September 6, 2018

Fast Fashion and Sustainability: Why Clothing Is the Next Big Eco Issue

In light of recent conversations around sustainability, perhaps you’ve cut down on your plastic straw use, or set up your own compost bin to dispose of food waste. But have you considered what’s in your closet?

Increasingly, our wardrobes are becoming a major focus for environmentalists. That’s because—unfortunately for fashionistas—the industry is rife with practices that harm Mother Earth. To bring you up to speed, here’s a primer on fast fashion and sustainability, the brands that are starting to make a change, and what you can do to help.


What looks great on finished garments doesn’t always look so great for the environment…What looks great on finished garments doesn’t always look so great for the environment…

First, the heavy stuff. Unfortunately, the issues surrounding fast fashion and sustainability are myriad and complex—and their roots go deep.

Textile waste is a problem, for one: according to a recent report, the equivalent of one garbage truck filled to the brim with clothes is tossed in landfills or burned every second. In fact, “nearly three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being made.” And the problem isn’t limited to the budget end of the industry—recent headlines have focused on high-end brand Burberry, which has torched £90 million (over $118 million) in clothes and perfume within the last five years.

Then there are the issues of toxic chemicals. “Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally, after agriculture,” according to the Independent, and many of the chemicals used are toxic, bio-accumulative, or carcinogenic. Even cotton crops have come under scrutiny, thanks to an overuse of pesticides that has bred resistant “superweeds.”

Microfibers are another fast fashion topic du jour. Produced when synthetic fabrics like polyester are washed, microfibers—or tiny, microscopic bits of plastic—work their way into the food chain and pose problems for animals and humans alike.

Overall, fast fashion touches on a huge array of sustainability issues, from worker mistreatment throughout the developing world to excess water use (“producing one cotton shirt requires 2,700 liters of water,” according to a recent article). And solving those problems is proving to be quite a challenge.


Make helpful eco changes, starting with your laundry. Image courtesy GuppyfriendMake helpful eco changes, starting with your laundry. Image courtesy Guppyfriend

Now, a bit of brightness: A number of fashion brands are beginning to make sustainable changes that have the potential to remake the industry for the better. ASOS, for instance, has made a commitment to transparency in the form of its sourcing map, while brands like H&M, Zara, and Gap are making inroads when it comes to improving conditions for workers. Recycled and sustainably sourced materials additionally make up 35% of H&M’s material use, and the company is aiming to raise that figure to 100% by 2030.

Then there are the industry innovators who are starting to unveil new technologies that could make fashion far more sustainable in the decades to come, from fabrics made out of crop waste to compostable, algae-based clothing. And for those pesky microfibers? Pick up a Guppyfriend, a reusable bag that seals up your clothes and goes in the washing machine, and which prevents plastic fibers from going down the drain.

Combine that with the number of young, upstart brands that put sustainability at the core of their mission statements—think Reformation, Nudie Jeans, and Patagonia—and things begin to look a bit more hopeful.


Shopping for vintage clothing isn’t just stylish—it’s sustainable, too.Shopping for vintage clothing isn’t just stylish—it’s sustainable, too.

One powerful aspect of fast fashion and sustainability? Just how much room consumers have to make a difference.

One of the biggest changes to make, if you care about keeping your closet eco-friendly, is to shop less often. We buy much more clothing today than we did in previous years—10 per cent more since 2012 alone—but much of that ends up unworn and unloved. Make it a goal this year to go light on the impulse purchases. If you stumble upon something that catches your eye, wait a few days before buying it—you’d be surprised how often that small trick works. 

Then, of course, there are vintage and second-hand stores, which offer a wealth of options without a heavy environmental footprint. Hosting your own clothing swaps is also a good way to trade items you’ve grown out of or no longer love with scores from your friends’ closets. Becoming an ethical consumer doesn’t have to be a big hurdle, in other words. You may just be amazed how far a few small changes to your habits will take you.