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Why fast fashion needs a makeover?

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People are buying more clothing than ever before in some countries, but it’s not sustainable. Could a “wellbeing wardrobe” help?

If things don’t change fast, the fashion industry could use a quarter of the world’s remaining global carbon budget to keep warming under 2C by 2050, and use 35% more land to produce fibres by 2030.

While this seems incredible, it’s not. Over the past 15 years, clothing production has doubled while the length of time we actually wear these clothes has fallen by nearly 40%. In the EU, falling prices have seen people buying more clothing than ever before while spending less money in the process.

This is not sustainable. Something has to give. In our recent report, we propose the idea of a wellbeing wardrobe, a new way forward for fashion in which we favour human and environmental wellbeing over ever-growing consumption of throwaway fast-fashion.

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The problem is many sustainability initiatives still place economic opportunity and growth before environmental concerns

For the sector, it would mean tackling low incomes for the people who make the clothes, as well as support measures for workers who could lose jobs during a transition to a more sustainable industry.

Sustainability efforts by industry are simply not enough

Fashion is accelerating. Fast fashion is being replaced by ultra-fast fashion, releasing unprecedented volumes of new clothes into the market.

Since the start of the year, fast fashion giants H&M and Zara have launched around 11,000 new styles combined.

Over the same time, ultra-fast fashion brand Shein has released a staggering 314,877 styles. Shein is currently the most popular shopping app in Australia. As you’d expect, this acceleration is producing a tremendous amount of waste. (H&M and Zara declined to comment on this point; Shein did not reply to a request for comment.)

Reviving sewing, mending and other long-lost skills can extend the lifespan of our clothes (Credit: Richard Drury/Getty Images)

1. Limit resource use and consumption

We need to have serious conversations between industry, consumers and governments about limiting resource use in the fashion industry. As a society, we need to talk about how much clothing is enough to live well.

On an individual level, it means buying fewer new clothes, as well as reconsidering where our clothes come from. Buying second-hand clothes or using rental services are ways of changing your wardrobe with lower impact. (Read more about how to reduce the impact your wardrobe has on the climate.)

2. Expand the slow fashion movement

The growing slow fashion movement focuses on the quality of garments over quantity, and favours classic styles over fleeting trends.

We must give renewed attention to repairing and caring for clothes we already own to extend their lifespan, such as by reviving sewing, mending and other long-lost skills.

3. New systems of exchange

The wellbeing wardrobe would mean shifting away from existing fashion business models and embracing new systems of exchange, such as collaborative consumption models, co-operatives, not-for-profit social enterprises and B-corps.

What are these? Collaborative consumption models involve sharing or renting clothing, while social enterprises and B-corps are businesses with purposes beyond making a profit, such as ensuring living wages for workers and minimising or eliminating environmental impacts.

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