Fast fashion isn’t the problem; synthetic fast fashion is

Everyone is aware of the term fast fashion, but not everyone knows what it is. Largely it has negative connotations, but it is actually not that bad. What is that bad, is fast fashion made from synthetic - plastic - material, and not for the reason you might think.

Fast fashion could revive the UK textile sector - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Fast fashion could revive the UK textile sector – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Fast fashion is reacting swiftly to trends, creating items in low volume and seeing how consumers react to them.

Then ordering either more or less in response to this. A flexible approach that limits waste.

Realistically, if fast fashion is carried out responsibly, it could revive Britain’s textile sector by serving demand.

For example Boohoo, a fashion company known for its ‘fast fashion’, produces half of its production in UK factories – this rare, as much of textile production is manufactured offshore.

However, some hail fast fashion as a massive issue of the modern fashion industry. But, what the real problem is here, is synthetic fast fashion.

As we are all aware, plastic is saturating our planet. Over eight million tonnes finds its way into our oceans every year. What on earth has fashion go to do with that?

Probably not what you think.

Earlier this year, scientists from the University of Plymouth found that each cycle of a washing machine could release over 700,000 microscopic plastic fibres into the environment.

Research has shown washing clothes is a major contributor of microscopic fibres - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Research has shown washing clothes is a major contributor of microscopic fibres – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The 12-month study focused on analysing what happened when synthetic materials were washed at various temperatures in domestic washing machines, to attempt to estimate the number of microfibres released.

The most common synthetic textile is polyethylene terephthalate (polyester), a plastic produced from crude oil and also used to create many other household items, from hosepipes to ketchup bottles.

So, what’s the problem with microfibres? Reports have previously shown – like the above – that washing clothes is a major contributor of microscopic fibres within the marine environment, as many of these are so small they are likely to pass through sewage treatment systems.

The full impact of microplastic – defined as pieces of plastic >5mm in diameter – pollution is not fully understood, but studies indicate that it can be swallowed by marine life, poison the food chain and even alter the behaviour of some aquatic animals.

What does this mean for fashion manufacturers?

At the moment, fashion made from synthetic material is inevitable, it is and will be used to make throwaway fashion for the foreseeable future.

But, there are environmental benefits to fast fashion made locally in the UK, namely the reduction of air miles. However, fast fashion often goes hand in hand with synthetic, cheaper materials. This perpetuating the plastic problem.

Cotton, wool, linen and silk are not synthetic materials - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Cotton, wool, linen and silk are not synthetic materials – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Fashion businesses need to incorporate a longer term solution in order to counter microplastics, like using eco-friendly and sustainably sourced materials.

This would though, completely change business models and entire operations.

Solutions

The most obvious solution, is for businesses to use materials that do not release plastic microfibres.

Cotton, soy fabrics, wool, cashmere, linen and silk are examples of fabrics which are not synthetic and are derived from either plants or animals. However, if these are used they then need to be sustainably sourced, otherwise that is just adding a different environmental/ethical issue.

For example cotton, a major source of apparel fiber is renewable and biodegradable, and has excellent properties; absorbency, durability, and softness.

Cotton accounts for over 50% of all clothing produced worldwide. Of course, growing and processing this fiber crop needs to be done responsibly, and this is largely down to farming practices.

Servitization: rent clothes

Renting clothes could reduce the microplastic problem. For a fixed sum of money every month, you can rent a number of different clothing items for a few days to a few weeks – are you tempted?

For a fixed sum of money every month, you can rent a number of different clothing items - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
For a fixed sum of money every month, you can rent a number of different clothing items – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

More and more companies all over the globe are offering this service – often digitally – as it seems servitization has now wedged its way into fashion.

Servitization means clothes are worn many times by different people, a more sustainable approach.

Many of the companies using this approach are also high-end designers, and this means they are more likely to use expensive, non-synthetic materials like for example silk or cashmere.

Some of these businesses include US-based, Rent the Runway – arguably one of the first fashion renting success stories, and dubbed ‘closet in the cloud’ – Beijing-based start-up YCloset, Australia’s GlamCorner and London’s Frontrow and Wear the Walk.

Read more about ‘renting’ clothes here.

The future

It is a tricky problem and not one that will be solved easily. Perhaps, we should focus on larger plastics like packaging and bottles before we try to tackle more tricky microplastics.

However, it is a huge issue, particularly as fast fashion continues to soar – online fast fashion retailer ASOS released today that its 2017-18 profit has risen by 28%. Often fast fashion is concurrent with cheaper clothes and materials, meaning they are often synthetic and a contributor to the problem.

Businesses should focus on integrating a long term solution, like using eco-friendly and sustainably sourced materials.

Of course, this is no simple task. Consumers should also look to recognise how and where their clothing is made and what material it is made from, and even potentially start renting clothes.