The unfashionable cost of fast fashion

The fashion industry is now the world’s second largest polluter, only outdone by the oil industry[1].  Garment manufacturing accounts for 20% of global industrial water pollution.[2]

Globally, we are disposing of our clothes at an alarming rate.  Compared to 16 years ago (2002), the average person buys 60% more clothing and keeps them for half as long.[3]

Fashion Statistics.png 

In Australian, we are the world’s second-largest consumer of fashion. On average, Australian’s purchase 27kgs of new clothing and textiles annually,[4] and, spend $2,288 on clothing and footwear.[5] Further, 92% of our clothes are imported.[6]

The United Nations has described the increasingly large volumes of cheap, disposable clothing as an “environmental and social emergency.”[7] The multinational UN says:

“By 2030, there will be 5.4 billion people in the global middle class, up from 3 billion in 2015. This will lead to an increased demand for clothes and other goods that define middle-income lifestyles. If consumption continues at its current rate, there will be three times as many natural resources needed by 2050 compared to what was used in 2000.”[8]

What’s so wrong with fast fashion?

Cheaper and more accessible clothes have created a ‘buy more, wear less’ mentality. Consumers across the globe can purchase low priced garments online from anywhere in the world; creating a never-ending demand stream for ‘new fashion.’ In this article, Container Deposit Systems analyses the top three reasons fashion is becoming unfashionable.

1.       Increase in Polyester Garments

Polyester has been used in clothing since American company DuPont launched its Dacron suits in 1951.[9] However, it has only been since 2000 that the percentage of polyester in clothing has exponentially grown.

Polyester is a polymer or a long chain of repeating molecular units. The most common variety is polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, a plastic derived from crude oil that's used to make soda and ketchup bottles.[10]

Polyester has taken over cotton as the most dominant material for clothing and forecasts show the production of polyester will continue.

Fashion Statistics 2.png

Whilst artificial fibres reduce the overall strain on natural fibre production (such as cotton) there are other negative impacts caused by a plastic clothing industry.

When discarded, polyester fabrics can take up to 200 years to breakdown, causing them to remain in the eco-system for a lot longer than their natural fabric alternatives. Further, a new study has shown that every time we wash a synthetic garment (polyester, nylon, etc), about 1,174 milligrams of microfibers are released into the water, making their way into our oceans.[11] Scientists have discovered that small aquatic organisms ingest those microfibers. These are then eaten by small fish which are later eaten by bigger fish, introducing plastic in our food chain.[12]

Our obsession with plastic clothing is adding to the global plastic crisis.

2.       Our old clothes end up in landfills

When we discard clothes, we often think we are doing the right thing by donating to a local op-shop. However, research shows that only 10% of the clothes people donate to op-shops or charities get sold. The rest ends up to landfill.[13]

Even natural fibres are not good for our landfills. Clara Vuletich, a designer, researcher and co-creator of a sustainable design methodology, says that even natural fibres such as wool and cotton are not designed to go into landfill stating: ‘a natural fibre like cotton or wool can biodegrade and compost, but actually landfill is not the right conditions for compost. Wool leaks a type of ammonia in landfill."[14]

Australian send 85% of textiles to landfills[15] adding to the current landfills issues in the country.

3.       Increased manufacturing and production of Cotton

International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) advised that global production of cotton in 2016/17 rose by 7% and by 12% during 2017/18.[16] Cotton is grown in more than 100 countries and the cotton industry employs around 250 million people worldwide. As a natural fibre, it could be argued that cotton is a better alternative to polyester. However, there are many environmental impacts of increased farming and production.

A key aspect is the high use of water required. Producing one cotton shirt requires 2,700 litres of water -the amount a person drinks in 2.5 years.[17]

In addition to water woes, cotton requires tons of fertilizers and pesticides to grow, but unfortunately, all those toxic chemicals don’t affect just the plants. Between 26 million and 77 million agricultural workers suffer pesticide poisoning each year.[18]

The manufacturing of cotton also impacts waterways. In fact, in parts of China and India, farmers are predicting the colour of the next fashion season by the colour of their rivers due to run-off from the textile industry.[19]

So, what can we do about it?

Despite the doom and gloom of the fast fashion industry, there are many things consumers can do to curb the trend:

  1. Choose your fabrics: whilst no production is wonderful for the environment, you can choose the lesser of the evils. Avoid clothes consisting of polyester, nylon, acrylic and viscose rayon.  As polyester is hard to avoid, try to find companies that use recycled PET in clothing. Cotton and bamboo are very broad so look up the company before you buy to ensure they are ethical.  Try, where possible, to pick clothing made from silk, hemp, linen, and wool as these are all natural, low-impact textiles.
  2. Buy second-hand: next time you need a new garment, why not try the local op-shop first? Clothes are usually a LOT cheaper and there are some great bargains to be found.  This is especially important for kids clothing as they will ultimately continue to grow so clothes don’t often last long at all!
  3. Learn to sew (or find a great seamstress!): instead of throwing out that favourite pair of pants because of a hole in the knee, look into mending clothes.  If you don’t have a sewing machine, there is a plethora of seamstresses and tailors who would be happy to mend the old to make new again.
  4. Limit your annual spend: as highlighted above, Australian’s purchase on average 27kg of clothing each year! Reduce your clothing spend by challenging yourself to limit shopping-sprees for a period of time. You will not only be supporting the greater good but saving money at the same time.
  5. Focus on QUALITY not QUANTITY: when you do go to purchase new clothes, focus on one to two high-quality purchases over a series of cheaper purchases. Higher quality clothes will often last longer and can often come from more sustainable sources.

Do you have any more tips on how to reduce the negative fashion impact? Let us know!

About Container Deposit Systems

Container Deposit Systems was formed with a vision to oversee the implementation of improved operational practices in recycling facilities.  The company offers a range of services to recycling depot facilities to drive productivity improvements and transition traditional recycling facilities into modern technically advanced operators.

The company achieve this through patented technologies which deliver manufacturing automation to auto-sort materials via a highly sensitive multi-sensor integration.  Systems integrations enable facilities to further gain efficiencies through workflows, materials handling, logistic processes, facility layout and design, customer interaction and data acquisition and management. 

Container Deposit Systems technologies are designed and manufactured in Australia with local partners Sage Automation and Macweld Engineering.