Beware of the Fast Fashion Sustainability Buzz

fast fashion textile waste

Did you know that the US dumps 21 billion pounds of textiles into landfills each year? And not just on land: synthetic fabrics end up in oceans and rivers, and the animals that mistake them for food often choke to death.

Due to increasing consumer awareness of the problem, the fashion industry has been screaming about its commitment to sustainability. For example, in August 2019, 32 leading international fashion and textile companies met and signed the ‘Fashion Pact,’ promising to reduce the industry’s accelerating environmental damage.

Members of the Fashion Pact stated that a large part of the problem is the ‘first mile’ of the textile industry supply chain, such as farms where natural fibers are sourced. Pact members encourage the development of ‘regenerative’ approaches to agriculture, such as halting sourcing from feed-lot based farming. This is aligned with most sustainability claims, which typically focus on sourcing from renewable materials, or using fewer resources in the production process.

I call bullshit.

The only way to reverse the textile waste problem is to stop making so many clothes.

Instead, many retailers run ‘smoke and mirrors’ marketing campaigns to tout their sustainability, without any decrease in production. H&M is the scapegoat for my purposes here, but there are many similar offenders.

For example, in 2018, H&M was lambasted for the ‘giant bonfire’ in which they allegedly burned $4.3 billion dollars-worth of unsold clothing. Imagine the resources required to produce $4.3B of clothes. And then to simply incinerate them! By the way, incinerating textiles releases 2,988 lbs. of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, which is more than burning coal (2,249 lbs. per megawatt-hour) or natural gas (1,135 lbs. per megawatt-hour).

A March 2018 report by The New York Times stated that a power plant in Vasteras, Sweden (the town where H&M was founded), relies on burning unsold H&M products as one source of its fuel. I wouldn’t be surprised if H&M turns lemons into lemonade by boasting that burning unsold clothing is an intentional strategy toward building a circular economy.

In Aug 2019, the Norwegian Consumer Authority (CA) (which is similar to the U.S. Consumer Protection Bureau), claimed that H&M is misleading consumers by not providing details about what makes their garments ‘sustainable.’ Without hard data, one could assume that their sustainability initiatives are more talk than action.

H&M responded that they are happy to work on providing more information. But even if they are utilizing more sustainable practices, it doesn’t change the fact that they are still producing as many clothes as ever. Reducing production is simply antithetical to traditional corporate growth goals.

The fast fashion industry churns out cheaply made items, powered by advertising designed to make us salivate at every opportunity to buy something new, whether we need it or not.

If fashion industry really wants to reduce waste, it will reduce production.

It will manufacture fewer high-quality pieces from organic fibers. It will use its advertising power to redefine ‘conspicuous consumption’ so that it comes to represent the act of intentionally buying less – not more – goods, thus showing off how socially conscious the consumer is. When the wealthy buy fewer goods to showcase their ethical superiority, that’s just another form of status seeking, but if it drives positive change, I'm for it.

The tide is slowly turning. Fast fashion is being scrutinized by consumers. And the excessive overproduction of cheap clothes is beginning to hurt the industry. Today, as many brands desperately try to sell excess inventory by marking it down to next to nothing, they dilute and denigrate their brands and their clothing. If they continue to promote ‘more cheap things,’ we will ultimately have an industry of ‘Walmart’ fashion houses.

The industry should be held accountable for producing less. And consumers should hold themselves accountable for buying less, and buying secondhand. Buying a pre-owned clothing item significantly reduces its carbon footprint – and yours. So be a conscious consumer: buy pre-owed, buy higher quality, buy less and wear it longer.

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