modern fibres. These items go through so many industrial processes, from bleaching to dyeing, that they're loaded with toxins–which again easily leach into groundwater if a landfill has been improperly sealed, or are released into the air when burned.

The numbers of unwanted clothes going to waste is utterly mind boggling. New York City alone sends 200,000 tons of textile waste to the tip every year. Any recycling programme can only nip the very tip of that away. And most municipal collection programmes are under-promoted and hardly used.

The inference is clear: we're drowning in low-cost, low-quality clothing that doesn't last and clogs up the environment. The brands that have adopted this unsustainable approach, though, don't want us to stop. Instead, they're using limited edition ranges of organic clothing or recycling events to persuade us into believing that something is being done. It's not enough, and everyone knows it.

There are green shoots of change. Both H&M and Levi's have trialled jeans that have a much higher than average percentage of recycled cotton. And urgent research is being done into the holy grail of sustainable fashion: cradle-to-cradle recycling. But nothing is going to happen quickly. Articles like the Newsweek expose are at least showing just how much trouble we're in. The big question is whether we can save ourselves before the tide of toxic landfill clothing swamps us for good.

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