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Impact of Fast Fashion on Sustainability

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Fashion
Wordcount: 3666 words Published: 26th Apr 2019

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Impact of fast fashion in the development of sustainable materials.


Fast fashion is ever increasing which puts a strain on the promotion of sustainable materials. This paper will outline the effects of fast fashion and the development of eco materials and other ways that can be maintained within sustainable system, within the fashion industry, and also by looking at slow fashion company People Tree (Sailsbury, 2011), and Swedish mega company H&M and their sustainable outlook within their brand (The H&M Group, 2016). The documentary ‘The True Cost’ is referenced, as it shows every aspect in the production process, that everyone should watch as fashion consumers. From farmers to designers, they all make their statement why sustainability is in need for ethical and environmental reasons (The True Cost, 2015).

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Most sustainable fabrics are often made from natural materials that use less water and contain fewer chemicals, these are the materials which need to be made more aware of, they take longer to make but are worth our sacrifice (Shen, 2014). Most retailers have a fast fashion strategy, make it, sell it, buy it and then dispose of it. However, this is causing major backlash on our environment and the people who produce it (The H&M Group, 2016).

 The impact of fast fashion is what’s going to be left to our future, as we rely on things being instant to us. What would happen if things that took a little longer would not just benefit us, but a whole generation? These days we use up more natural resources on things that can be cut down on, and produce more hazardous waste that our planet simply cannot retain (Joy , et al., 2012).


Fast fashion is a term that has come about from high street retailers, such as Topshop, H&M and the Spanish retail giant Zara, creating and producing their own versions of luxury fashion goods. These imitations of luxury items form the basis for their trends for each season, and are produced on a mass scale to sustain the ‘deeply held desires among young consumers’ (Joy , et al., 2012).

The industry works at such a fast speed and to such a huge scale that the time period from the luxury products being shown on the catwalk to being imitated and produced by the various high street retailers and ending up in our hands, is very little and in turn puts a huge strain and pressure on every part of the industry (Joy , et al., 2012). As these garments are being made at a ridiculously fast rate, the quality of fabrication and production has been compromised and thus the products become more disposable as new stock is always being made available to the consumer. This is the core concept of fast fashion and its function in the fashion system (Claudio, 2007). With this the environmental footprint of each piece clothing grows and grows as high street stores continue to ramp up the rate of production with the aim of flooding the market with more and more trend focussed disposable products (Black, 2012, p. 216).

The beginning of the garments, start with the actual materials used. The most used fabric is cotton, that uses ‘a quarter of pesticides used in the US’ (Claudio, 2007). Not to mention the amount of water and energy used to wash and dry it, the environmental waste impact, and this is before it has been shipped to another country for the actual making process. There are efforts to make these more sustainable by using organic cotton, which the pesticides have been removed and are made using ‘nontoxic farming methods’ (Black, 2012, p. 216).Modified (GM) cotton farming sparks a huge debate, as an environmental and an ethical impact. There are 50 million cotton farmers in the world today and most of them live in developing countries such as India. These farmers rely on GM cotton as a super crop, however they are under huge amounts of ‘consumer pressure’, which has had some major backlash and resulted in debts from these farmers, which led to their suicides as a result of unpaid loans to these GM cotton seed manufactures, who are based in the US  (Black, 2012, p. 192).

There are other sustainable materials that can be used, and is more sufficient, and doesn’t cause environmental and social devastation. Organic and sustainable fabrics are available which reduce energy and water consumption whilst keeping down co2 emissions, these fabrics are left out by the big fast fashion brands, as they take longer to make and are carefully traced from seed to product  (Shen, 2014).

Fast Fashion consumers

It’s all for the consumer and our need of wanting the latest styles and brands. Clothing and fashion become two different ideals. Clothing answers more to what we need, wool jumper to keep warm, whereas fashion is a style and can be disposed of when the next trend comes along (Black, 2012). Some fashion brands try and initiate some kind of sustainable intent into their brands, for example Topshop released a sustainable line called reclaim, launched by eco line From Somewhere (Quiros, 2015). However, as purchasers acknowledge the environmental attempt, they still stick to the same style and quality (Hill & Lee, 2015).

 Fast fashion allows our desires of luxury clothes to come true and sustainability is not something style conscious consumers link to fashion (Joy , et al., 2012, p. 276).  Sustainability is not promoted enough in magazines and by big fashion labels, and with a hefty price point it’s no wonder young consumers don’t buy into the trend (Claudio, 2007). During the World War 2, the phrase ‘make do and mend’ came into effect as people would recycle or made to measure for another family member (Strasser, 2000). Sustainability, as mentioned before is what consumers need to do to conquer fast fashion. It can be explained by ‘making a current generation’s needs, without compromising those of a future generations’ (Joy , et al., 2012). Brands that promote sustainable fashion should target the needs and wants of this generations style, size and quality. This is hard as, within these brands that do promote these environmental friendly materials, not a lot of information is given on their impact and the amount of style options available are limiting (Hill & Lee, 2015). Slow fashion comes with sustainability, this is a process were they support and empower workers, promote up recycling, renewable and eco-friendly raw materials (Henninger, et al., 2016). The industry is developing ‘eco – fashion’ to help overcome the high demand, according to ‘The International Standards Organisation (ISO) they will develop labels that can examine clothing to meet the criteria of environmental friendly and sourced (Claudio, 2007). This will allow the identification of sustainably sourced and manufactured garments to be recognised within a brand. Consumers treat ethical fabrics as less refined than organic food, however they both share the same working and environmental qualities (Black, 2012).

Materials that impact sustainability

To look at fast fashion and sustainability you have to go back to the main materials that holds all our fashion wants and desires together. The two most common fabrics used worldwide are cotton and polyester (Lee, 2009). Polyester is a manmade fibre that along with other synthetic materials, is time consuming and produces vast amounts of sub sense like ‘crude oil, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and acid gases’ (Claudio, 2007). Most polyester and anything blended with it lets out and by gas that has a toxic effect on the repertory system, liver and skin (Lee, 2009).

Cotton is used in more than half of the total fibre of all clothing used today and produces huge amounts of chemical and water waste thanks to its new genetically modified fibres.(The True Cost, 2015). GM cotton farming, as mentioned before is a pesticide used to kill insects, such as the bollworm, which destroys the cotton plant (Black, 2012). Cotton is a natural fibre, but is inundated with these modifications that keep the cost low and the produce high (Claudio, 2007). The death of many Indian farmer’s deaths have been linked to production of GM cotton seeds, edosulfan is a chemical, that when absorbed into the skin is life threatening (Lee, 2009).

Other materials have been used to encourage the ethical process of sustainable fabrics, however when looking into these fabrics you have to take the energy use for production into consideration and the pollution it in turn gives off (Makko & Koskennurmi – Sivonen, 2013). Even in the dyeing process a raw material can take anywhere between 80 – 800 litres of water (Lee, 2009). To conquer this the Regulation, Evaluation, Authentication, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), have made a legislation within the European Union to make ‘manufactures and producers to identify and verify the chemicals used in their products’ (Claudio, 2007).

Sustainable fabrics.

Going back to traditional methods of processing fabric is eco-friendlier compared to the waste just from dying the fabrics alone, but it is harder to cater to the mass market, however it gives one more of an appreciation to the design and process of the fabric (Henninger, et al., 2016). Designer brands tend to use local handcrafted methods more as this gives the items more durability, style and quality, and also effects the economic and social side to sustainability (Joy , et al., 2012). This works for traditional methods that use animal by products such as wool, leather and silk, but this costs more than making cheaper manmade fabrics that can mimic these materials (The True Cost, 2015).

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Another method to help sustainable fabrics make an impact is upcycling/recycling. Old clothes, bottles and other manufacturing castoffs, can all be included in sustainable fabrics, also high street giant Marks and Spencer’s created a suit line all made from recycled materials (Shen, 2014). As mentioned before Topshop has a sustainable extension line, ‘Reclaim’ which is made by upcycling other garments, from vintage buttons to a simple cotton t-shirt and leftover stock (Quiros, 2015). We all have clothes that get left behind and are of a good quality and durability that we can swap with friends or others giving that item a new lease of life (Lee, 2009). Donating and buying from charity/thrift shops is an easy way to help sustainable materials get the long use out of them and, even if they are made in a fast fashion environment and by donating these garments to third world countries that resale them on market stalls or give them to local people who need clothes that they can endure (Black, 2012).  In New York, there is a family that runs Trans- America Trading Company, that take all the unused clothes and divided them into loads of categories like, size and fibre content and recycle them into all sorts of things, from upholstery stuffing to industrial rags (Claudio, 2007). When it comes to luxury garments, consumers tend to make more ‘investment purchases’ and as these are made from good quality and they tend to be more of a better quality, making it more durable (Henninger, et al., 2016). Although some charities and countries are being inundated with masses of clothes from the US and European consumers who’s excessive purchasing is increasing all the time, as production costs from fast fashion get cheaper (The True Cost, 2015).

In order to overcome these materials that are of an environmental hazard, new fabrics are being created that are sustainable and offer unique selling points to consumers (Henninger, et al., 2016). Designers need to realise and understand that protecting the environment can have a more beneficial economic effect, thus making and souring sustainable materials (Whitfield, 2009)

Organic cotton is of course the obvious material that should be promoted more even if you have to pay more for it. Organic cotton is free from hazardous pesticides that harm the environment and cause sever health conditions (Lee, 2009). For a garment to be 100% organic cotton it has to not be genetically modified (GM), which accounts for 30% of all cotton grown, to make sure this is correct, you have to look out for The Soil Association’s label that ensures environmental and social criteria  (Black, 2012).

Linen a natural material made from flax, which is plant based. Linen is much harder to iron than cotton which makes it consume more energy, but in terms of water use and harmful toxins, which makes it have much smaller ‘environmental profile’ than organic cotton (Chapman & Hollins, 2010). Made from wood pulp, Tencel. This material is made from the eucalyptus tree, which uses no harmful pesticides and very little water. This material is also biodegradable, and its absorbency level is very high making it easy to dye (Black, 2012)

Inego is a polymer which is a plant based fibre, made by a corn by-product, that can be spun and weaved together into other materials. Versace has been known to use this fabric in their collections (Claudio, 2007). Salmon skin has been used in accessories, shoes and bikinis. This material is valuable and flexible and is less toxic in the tanning process than leather, and can be used as a by-product (Whitfield, 2009).

At this point consumers are fully aware of the environmental and social awareness in the fashion industry. Yet why do consumers ignore this and but fast fashion appeal? (Park & Kim, 2016). To address the issues of how a brand can be sustainable they should keep in mind the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ effect that looks at sustainability in 3 ways, ‘environmental, economic and social sustainability’ (Park & Kim, 2016). An example of a high street store that adheres to the TBL effect and continues to develop its sustainability within its brand is H&M, the Swedish multinational retail store (Black, 2012). They have their own sustainable program ‘Conscious Action’, this initiative makes consumers donate unwanted clothes to any H&M store in return for a 15% off coupon to spend ion their stores. This system is made to create more jobs in less developed countries, use more recycled and environmental friendly fabrics and to educate consumers to be more ethical to carry out this sustainable concept (Shen, 2014).They also work closely with the suppliers and include information, so that it can be tracked along the whole process (Black, 2012). Every year H&M release a report on how they can promote sustainability and be a Fairtrade company. As H&M, is a massive successful retailer with more than 5 other sister brands. They have really paved the way for being a sustainable high street store. In the report they outline how they are continuously trying to develop new technologies to help recycle garments, they want to find a way to make renewable blended fibres and a way to capture carbon, by investing in start-up companies such as, Swedish company Sellpy who help people sell their unwanted clothes. Normal retailers work in a linear model, they create the product, the customer buys it and then throws it away. H&M work in a circular way, by products staying in the system longer and then recycled into a new product (The H&M Group, 2016).

People Tree is a slow fashion brand, which means that it produces fewer garments for each season and takes away all the harsh realities fast fashion promotes. They design beautifully made garments that can be traced right from the source, and lead the way for sustainable production whilst having decreasing environmental change. People tree products can be found in high street stores such as Topshop, Asos and Selfridges, they are nowhere near as big as H&M, yet they are a perfect example of how a smaller company can be a representative for sustainable fashion, not only by being more involved in every aspect of production but by being able to tell the story of the brand through all their efforts to reach this environmental accomplishment (Sailsbury, 2011). it is one of the first sustainable companies to be recognised by the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) (Black, 2012).


Fashion is everywhere. To the person in front or behind you, we constantly are looking at brands and styles, but we never really know what we are looking at, who made it and where is it from, thanks to fast fashion and its ever changing ways, we are all getting lazy and not appreciating what we are wearing (Chapman & Hollins, 2010). When it comes to fast fashion and its harsh outputs not only into the environment but also the horrendous social side, like the Indian cotton farmers committing suicide for not being able to pay their fees to the organisations who create GM cotton seeds, or the water and co2 consumption being made just by washing and dyeing cotton and other materials (Black, 2012). Our needs and wants are putting the environment under too much pressure. We need to cultivate our usage and encourage other stores that make an impact on this planet not just to the climate but to the people who make these garments under horrendous conditions whilst getting paid an unfairly amount, that’s why we need to promote sustainable materials, so that big fast fashion high street stores recognise their potential (Joy , et al., 2012).

Sustainable fashion helps create and reach out to a wider consumer base, which ‘promotes their responsibility for society and environment’ (Shen, 2014).Natural fibres use much less energy than their synthetic counterpart but some use a bit more water, however when using these materials, it is more beneficial because they are made in a Fairtrade surrounding (Chapman & Hollins, 2010). Like the H&M report, we should also look towards recycling as a renewable source, as it is something we can already do by clearing out our wardrobes and sending these unwanted clothes to H&M stores or places where they buy these second hand clothes (The H&M Group, 2016). We need to change our shopping habits. But as long as we appreciate our purchases more and buy things that last long, it would be more of an immediate effect rather than waiting for these mega stores to re think their environmental footprint.

People Tree, is a nice representative of a slow fashion brand that from the start has promoted fair and equal trade on all its garments. They can source where, who and what the product has gone through to end up in our hands (Sailsbury, 2011).Slow fashion is considered a high price for quality rather than quantity (Henninger, et al., 2016), when fast fashion is all about that bargain with more amounts, that don’t last and are of a bad quality (Abeles, 2014).


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