Sewing Circle: Closing the Loop on Fast Fashion

Closets around the globe are filled with the latest styles and trends thanks to retailers like Uniqlo, H&M, and Zara. Landfills too are bursting with the same apparel, some just weeks or months old. This is the result of the “fast fashion” industry, which environmentalists and regulators seek to curb, but with little agreement on how. While they debate whether the solution should be through government intervention or independent market initiatives, the problem continues to grow.

Simply, fast fashion is the rapid design, creation, and sale of low-cost clothing. Brands such as Japan-based Uniqlo, Zara from Spain, Sweden’s H&M, as well as the UK’s Primark, are part of a larger three trillion dollar industry. Fast fashion retailers produce more collections throughout the year, knowing the consumer will purchase based on low price, seasonality, and a trendy style. The fact that the garment may be stylish, however, does not mean it is retained for future use. An article of clothing may be used once or twice, if at all before it is discarded. Spain’s Zara, part of Inditex, on average, gets a new garment to consumers in 25 days, according to Plunkett Research. Larger retailers, like JC Penney Co., take almost a year to plan and produce clothing collections for their stores, also per Plunkett Research. The rapid creation, sales, and disposal of fast fashion underpin broad environmental impacts though.

It is estimated that a typical pair of denim pants takes on average one thousand or more gallons of water to produce with the resulting waste released into the wastewater system. Producing a single t-shirt can be equivalent to enough potable water for one person to drink for over two years. Consumers in the United Kingdom sent 300,000 tons of clothing to landfills in 2018, and U.S. consumers discarded 16 million tons of textiles and clothing, roughly six  percent of all municipal solid waste. The waste trend and strain on resources have not gone unnoticed by regulators.

In June of this year, Norwegian consumer authority concluded H&M violated the Marketing Control Act with the sustainability claims of its “Conscious” clothing line. Bente Øverli, Deputy Chairman of the consumer authority, told Norwegian Broadcaster NRK, “When you sell a particularly environmentally harmful product such as clothing, one has to be careful about calling it sustainable. It takes a lot. We have concluded that they are misleading advertising and that they have violated the law.” While Norway leveraged a consumer law against H&M’s sustainability claim, Britain and France joined the direct fight against fast fashion, with mixed results.

In its Fixing Fashion report, the British House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee described the state of fast fashion, its environmental and social impacts with a series of recommended interventions, stating, “Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined, consumes lake-sized volumes of freshwater and creates chemical and plastic pollution.” While the committee produced over a dozen recommendations, key points revolved around taxes and mandatory environmental targets.

The parliamentarians recommended that mandatory environmental targets be set for fashion retailers with a turnover above £36 million, according to the House of Commons. The Audit Committee wrote that, “Voluntary corporate social responsibility initiatives have failed.” Taxation as enforcement was the next recommended strategy within the audit group, which promoted a new “scheme to reduce textile waste with a one cent per garment sold charged to producers,” with an estimated £35 million a year to put toward reuse and recycling. Raising the tax to five cents could net the UK government £169 million annually for sustainability initiatives, wrote the House of Commons’ Audit Committee. However, when the recommendations were presented to parliament in June, they were rejected by ministers citing existing UK environmental rules and plans as sufficient to deal with the issue of waste.

Meanwhile, French lawmakers moved aggressively on consumer goods and the waste associated with them. This year, the French enacted a new law requiring unsold goods – particularly clothes – be donated, reused, or recycled starting in 2021. The French law, the next phase in their Road Map to a Circular Economy, is targeted not just at producers, but importers and distributors as well.

Since similar private-sector interventions by the federal government are rare in the United States, recycling and waste lawmaking is mostly left to cities or states, such as California. With the world’s fifth-largest economy, California chose incentives opposed to regulation when setting a 75 percent solid waste recycling, reduction, and composting goal. Because clothing and textiles are one of the state’s chief solid waste streams, with 1.24 million tons disposed of in 2014, California highlights the problem that “less expensive clothing is often made of lower quality materials, resulting in a higher rate of disposed clothing.”

While the long-term effectiveness of regulatory methods to curb fast fashion has yet to be measured, what is clear is that without an ebb in consumer demand for fast fashion or third party intervention, the problem of fast fashion will only grow.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on August 13, 2019.


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