College of Agriculture & Environmental Sciences

Fast fashion is the new plastic

"Clothes should only be discarded to a landfill if this is the very last option," says Dr Lorna Christie, Department of Life Sciences, CAES.

South Africa is a fashion-conscious nation and it shows in consumers’ spending habits, fashion industry trends and the massive amounts of waste and pollution the clothing industry generates.

"Clothing overconsumption is on the rise in Africa, including South Africa, and a major reason for this is the acceleration of the fast-fashion cycle," says Dr Lorna Christie, researcher on consumer decision-making at the Department of Life Sciences, College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (CAES).

Fast fashion is the extremely quick turnaround between the time fashion companies see what is available in the clothing collections of the famous fashion houses and get it into retail stores and boutiques. Increasingly, this is happening in a matter of weeks.

"Fashion companies have drastically changed their collection offerings," says Christie. "A decade ago, only two collections a year were available. Nowadays, some brands and fashion houses put out two collections a month, or even more - up to 16 collections a year. We are also seeing this trend in South Africa."

With fashions changing so often and so fast, it’s hardly surprising that people are buying more and more clothing.

"Globally, clothing production has roughly doubled since 2000," she says. "People bought 60% more garments in 2014 compared to the year 2000, and they only kept the clothes for half as long as before. Now, six years later, the fast-fashion cycle has increased even more and it’s safe to say that people are purchasing clothing at an even faster rate."

They are discarding it at a faster rate too.

Fast fashion’s ugly footprint

Around the world, one garbage truck of discarded clothing - much of it still wearable - is burnt or dumped in landfills every second of every day.

"Discarded clothing is hugely polluting," says Christie. "The chemicals used in the manufacture are released, and because of all the synthetic fibres used, clothes either don’t decompose or they decompose very slowly."

Natural fibres are not much better, she adds. "The growth of cotton and other natural fibres requires the use of water, fertilisers, pesticides and such, as well as the energy for picking the fibre and processing it into yarns. Then, as with synthetic fibres, there is the dyeing process, which is extremely water-intensive and polluting."

More than 10 000 litres of water go into the manufacturing of a single pair of jeans. "This is equivalent to the average drinking water for one person for five-and-a-half years," Christie says.

But this isn’t the half of it when it comes to the fashion industry’s environmental impact.

Once a garment has been manufactured, it is then shipped and delivered to the point of sale, which uses still more energy, the amounts depending on the mode of transportation, distances travelled and the packaging.

"Then comes the consumption phase, where the consumer buys, wears, washes and cares for the garment, which is also damaging to the environment," Christie says. "Washing clothes releases 500 000 tons of microfibres into the ocean each year, which is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles."

South Africans are part and parcel of this, spending R180 billion on clothing and textiles in 2017, accounting for 18% of all retail sales that year. "South Africa has a strong fashion consumer base, which has been growing steadily over the years and will most likely continue to do so."

Smaller players could drive conscientious consumption

While sustainability is growing in importance in many other industries, overnight change on the part of the major global fashion brands and companies is unlikely, says Christie.

"Profitable companies producing fast fashion will continue to do so unless something really dramatic changes in our current environment. In reducing the environmental footprint of clothing manufacturing, it’s more feasible to start small and then move towards the bigger companies. Small and medium clothing enterprises are the ideal place to start implementing slow-fashion principles and conscientious consumption."

Research on smaller clothing manufacturing entrepreneurs in South Africa is the focus of a CAES research group, led by Prof Elizabeth Kempen of CAES, which has received a Unisa Women in Research grant for this work.

Christie’s particular interest is what sustainability means to smaller entrepreneurs and whether or not they would be able to produce custom-made apparel sustainably.

In a study conducted among a small group of SME owners in 2019, Christie found that most associated sustainability with staying in business and being profitable.

"Within an emerging economy where unemployment and poverty are rife, it is natural to first consider making a living before considering the environment. What my research aims to achieve is to find a way in which these concepts are not at odds with one another, but rather by achieving one, the other option is naturally also achieved."

She points out that consumer awareness of environmental sustainability is rising and with it, social pressures to support local manufacturing and sustainably sourced products. Pro-environmental SMEs can seize the opportunity to tap into this market."

What conscientious consumers can do

Meanwhile, consumers also have the power to start slowing down the fast-fashion cycle.

"Slow fashion means consuming conscientiously," says Christie. "By thinking about the clothing they purchase from the production to the discarding stage, consumers can make better choices in order to protect the environment. We can purchase durable garments that are produced ethically in styles and fashions that will last for years, and not only a season or two."

"We can also choose clothing that requires minimal maintenance in terms of washing and drying, that will keep for a long time and stay in good condition," she adds. "We can then continue to wear these clothes for several years, and when they eventually need to be discarded, we can do so responsibly – by recycling, upcycling, donating, and so on. Clothes should only be discarded to a landfill if this is the very last option."

* By Clairwyn van der Merwe, Contract writer, Directorate of Research Support

Publish date: 2020/06/05