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Sustainable fashion: How to reduce your fast fashion environmental impact

Picture of Ben Gallizzi, Senior Content Editor at Uswitch
Written by Ben Gallizzi, Senior Content Editor, Energy and Electric Vehicles

20 May 2022

Over the past few decades, the clothing industry has pioneered the art of ‘fast fashion’. Clothes are produced in greater numbers, but are typically a lower quality, which encourages people to discard them more quickly.
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Woman working in the sustainable fashion industry

The problem with disposable fashion, apart from it being incredibly wasteful, is that it’s one of the biggest polluters on the planet. Read on to discover its impact, and how you can help steer fashion towards a sustainable future.

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion - lots of clothes on rails

Fast fashion is a 21st century phenomenon - the idea that clothes are increasingly disposable and often manufactured in bulk on opposites of the world from their consumers, who are encouraged to keep buying more.

One of the ways fashion houses encourage more sales is by increasing the number of fashion 'seasons' from the traditional four to an ever-increasing number of 'micro-seasons', with the sole purpose of making clothes appear to go out of fashion more quickly.

This trend goes hand in hand with social media, which has accelerated trends as celebrities show off fashions that consumers immediately wish to emulate. From planning fashion ranges many months – even years – in advance, the industry is now capable of turning around emerging designs from design to being put on sale within a matter of days.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the number of clothes produced each year has more than doubled since 2000 while over the same period, the number of times garments are worn has decreased by 36%.

Why is fast fashion bad for the environment?

Fast fashion is considered the second biggest polluter after the oil industry and is estimated as being responsible for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Its production relies mostly on non-renewable resources – 98 million tonnes a year - that include oil to produce synthetic fibres, fertilisers and pesticides to grow cotton and chemicals for producing the finished articles – including dyeing them.

The industry consumes around 93 billion cubic metres of water annually – did you know that according to WWF, it takes 2,700 litres of water to make a single cotton shirt?

Fast fashion is also a growing problem for our water sources. In addition to chemical discharges produced during production, fast fashion is responsible for trillions of plastic microfibers entering the water supply, which end up in the planet’s oceans. This is primarily produced when washing clothes. Check out our energy-efficient laundry tips to improve your eco washing habits at home.

What is sustainable fashion? 

Sustainable fashion

Sustainable fashion is an attempt to create a circular economy for both fashion and textiles, to prevent the huge waste in raw materials while cutting pollution and improving working conditions. A circular economy is one designed to be restorative and regenerative.

In the case of fashion, this includes phasing out pollutants such as plastic microfibers and ensuring clothing, fabric and fibres all remain of sufficiently high quality to allow them to be completely reused or fully recycled for use elsewhere.

Sustainable fashion is also about introducing ways in which clothing lasts for longer and gets more use – for example, by making clothes more durable, or even investigating new consumption models such as short-term clothing rental rather than outright purchases for clothes only likely to be worn a few times by an individual.

How to break up with fast fashion

There’s no need to wait for the fashion industry to start cleaning up its act, there are plenty of ways in which you can opt out of fast fashion.

How to avoid fast fashion

If your inbox is full of the latest fashion outlets’ seasonal offers, then your first step is to reduce temptation by unsubscribing from promotional content such as flyers and emails.

Next, make a deliberate choice to purchase less clothing at a higher quality (avoid fake designer knock-offs and brands). You’ll pay more for each item but will find they last longer. There’s a reason why people still buy shoes from Clark’s and jeans from Levi’s - they’re household brands and might seem a bit old hat, but their products are well-made and last for years rather than days or weeks. And on the subject of jeans, Nudie offers a free denim repair service for any pair of their jeans for as long as you have them.

You can also look for sustainable, ethical brands. The Fashion Transparency Index from Fashion Revolution reviews and ranks 250 of the world’s largest brands based on the information they disclose about key aspects of their business, from their social and environmental policies to their actual impacts across their supply chains and operations.

However, even if brands do source their clothes sustainably, that isn’t a guarantee they’ve been designed to last. While the temptation is always to just buy online and send back anything you don’t like, make the effort to go to the shops to actually pick out and try on clothes - that way, you can use your eyes and hands to gauge the quality of the item you’re looking to purchase.

You can also avoid fast fashion by buying second-hand through the large number of UK charity shops or via apps and websites like Vinted, Depop and Grailed. 

How to rent clothes

People are also increasingly exploring clothing rentals as a means of practising fashion sustainability.

Whenever you see film stars or musicians wearing their incredible designer outfits on the red carpet, the chances are that they’ve been loaned them by high-fashion brands just for that event, and they’ll return them afterwards.

Everyone can do that - you might not be renting from the likes of Gucci or Prada, but you can rent an outfit for a one-off event (and you won’t be accused of wearing the same thing over and over again).

How to make your clothes last longer

Avoiding fast fashion also involves taking steps to ensure the clothes you already own – wherever they came from – last longer.

While repairs will be inevitable when you wear any item of clothing for a decent amount of time, you should make the effort to repair rather than replace. Any decent dry-cleaner should be able to handle small repairs if you can’t do them yourself - if you do want to try and repair them yourself, there are a plethora of guides and videos online to follow.

How to recycle clothes in the UK

Recycled clothing

Recycling clothes should be seen as a last resort – before throwing them out, check the sections below to see if you can’t transform them into something else (upcycling) or pass them on to a new home (reusing).

If neither option is practical – your clothes may be damaged beyond repair, for example – then garment recycling is relatively straightforward. Typically, clothes can be recycled at collection points found in places like supermarket car parks, or you can drop them off at your local recycling centre. Some authorities may even offer free collections – sometimes in conjunction with third-parties. 

If you’re unsure as to what recycling options exist in your area, make use of Recycle Now’s postcode checker, which reveals whether your local authority offers free collections or the location of places where you can drop off unwanted textiles – not just clothes, but also the likes of duvets and blankets too.

How to upcycle clothes

Upcycling involves transforming old, unwanted items into new material or products. When it comes to your old clothes, the sky’s the limit, whether it’s converting an old shirt into a cushion cover or reupholstering a chair.

You’ll find a host of online resources ready to provide you with inspiration. Start with the Refashion Co-op, which is specifically geared towards showcasing (with practical guides) ideas for breathing new life into old clothes.

The Upcycle That website is another rich resource, whether it’s finding new uses for old sweaters through a series of curated links to everything from sweater scarves to sweater stool covers, or providing a full step-by-step guide to creating a ladies dress from an unwanted men’s dress shirt.

How to reuse old clothes

Recycling clothes should be considered a last resort. If your clothes are still in good condition, then the best thing to do is find them a new loving home. You could, for example, give them to friends and family – hand-me-downs have long been a tradition of British life, but if you can’t find any takers for your old clothes, why not host a swap event instead? That way everyone gets to refresh their wardrobes for free, and any unwanted clothes can then be passed on to one of the many charity shops on the High Street. 

Indeed, while you’re at the charity shop, you may find a bargain for yourself – look out for vintage clothing that should prove more durable than the disposable fashions currently on the market.

If you can’t get to your local charity shop, then look for social businesses such as Clothes Aid, which offer to collect your unwanted clothes for free before selling them on to European department stores that stock second-hand clothes, with a generous portion of its profits donated to charity.

Ready to reduce your eco impact even more at home? Calculate your carbon footprint for tips on where you can make changes.

Fast fashion facts

How much waste does the fashion industry produce?

In 2015, the fashion industry produced 53 million tonnes of fibre for clothing, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Of this, 12% was lost during the production process, including both factory offcuts and overstock liquidation.

How much fast fashion ends up in landfills?

73% of all clothes produced will eventually end up in landfill, amounting to the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of wasted clothes being dumped every single second. Less than 1% will be recycled into new clothing, and only 13% will be recycled in total.

In the UK, fashion landfill equates to 350,000 tonnes of used, but wearable clothing, every single year.

Even when people do recycle textiles through local collection schemes, there’s no guarantee the clothes will end up being reused or recycled – they’re usually exported overseas where much will eventually end up as clothes waste in landfill.

How much pollution is caused by the fashion industry?

10% of all greenhouse gas emissions – 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases - can be attributed to the fashion industry. In addition, textile production is responsible for discharging large quantities of water containing hazardous chemicals into the environment – no less than 20% of industrial water pollution globally is linked to the dyeing and chemical treatment of fibres.

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