The fast-fashion pandemic: How and why we must all do better

By Alicia McKenzie

Being an ethical and sustainable consumer in 2021 means challenging throwaway consumer culture and scrutinising the brands we choose to purchase from. 

As I walked to my mailbox to collect the next in a long line of packages I had purchased throughout lockdown, I realised something needed to change. My pandemic derived boredom was not a valid excuse to purchase cheaply made clothes that I literally had nowhere to wear – delivered in single-use plastic – without significant thought as to the environmental and ethical consequences of my consumer habits. 

I’m not the only one who has seen a massive, lockdown-induced, spike in their online shopping habits (as countless memes tell me). The pandemic has seen many businesses go digital to mitigate economic fallout. Thailand reported a 60% increase in e-commerce sales in just one week in March 2020, and global e-commerce giant Amazon broke global revenue, bringing in 386 billion in 2020 alone.  

Our shift from in-store to online shopping habits is not necessarily a bad one, as online shopping is reported to have a lower carbon footprint than travelling to physical stores. However, the true damage lies in the change in consumer behaviour.  

The ease of online shopping and social media has (spurred on by pandemic boredom) resulted in the proliferation of overconsumption and fast-fashion culture, and the planet is going to pay the cost.  

Our habits of overconsumption are fuelled by social media, influencers, and the instant chemical reward of impulse shopping. Seemingly perfect influencers profit from regularly showing off their latest ‘purchase’ or Shein or Amazon haul, furthering the cyclical nature of fast fashion by advertently or inadvertently encouraging their viewers to make the same regular purchases. It certainly doesn’t help that influencers rarely post a photo of themselves wearing the same clothes twice.  Fast fashion brands themselves mimic and mass-produce cheaper alternatives to garments worn by high-profile influencers like Kim Kardashian to stay ahead of the next fashion trends, exacerbating the speed at which we rotate through them.  

Global production of clothing has essentially doubled in the last 20 years with the upheaval of the traditional 2 fashion seasons, for weekly or fortnightly production of new styles. The garment industry now produces 10% of global carbon emissions, which is more than the shipping and aviation industries combined, making the garment industry second only to oil as the biggest polluter. Oil itself is used in excessive quantities to produce some of the most common fibres in contemporary clothing: polyester and nylon, which are both non-renewable. Even cotton production takes an environmental toll, requiring tonnes of water, pesticides, and fertilisers to produce – fertiliser being a carbon-intensive product itself. The UN estimates that 10 years of drinking water for one person goes into producing enough cotton to produce a pair of jeans, while Levi Strauss estimates that the lifespan of a pair of its 501 jeans, from production, sale, consumer use (e.g. washing) and disposal, will produce a whopping 33.4 kg of CO2.  

Earlier this year the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent explored what happens to a garment in the latter part of its life span. An estimated 15 million garments are sent into Accra, Ghana every week, mostly unwanted products from charity bins, and 40% of these are immediately considered damaged and worthless, ending up in a landfill. The most famous of these landfill sites being the Kpone landfill, which was ravaged by fire last year. The environmental cost of this is alarming, and it certainly isn’t sustainable.  

So, for those of us who decide to challenge our shopping habits to be that little bit better, the question becomes how?  

The most obvious solution to curb fast-fashion culture is to shop second-hand, allowing us to satisfy our purchasing habits whilst actually challenging overconsumption. While only 7% of Australian clothing sales are recycled, second-hand sales are increasing, with online second-hand retailer ThredUP projecting their sales to grow by 69% between 2019 and 2021.  

Second-hand purchasing and resale by the upper-middle class and ‘thrift flippers’ has been subject to some criticism recently for gentrification as garments are taken from thrift stores and resold for a profit on sites like Depop, allegedly pricing low-income shoppers out. While this critique is certainly worth keeping in mind, it is not the be-all-end-all of second-hand shopping. The millions of second-hand garments flooding into Ghana every week are testament to their oversupply in nations like Australia, suggesting that high demand for these garments will simply reduce waste rather than prompt high prices. The appropriation of these garments by well-off consumers may deserve some scrutiny, but its ecological benefit triumphs if it is stopping the garments from ending up in landfill. Purchasing clothing at the end of the cycle rather than the start reduces clothing waste, making second-hand shopping the most sustainable way to shop.  

But what if you can’t find what you’re looking for second-hand? Try borrowing from a friend, swapping clothes, or even renting something if it’s needed for a special occasion.  

And when you’re looking at buying something new? Ask yourself if you really need that item. Consider the practicality of the garment – how often would you wear it? Is it an on-trend item that you will lose interest in after a few months? Or is it a durable garment that you can see yourself reaching for time and time again over years to come? While the dopamine rush of impulse shopping feels good, buying something on a whim that you don’t have a place for won’t do you or the planet much good in the long term.  

If you really need to buy something new, be conscious of where you shop.  

Sometimes it can be pretty easy to identify a brand that makes no attempt to prioritise ethical production and sustainability. Shein’s supply chain is particularly difficult to investigate, and there is no evidence to suggest the company is making any effort to reduce its environmental impact. Their mass-produced and cheaply made clothes epitomise throwaway culture, a culture encouraged by other brands such as Forever 21, Fashion Nova, H&M, and Boohoo.  

Whilst other fashion brands may be more durable, sustainable, and ecological, these garments often come with a bigger price tag, making them out of reach for a large class of consumers. It is becoming difficult to ascertain which brands are genuinely ‘sustainable’ and worth the higher price tags. Consumers need to be conscious of the ‘greenwashing’ of certain brands that market themselves as eco-friendly and sustainable but fail to prove these claims under closer inspection. 

Popular brand Everlane has come under fire recently for doing exactly this. On the surface, the brand appears to do all the right things. They have pledged to eliminated new plastic in their supply chain, and even produce carbon-neutral denim and sneakers. These products have, however, been critiqued as ‘token ethical products’ that attempt to greenwash the brand. Everlane’s green initiatives are not supported by 3rd party certifications for their fabrics and dyes. The brand also does not make extensive use of sustainable fabrics, bringing its eco-friendly image into question.   

Sustainability is unfortunately not the only concern for an ethical shopper, and it is important to critique a brand’s practices and the values they represent. Everlane has also been criticised for preventing their workers from unionising and capping hoursto avoid providing health insurance. While their website shows photos of their factories and item production costs, the factories are not verified, bringing their production chain into question.   

The fashion brand Reformation is considered an environmental leader in the industry and would initially appear to be a good choice. There are, however, reports of the brand engaging in practices that bring their ethics and values into question. Reformation has been criticised for discriminatory and racist treatment of BIPOC employees, and while an internal investigation made findings to the contrary, heavy criticism by employees is hard to overlook.  

The ambiguity surrounding Everlane and Reformation serves as a grim reminder that the words of brands that greenwash, and market themselves as ethical and sustainable, cannot be taken at face value when making ethical shopping choices. 

It is important to look into the background of the brand you are purchasing from. Ask yourself questions about their sustainability initiatives, the values they embody, their supply chains, and certifications or whether their claims are supported. Is it truly a brand you want to support? Apps like Good on You, which provides sustainability ratings for fashion, can be of use here. Try to invest in higher quality clothing that you will wear more often and hold onto for longer, and avoid synthetic fabrics like polyester (unless recycled) to help combat the garment’s carbon footprint.  

And when you’re clearing out your wardrobe, and find clothes you are ready to part with, avoid throwing them away at all costs. 

When it comes to old and damaged clothes, ask yourself if it is something you can repair or donate. Websites such as UK WRAP’s love your clothes have tips for repairing garments. If the garment is truly beyond repair and not fit for donation, consider clothing recycling options like King Cotton or RecycleSmart which can offer pick-ups for textiles that are difficult to recycle. Retailers like H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo also have garment collection programs in store for damaged clothing. 

For those of us who remain uncritical, or determinedly ignorant, of the consequences of our shopping habits, take this as a sign that now is the time to change. And hold yourself accountable. We all know the planet is in crisis, and we all know of the toxicity of the fast fashion industry. So there really is no excuse not to do, and be, better. 

Follow Alicia McKenzie here: @aliciamckenzie_ on Twitter, @Alicia McKenzie on Facebook and @aliciaa.mckenzie on Instagram.