People are buying more and more clothes with each passing year. But only keeping them half as long as before. In fact, 85% of all textiles bought are thrown away each year. In Switzerland, it is estimated that only 50 to 55% of all textiles are being recycled.
Clothes are not only a necessity. They also allow human beings to differentiate themselves from each other, to outwardly show who they are. And for long, that was why they were custom made: To show how rich or poor a person was, to show their social status, or even where they came from. This continued until the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of machines. Clothes became cheaper to manufacture, and thus accessible to more people. And it culminated in the 1990s with the arrival of brands like Zara and H&M. Clothes were even cheaper to manufacture, trend cycles began to accelerate, and shopping for clothes went from something you did once or twice a year, to being a hobby. And led the New York Times to coin the term fast fashion.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion is when consumers get access to cheap, trendy clothes at a low cost. These clothes are usually copied from runways, designers or just people in the streets. They are also characterised by the fact that there is a high turnover in their collection. Clothes don’t stay on the shelves, available for purchase, for more than a few weeks, thus creating a deeper sense of urgency to follow trends.
Fast fashion emerged at the end of the 20th century. Before that, fashion had four seasons: Fall, winter, spring, and summer. When Zara arrived on the market, they shifted this model by releasing a new collection every two weeks, not answering to consumers’ needs anymore, but actually creating them. Soon, brands like H&M, Topshop, Primark and Uniqlo followed.
Contributing to the climate emergency
In the last few years, fast fashion has been in the public eye for all the wrong reasons. Greta Thunberg in her interview for the first issue of Vogue Scandinavia said, “The fashion industry is a huge contributor to the climate and ecological emergency, not to mention its impact on the countless workers and communities who are being exploited around the world in order for some to enjoy fast fashion that many treat as disposables”. Indeed, since people have easy access to countless pieces of clothing, they are more willing to discard them than before. There is no hiding now, how harmful the fashion industry is to the environment and the climate.
85% of all textiles bought are thrown away each year. In Switzerland, it is estimated that only 50 to 55% of all textiles are being recycled.
These clothes are also produced at the cheapest cost possible, thus using cheap materials that will break or tear after a few wears. But the fast fashion industry is also causing human distress: Between the poor working conditions in factories, the low salaries and the use of dangerous chemicals, workers in countries like India, Bangladesh and Indonesia are risking their health and their lives to make these clothes. The Rana Plaza Accident of 2013, which claimed the lives of 1,132 people in five garment factories in Dhaka, still stands as a grim reminder that the cheap price of fast fashion ultimately comes at a huge cost.
What are the alternatives?
Fortunately, human beings are inventive and when faced with a problem, always find solutions. In the past decade, a lot of alternative ways to consume and make clothes have emerged which are better for the people making them and for the environment.
Slow and ethical fashion
The slow fashion movement has emerged in reaction to the rise and prominence of fast fashion. Its aim is to reconsider the processes and resources that are required to make clothing. The central difference here is the attention to quality. When clothes are made to last more than just a few weeks, it slows down the cycle of consumption.
Ethical fashion is a broader approach to addressing the failings of fast fashion. In ethical fashion, every aspect of the process of making and selling is examined and redefined to reduce damage to the environment and suffering to the people.
Both these movements aim to change the way we consume clothes, by placing people and the processes back into focus: Sourcing ethically made and durable materials, paying attention to who makes the clothes and at what cost. A lot of these companies even limit the distribution and sale of their clothes to the few countries where they are produced, to lower their overall impact.
In this field, Switzerland, and the rest of Europe have made a lot of progress. There are many brands and small shops that sell slow or ethical fashion, usually produced in Europe.
In ethical fashion, unlike in fast fashion, it is important to know what materials are used to manufacture clothes. It is why some materials like real leather or fur are almost never used to make ethical fashion garments. This led to the creation of new materials to make garments more environmentally friendly or free of animal cruelty.
One of these alternative materials is vegan leather. Vegan leather is an alternative to animal leather, usually to be made as resistant and to look the same as actual leather. However, not all vegan leathers are actually good for the environment. But materials like pineapple leather or even the techniques of biomimicry point towards an industry investing in innovative ways to create more sustainable and enduring materials.
The global fashion industry was valued at $3 trillion in 2020, however, a digitised circular fashion industry could be estimated at over $5 trillion.
What could the future of fashion look like?
While ethical and slow fashion and the research for new materials have been popular for some time now, new trends are starting to emerge. Because, despite the heavy pollution resulting in making them, people will always need clothing and habits are easier to make than to break.
What could be the next trends influencing us in the next decade?
The circular economy model is starting to emerge in a lot of different fields, but especially in fashion. The idea of circular fashion is a self-closing circle between consumers, brands, and supply chain stakeholders. If we could make this the new normal, then it would drastically reduce the environmental footprint of fashion. According to a report by lablaco (“Circular Fashion Report 2020 – Year Zero”), the global fashion industry was valued at $3 trillion in 2020, however, a digitised circular fashion industry could be estimated at over $5 trillion.
What could be a great way for people to show their individuality while ensuring less waste? Virtual fashion of course!
Virtual fashion is self-explanatory. You will never be able to actually wear the clothes that you buy in virtual fashion. The clothes can only be used in the digital space. While some might consider this a waste of money, virtual fashion gained popularity in the early days of the pandemic. People not being able to get out of their homes had to think of alternative ways of expressing themselves on social media platforms.
But it also presents an advantage that real clothes will never be able to compete with: There are no limitations. While clothes are limited by material, technique and the laws of physics, virtual clothes are only limited by your imagination.
Do It Yourself
In recent years, DIY has been trending. Learning how to sew or knit to make your own clothes can be seen as more ethical (no overseas labour) and more ecological (control which fabric you can use). However, that is not always the case.
Learning how to repair your clothes will always be a useful skill. It can extend the life of your garments and make them wearable again. In this way, DIY could be more ecological and sustainable than buying new clothes.
However, making them from scratch might not be. While it would mean that no one was exploited while making the garment, it doesn’t mean that the fabric you chose was made ethically or in a sustainable way. It is easier to find sustainable fashion brands for your clothing needs than to learn a new skill.
With fashion’s dirty laundry in full display, the demand for new alternatives is growing. Especially with younger generations. The pitfalls of fast fashion have shined a glaring light on what needs to change. For an industry obsessed with staying on-trend, it would be wise to understand the shifting mindsets, concerns and needs of customers and tailor an approach to fashion that fits.
Note: This article is part of a series offering the audience sustainable alternatives for improving our environment, societies and the larger world.
Since its inception, sustainability has lied at the core of Alpian’s vision for a better world, and we have taken steps to become part of the solution. As an organization, we have committed to operating in a sustainable manner by adhering to the highest global standards. For instance, we have woven tangible and meaningful forms of carbon capture and sequestration into the Alpian experience, as a means to contribute positively to the environment. Stay tuned for more updates on this front.
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