The endless debate and (perhaps) solutions to fast fashion

More and more. Always cheaper. So cheap that, in some cases, new is more affordable than used. The debate on fast fashion is endless


On the beach of Chorkor, near Accra, the capital of Ghana, there is a sea of clothes. They form a wall more than two metres high. “When it rains, the city’s streams and gutters erupt clothes into the ocean. Then the waves deposit much of the waste on the shore”. Solomon Noi, the city’s waste management manager, tells this story. Solomon Noi performs a challenging task in a losing game. A disaster that has been going on for decades as the world clothing offer has become more abundant, more disposable, and cheaper, with consequences resembling the plot of a dystopian novel. Instead, it is reality.

100 billion garments

Every year, the fashion industry produces more than 100 billion items of clothing, about 14 for every person on Earth. According to a McKinsey report, Shein introduces almost 6,000 products daily to its portal (source: WWD). In this century, consumers around the world have progressively increased the number of clothes they buy and, therefore, reduced the number of times they wear them.

On average, Americans wear their clothes less than 50 times. In 2000, the Chinese wore clothes more than 200 times. By 2016, this number had already been reduced to 62. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a British non-profit organisation, has estimated that every second, a truckload of textiles is dumped in landfills or incinerated (source: UNEP).

The myth of circularity

The rise of fast fashion and the preference for quantity over quality has led to a glut of low-value clothing that burdens, in terms of ‘absorbing’ (let’s call it that…) unsold goods, in developing countries. A business model based on quick turnover, high volumes, and low prices is now under pressure. At least in words. In fact, the myth of circularity is spreading, which (almost) shields companies and consumers from the uncomfortable reality that the only way out of the global textile waste crisis is to buy less, buy better and wear longer. In other words, put an end to or significantly curb fast fashion.

Less than 1%

Reusing can be done, while recycling is very complicated and uneconomical for the fashion industry. Not only do items such as buttons and zips have to be removed, but mixed fabrics have to be separated and dyes removed. This is an arduous task, unlike how plastic bottles or cardboard can be handled. In other words: the waste stream of used clothing is not uniform. Not only that: but sometimes, it represents a dead-end street. This example is enough to understand this. A plastic bottle can be recycled many times and still be used as a new one. When, however, a plastic bottle becomes fibre for a quilt, the process ends.

It is no coincidence that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, globally, estimates that less than 1% of used clothing is actually turned into new garments. At the same time, 9% of plastic and about half of the paper are recycled (source: SCMP).

Saturation effect and more

Even if the process of separating and recycling used clothes becomes more accessible and cheaper, one has to consider that the markets are saturated. But even more alarming is the fact that China is producing clothes at such a low price that, in some cases, new clothes are more competitive than used ones.

The solutions: bland but difficult

“It must be realised that all new or recycled textiles will eventually end up in landfill,” says Mark Burrows Smith, CEO of Textile Recycling International. “The key is to keep the garment in use for as long as possible.” Julia Attwood, head of sustainable materials at BloombergNEF, is obvious. “Whenever you think about the circular economy of anything, the best thing to do is to reduce demand. You would have to kill the fast fashion market to get a significant difference in the emissions or footprint of textiles from a recycling perspective.” Obvious, almost banal: probably impossible. (mv)

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