Fashion is a dirty business: fast fashion vs. slow fashion

The topic is on everyone's lips: the personal CO₂ footprint is hard to imagine political, but also personal discussions without it. The focus is on energy production, but food also plays a major role if we want to cut CO₂ from our own budget. The impact of the fashion industry is often forgotten. In fact, a total of 8% of global CO₂ emissions are attributed to the fashion industry.

From 2000 to 2014, clothing production doubled worldwide. We only wear our clothes for a short time, buy new ones, throw them away when the trend is over or we are tempted by something else more edgy, simple or eye-catching. Alone in Germany, we consume more than 1 million tonnes of clothes a year. Fashion is fun, but what is called fast fashion has its price. Socially and ecologically.

Shopping bags
Photo: Porapak Apichodilok from

The beautiful world of fashion has and continues to develop in a direction that dumps wages, neglects occupational safety, exploits people and pollutes the environment. We must resolutely oppose this development.

What is fast fashion?

Fashion trends come. Fashion trends go. And they do it faster and faster. The goal: as soon as it is seen and the need is awakened, it is already available for purchase. Some fashion brands manage 24 collections a year, such as Zara. The frequency of new collections increases and before you know it your new favourite piece of clothing is already 'out' again. Do you continue to wear it with pride or does your next move lead you to H&M and Co. to keep up with the fashion industry and trends? On average, we only wear a piece of clothing four times in Germany before we dispose of it.

discount in fashion store
Photo: Artem Beliaikin from

For many, fashion is art, for others fashion is a means to an end. No matter how important fashion is to you, we recognise clear trends in our society. Through social media, fashion trends are spreading at lightning speed. Our consumption of clothing far exceeds our needs. In Germany, there are about 60 items of clothing per person. Every single year. This is also called fast fashion.

"Fast fashion is clothing that is made and sold cheaply so that people can buy new clothes often."

Cambridge Dictionary

But what is the problem with fast fashion?

In short, simply everything. Because the industry's fundamental desire to make as much money as quickly as possible leads to incredibly negative effects. Let's take a closer look:

  • In the industrial countries, each of us buys an average of 30 kg of clothing a year.
  • In 2014, over 100 billion pieces of clothing were produced. And the trend is rising.
  • In contrast, approximately 1.3 million tonnes of clothing are disposed of in Germany every year. Globally, the figure is around 4.3 million tonnes. On average, we wear an item of clothing only four times before we throw it away.
  • ¾ of discarded clothing ends up at textile recyclers. Poor quality and simply too many quantities mean that you are no longer fit to second-hand.
  • And the fashion market continues to grow rapidly. Between 2002 and 2015, clothing sales doubled from 1 trillion US dollars to 1.8 trillion.

The massive increase in production also has its dark side in agriculture and manufacturing. Vast amounts of textile fibres are needed:

  • The cultivation of conventional cotton requires a lot of water, fertiliser and many pesticides. This leads to soil leaching and groundwater contamination.
  • Since clothing made of polyester is cheap to produce, its use has almost tripled from 8.3 million tonnes in 2000 to about 21.3 million tonnes in 2016. For 2018, the share ratio of natural fibres 29% to synthetic fibres 71% in the clothing industry was even predicted.
  • The production of synthetic fibres, fabric finishing, leather tanning, dyeing and printing all use many chemicals. According to estimates by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland, between 20,000 and 40,000 different chemicals are used in the textile industry along the entire textile value chain. Of these, 70 are still detectable after purchase.
  • The use of chemicals at production sites leads to soil and water contamination.

And what about CO₂ emissions? With these production volumes, it is logical that a lot of energy is needed:

  • The production, transport and use - washing, drying and ironing - of clothing alone causes more than 850 million tonnes of CO₂ emissions every year.
  • Synthetic fibres are made from non-renewable petroleum. If you include the fossil fuel used to produce the polymer, the CO₂ emissions for polyester are almost three times as high as for cotton!

Seamstresses at work
Photo: Rio Lecatompessy at unsplash

What is produced quickly and in large quantities must of course also be cheap to produce. Therefore, the working conditions in fast fashion production facilities are anything but great. Many women are employed there under precarious working conditions. They earn very little, work overtime or even days and have neither insurance nor holidays. Fast fashion is modern slavery. The many chemicals also lead to workers getting sick and the places where they work do not even come close to the labour regulations we are used to. We remember the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 when a whole building collapsed and many people were killed and injured.

Greenwashing and Ultra Fast Fashion

Now, one might think that this industry is changing a little, due to the criticism that has arisen in recent years. On the opposite. Greenwashing collections made of "organic cotton" or with recycled fibres, or the offer that you can hand in your old clothes in the shops, only serve to give the feeling that this industry is improving. At the same time, however, it is striving towards ultra fast fashion, through online shopping and even shorter production times.

Fortunately, these negative developments have not gone unnoticed and a counter-movement has emerged that wants to stop the madness of fast fashion: slow fashion.

fashion atelier
Photo: Ksenia Chernaya from

But what makes the slow fashion industry different?

Slow fashion is more than aware of the massive problems such as the waste of resources, environmental pollution, massive textile waste and poor working conditions and therefore focuses on sustainable production:

  • Sustainably producing natural fibres
  • Responsible use of resources. For example, organic cotton uses up to 90% less water and emits almost half as much CO₂. According to estimates, 92,500 t CO₂ were saved in 2014/15 alone by switching from growing conventional cotton to organic cotton. (Textie Exchange)
  • Circular Economy for textile fibres, so that some fibres can already be reused. This also reduces CO₂ emissions to some extent. 32% CO₂ can be saved in the production of rPET compared to conventional polyester, according to WRAP estimates (Fashion United).
  • Fewer to no chemicals or only slightly toxic chemicals are used. In addition, grey water treatment plants are used so that the chemicals do not contaminate the environment.
  • High quality in production, so that garments last longer
  • Fewer collections and therefore fewer production quantities
  • Production on demand or made to order so that no garment is left unused later.
  • Clothes rentals to give a garment a longer life cycle.
  • Upcycled second hand clothes or second hand only.
  • Better working conditions for workers in the textile industry.
  • Education programmes for dependents to enable better schooling

But even in slow fashion there are good and not so good actors. Fair wages are often described as better than minimum wage. How much better is often not clear. For example, a few cents more per month is a fair wage.

Textile fibres should also be looked at more closely. Many mixtures cannot be recycled or sound incredibly sustainable in marketing jargon, but they are not. We will tell you about this in further articles, because the topic is very extensive and interesting.

Choosing a sweater
We are able to change our buying behaviour quickly.Photo: Liza Summer from

But the most important thing at the end: We can change this, namely by rethinking our buying behaviour. Our shopping lists are our voting slips. Let's consume less and take a closer look at what we consume. Look for sustainable brands that produce fairly, reduce environmental impact and create quality clothing that will stay with us for the long term.

Our first tip to you:

Maybe you should think about how much clothing you buy in a year or month. By the way, socks and underwear are not included in the average amount of clothes we buy.

  • Check your buying behaviour and buy more consciously and less.
  • Ask yourself if you want to wear the garment for a longer time and if you really want it?
  • Is it timeless?
  • How is the quality? Will it last longer?

Only when you are sure that it will have a safe and long place in your wardrobe is it already a step towards a sustainable wardrobe.

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