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Those among us who have always hated shopping are lucky enough to find ourselves accidentally on the right side of history. Because fast fashion, as we have all come to realise recently, is an environmental disaster.
The fashion industry is responsible for about 10 percent of global carbon emissions. It uses 79 billion cubic metres of water a year, creates 20 percent of the world’s waste water, and uses more than 8,000 chemicals in production and dyeing—while 85 percent of textiles end up in landfill. Public enemy number one is cotton, which accounts for more than half of all fibres produced worldwide and more than 25 percent of global insecticide use, plus it’s generally bleached before dyeing. But synthetic fibres aren’t much better; they release microplastics into the water supply through laundering. And then there’s all the packaging.
The environmental impact of the industry has accelerated vastly in recent years with the rise of fast fashion. Globalisation has made it possible to produce and sell clothes very cheaply, leading them to be seen as disposable.
Fortunately, there are some solutions: encouraging people to buy second hand clothes, or exchange or rent them; recycling and upcycling of textile waste and discarded clothes into new items; reducing waste in the supply chain; and using eco-fibres, with less environmentally harmful options including hemp, soy, banana, coconut and pineapple.
But the real issue runs deeper: the endless cycle of growing production, consumption and in many cases disposal, and the stresses it places on the planet’s resources.
So how are people fighting back against the rising tide of damage caused by fast fashion? Let’s take a deep dive.
“Fast fashion is like fast food. After the sugar rush, it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
—Livia Firth, sustainable fashion activist
BY THE NUMBERS
The average number of times a women's garment is worn is a mere seven times, before it is thrown out or forgotten, according to the Atlantic.
The average person globally bought 60 percent more clothes in 2014 compared with 2000, with clothing production doubling and the length of time each garment is kept halving over the same period, according to a United Nations report.
The fashion industry struggles with sustainability even at current levels of consumption; that struggle is set to become even harder, with overall consumption of clothes predicted to rise by 63 percent between 2017 and 2030, in a report by sustainability initiative Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group
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Cotton is the most widespread profitable non-food crop in the world, and while its production provides an income for more than 250 million people globally, it has significantly detrimental implications on the environment: to produce a single kilogram of cotton—about a t-shirt and jeans—requires 20,000 litres of water.
In the crop year of 2017/2018, the leading countries in cotton production were India, China and the United States respectively, but the environmental ramifications of cotton production highlights the industry’s rather unsustainable future. The graph below shows the leading countries globally:
SOURCE: statista 2018
MOVERS & SHAKERS
People and organisations trying to get fashion to clean up its act
The Global Force Fashion Revolution Perhaps the single biggest global force fighting for a better fashion industry, Fashion Revolution is the brainchild of designers Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro, both long-time proponents of sustainability. From its beginnings in the UK, it now has a presence in more than 100 countries, with campaigning that focuses on the need for transparency in the global fashion supply chain.
The Nature Lover Sustainable Apparel Coalition While the founders of Fashion Revolution focus on the outside, Jason Kibbey is trying to do it from the inside. The CEO of industry group the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which tries to reduce its social and environmental impact, he is also the co-founder of sustainable apparel company FACT and nature preservation NGO Freedom to Roam.
The Game Changer Icicle Icicle has long been at the forefront of sustainable clothing in China. The Shanghai-based eco-chic company, founded by Shawna Tao in 1997, manages every aspect of the supply chain, from manufacturing to logistics, ensuring complete transparency. In 2018 it made a splash outside China when it bought Parisian fashion house Carven.
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Christina Dean For more than a decade, Christina Dean has been on a mission to educate the world about the abuses of the fashion industry—and create better alternatives. Her Hong Kong-based NGO Redress has organised clothing exchanges, encouraged DIY clothing re-design, distributed unwanted clothes to charities and partnered with brands such as Zara to upcycle textiles into new garments. Its Redress Design Award is the world’s largest sustainable fashion design competition.
A neat solution to the problem of people buying too many clothes: encourage them to rent them instead. Raena Lim’s Singapore-based company Style Theory, co-founded with Christopher Halim, allows its 80,000-plus subscribers to rent clothes for short periods from a collection of more than 25,000 items.
Sissi Chao’s Shanghai-based social enterprise RemakeHub has an ambitious aim: to develop a globally applicable solution to establishing a fully circular fashion economy that eradicates all waste. For her efforts as an environmentalist and sustainable fashion advocate, she has been made a United Nations Young Leader for its Sustainable Development Goals.