Solving the Challenge of Fast Fashion through Circular Economy 

Blog written by Shauna Flynn, Marketing Intern

What is Fast Fashion? 

Fast fashion is a term used to describe the clothing industry business model of replicating recent catwalk trends and high-fashion designs, mass-producing them at low cost, and bringing them to retail stores quickly while demand is highest. These clothes are sold at significantly below the market price compared to the real cost of what it took to make when you factor in labour, environmental considerations and social issues associated with their design, production and manufacturing.  Brands are pushing cheap fast fashion on consumers, to access the latest trends and styles at a cheaper price than the high-end designers. To stay up to date on the trends, companies, have a 14 –21-day turnaround from inception to sales. The New York Times produced the term “fast fashion” in the 1990s when Zara opened its first store in New York City.  However, this level of consumerism has economic and environmental consequences.

How Fast Fashion has a negative impact on the environment

The Fast Fashion model is the classic example of linear economic model of production and consumption, and has a negative impact on the environment. Each year around 92 million tonnes of textiles go to waste, and this number is set to increase by 2030 to 134 million tonnes, with 6 million tonnes of textiles waste from Europe alone.

“FAST FASHION ISN’T FREE, SOMEONE, SOMEHWERE IS PAYING”. This quote is very powerful and makes you think about what happens to all the clothes bought each year, where they go for disposal and the harm the clothing items might do to the environment but more importantly local communities. Around 100 billion items of clothing are produced each year, with 3 out 5 items ending up in landfill after only 12 months.

Common materials used in fast fashion are easily accessible and cheap, such as polyester which is derived from the petroleum industry. According to this report in 2015, over 70 million barrels of oil are used in the production of polyester. ( Fabric series: All about Polyester – Kleiderly ). It can take from 20 – 200 years for polyester to break down but overall the fabric is not biodegradable.

This level of clothing volume and non-biodegradable materials poses significant challenges for disposal. Clothing landfills are very harmful, if clothes are incinerated, they release carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases causing poor air quality for the local communities. Soil and water also get contaminated by the chemicals affecting health of local populations. Already, Europe’s landfills are bursting at the seams with discarded clothing and other textiles. Of the 5.8 million tonnes of textiles that EU consumers alone discard every year, only a quarter is recycled and only 1% is recycled into new fibres for clothing with the non-reusable fraction being mostly downcycled into industrial rags, upholstery filling and insulation, or is incinerated or landfilled (World Economic Forum 2022). 

According to the United Nations (UN, 2022) the fashion industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, is the second largest consumer of water worldwide and accounts for 20% of industrial wastewater. While the environmental impacts of aviation are well known, the fashion industry uses more energy, generates more emissions and is a greater polluter than all international aviation and maritime shipping combined.  

How will the Circular Economy solve the problem?

  • Second-hand Shopping

Buying clothes from thrift shores, or thrifting, is one way of keeping your wardrobe fresh without buying cheap clothes. Most thrift stores or vintage shores have unique and rare pieces of clothing or accessories. Thrifting or buying second-hand clothes has become more popular especially during the lockdown as people started to learn about fast fashion and it’s impact and that buying second-hand or selling your unwanted clothes would help the environment and create a circular economy. On social media, the topic took off with influencers’ by them posting about outfits and showing the cool and unique pieces you could buy, and really encouraged their followers to start. The second-hand fashion industry is slowly moving into a much more sustainable position, a new report has suggested. According to Thredup – which is a second-hand online store based in the United States – the next 10 years will see the resale market grow much faster than traditional retail with second-hand clothing expected to be twice the size of fast fashion by the year 2030.  

  • Sustainable brands

More and more sustainable brands, ranging from Irish to global are coming to the market and have significant consumer following. Two brands that have come together are Adidas and Stella McCarthy. In 2019, Adidas started to campaign for more sustainable clothing and focusing on three main areas; Repurposed Plastic, Made to be Remade and Made to Biodegrade. Adidas and Stella McCarthy did a collaboration in which they came out with a tennis dress and a hoodie. The tennis dress was made in partnership with Bolt Threads, a company that specialises in bioengineered sustainable martials and fabric. First of its kind, the dress is made with cellulose blended yarn and Microsilk™. This is a protein-based material made with renewable ingredients such as water, sugar, and yeast. The hoodie that they then designed was called The Infinite Hoddie with the help of Evrnu. The hoodie is 100% recycled martials, 40% is organic cotton from landfills and 60% is NuCyclTM by Evrnu.  

There are some Irish brands offering sustainable bio-based clothing.  Sampla, is anIrish footwear brand that using a repurposed martial called AppleSkin, which is repurposed apple waste from the Juice industry in Italy. They use organic cotton in their laces and each sole are individually made in the factory. Another Irish company, Nuwadrobe, has a a model of swapping your unwanted, preloved clothes for someone else’s. It is a way of shopping and having that feeling of new clothes. They found that a lot of sustainable clothing brands were quite expensive and not everyone would be able to afford or access them, so this is a model to facilitate a new market opportunity.

  • Education

Integrating with education programmes is key to enable circular economy. For example, the HABERDASHERY Programme at Munster Technological University was designed and delivered by CIRCBIO Research GROUP to engage with second level schools. This year, the two-day outreach programme engaged with 100 Transition Year and 5th Year students from four schools around Tralee. The programme focused on key development of biobased materials and circular deign that are revolutionising the fashion industry. The students were tasked to come up with a new brand that used only sustainable materials, start social media pages for their brands and discuss why and how their brand was sustainable. During the programme the students learned about the fashion industry, the harm it causes to the environment, which brands are fast fashion and how the circular economy approach can make fashion sustainable. The students were awarded for all their work during the programme and also got to hear from experts in the field of fashion and sustainability, Paul Galvin, co-founder of Keohane Athletic Club, Don O’Neill international fashion designer and co-founder of 3D printing company Mariana Kobal.