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Fast fashion has a huge impact on the environment

Pile of clothes
Is it possible to combine an interest in fashion and at the same time choose sustainable and ethical choices when shopping for clothes? Photo: iStockphoto

On-trend clothes that you only wear a few times – in the beginning of the 2000s the fashion industry started speeding up production. Today, it accounts for around 10 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions and criticism is being directed at the industry for not taking responsibility for its social and environmental impact. The big question is; can fashion become sustainable?

Technological development has made production more effective. We produce more and we produce it quicker. But this acceleration has boosted consumption rather than dampened our desire to buy. These days, Swedes buy on average 13 kilos of textiles per person per year. Fashion brands produce nearly double the amount of clothing today that they did before 2000, which has led to a considerable increase in the volume of material in the global system. At the same time, analyses show that every other Swede only uses 50 per cent of the clothes hanging in their wardrobes. Is it possible to combine an interest in fashion with sustainable and ethical choices when you shop for clothes? 

Philip Warkander is Sweden’s first doctor of Fashion Studies and is attached to Campus Helsingborg among other institutions as programme coordinator in the same subject.

Philip Warkander
Philip Warkander, Sweden's first doctor of fashion science, believes that our consumption of clothing should be less and that we also need to incorporate circular thinking and have a longer lifespan in both garments and textiles. Photo: Kennet Ruona


“Having gone from textiles being something exclusive and to be cherished, we now live in material abundance meaning sometimes we don’t even know what we own. We must stop this acceleration and take stock of the entire situation, so that we start consuming less and more slowly. But how do we get there when everything is getting faster and faster?”

Circular fashion

The fashion industry is associated with major sustainability challenges where a large portion of the responsibility lies with them to take the first steps towards rethinking and thinking in new ways. The material for the jumper you purchased online has travelled a long way through a complex supply chain from agriculture, to manufacture, logistics and trade. Every stop along the way has involved an environmental impact in terms of the use of water, materials, chemicals and energy.

“We must think in a circular way and make our clothes and textiles last longer. But responsibility must be measured in relation to influence. The more influential a country, municipality or company, the more responsibility they must take in creating a change. These cannot be disassociated from one another. At the same time, it is possible to make your voice heard as an individual consumer,” says Philip Warkander.

Journalist Alva Nyblom is reading Fashion Studies at Campus Helsingborg. She is also chair of the Fashion Studies Student Council. She too emphasises the role of consumers. Ecologically, socially and economically sustainable consumption of textiles should be the norm, not the exception.  But is it possible?

Alva Nyblom
Alva Nyblom studies fashion science at Campus Helsingborg and believes in a fashion revolution where we come to an understanding of what parts our garments consist of.

“Perhaps it’s a utopian idea, in which case we need to rethink what fashion is. Does it have to be fast? Does it have to be new? Or can we consume in another way? I think consumers have a lot of power, but we have to pull in the same direction and put pressure on lawmakers. Not everyone understands how the fashion industry works, but those of us who do know have a responsibility to spread our knowledge.”

Fast fingers

Online shopping is fast and convenient, and with credit options widely available, you do not even need to have money in your account. If you are unsure about sizing, fit or colour, you can order several versions. But with the ease of returns, these items are travelling thousands of kilometres with consequences for the environment in the form of carbon dioxide emissions. A big problem is that a Swedish size 38 can be a 44 in Italy. As clothing retail has become more international, the variation in sizes has also increased. 

“Imagine if we could enter our personal measurements and buy clothing that fitted,” says Alva Nyblom. “If I could get a jacket sewn to fit my measurements, the fashion industry wouldn’t have to produce items that they can’t sell, there would be no warehousing or burning of old stock. Consumers and brands would benefit. Unfortunately, the pandemic has become a catalyst for chasing those serotonin highs with the help of online shopping, which has resulted in too many purchases, as well as buying the wrong thing.”

Philip Warkander would like to see less wasteful consumption.

“The best way to make the fashion industry sustainable is to use what we buy and use each item of clothing for longer. It should be a simple task; most adults have plenty of clothing in their wardrobes. But how do we break the habit of buying new? That is the key.”

Cotton – a future of short supply

We are moving towards a future in which cotton will be in short supply. Simple mathematics tells us that if we continue with fast fashion alongside a growing population, there will be a cotton shortage, explains Philip Warkander.  We need to experiment with other fibres, and research has an important role to play here.

Cotton production requires considerable resources, large volumes of water, pesticides and manmade fertilisers. It impacts nature, animals and humans in the areas where cotton is grown. The production chain also involves the exploitation of cheap labour in poorer countries.

“My naïve idea is that if we produced less, consumed less and charged more for cotton, polyester, viscose and leather, more money would go to the people who actually work to produce the materials and sew our clothes,” says Alva Nyblom.

Where do our clothes end up?

A gigantic, unmanageable mountain of textile waste – this is the consequence of a constant supply of clothes at very low prices, much of which is thrown away. A large proportion of our consumption is burned, thrown into landfill or exported to developing countries. But with a major economic shift happening in Southeast Asia where more people are now entering the middle class, there are fewer people willing to work in the textile industry, which has meant that production has moved to Africa. Along with the dumping of textiles.

“African countries that are now facing these problems which Asia used to deal with have begun to react, with some introducing bans on textile dumping. It’s an interesting power shift because what happens when actors in the chain say no, and the clothes are no longer able to leave Sweden? A change like this could have a real impact on the fashion industry and make a difference. The problem of textile dumping will become more visible,” says Philip Warkander.

Better second-hand the best option?

What will make me think of buying second-hand when looking for an autumn coat? The Swedish Retail Federation (Svensk Handel) and the Swedish Fashion Council have commissioned Philip Warkander to look at used clothes and how to make them more attractive to buyers. The report is to be published in June.

“The fashion industry is undergoing a radical overhaul and is trying to redefine the second-hand market to make it more attractive. I am a believer in different levels of sales tax for new and used items. I think we also need to think about the shopping experience, maybe even how the items are packaged.”

Alva Nyblom is also thinking about the future and how the fashion industry can become more sustainable. But change will happen slowly, and she believes we must learn to understand what triggers our purchasing behaviour. We consumers have power to influence and would exercise that power if we understood how everything fits together.

“Fast fashion enables us to take on a new persona every day. But I think there will be a revolution in fashion when we understand what elements go into our clothing. There are reasons why your jumper is so cheap. You’re not paying because other people are paying for you.”

Ecologically sustainable fashion should be organic in the cultivation, production and manufacturing of textiles and clothing and have little or no impact on the environment.

Socially sustainable fashion should work to ensure that everyone in the production chain enjoys good working conditions and fair wages. Workers should not be exploited.

Economically sustainable fashion should reduce wasteful consumption. Textiles should be of superior quality, lasting, and be repairable or reusable.