When journalist Anne-Marie Schiro reviewed the arrival of Zara International on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1989 she used the phrase “fast fashion” to describe its approach. The new shop offered fresh styles that only 15 days earlier had been dreamt up at the company’s headquarters in Spain.
Zara, Schiro wrote, was speaking a language understood by young people on a budget “who nonetheless change their clothes as often as the colour of their lipstick”. Her words were a powerful prophecy of a new era in fashion. By 2012, Zara’s parent company Inditex was churning out 840mn garments a year.
Today, these first-generation fast fashion giants — a wholly European group that includes Sweden’s H&M and Dublin’s discount retailer Primark — have been joined by more affordable, more aggressive “ultra fast” social-media-savvy brands, such as British retailer Boohoo and Chinese behemoth Shein. Collectively, they have supercharged the speed at which clothes are made, consumed and discarded.
This surfeit of cheap, shortlived garments has come at an enormous environmental and social cost, however. The average European throws away 12kg of clothes every year, the European Commission estimates, and the consumption of textiles accounts for “the fourth-highest negative impact on the environment”.
Now, the birthplace of fast fashion is making moves to end it.
With pressure mounting on the EU to meet its climate target of net zero emissions by 2050, Brussels has set out a broad vision to reform the sector.
By 2030, it wants textile products imported into the EU market to be “long-lived and recyclable, to a great extent made of recycled fibres, free of hazardous substances and produced in respect of social rights and the environment”. It is part of what the EU describes as a “circular economy” in which the bloc consumes and discards less overall.
The EU hopes its legislation will encourage policymakers around the world to adopt similar measures and force brands to rethink their business practices with benefits for every market where they sell their clothes.
“Industry was never part of the story and I think that’s the game changer. That . . . will inevitably steer them to think in a more responsible way,” Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU’s environment commissioner, told the FT last month.
Achieving this, however, involves changes to existing legislation, awareness campaigns and a new proposal to require producers — whether manufacturers, importers or distributors — to pay for the treatment of waste textiles.
But sustainability advocates say the proposals, while a step in the right direction, are too vague and not underpinned by concrete measures. “There are big pronouncements, but the intent of ‘we want to end fast fashion’ is not [yet] translating into law,” says Maxine Bédat, a former lawyer and author of Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment.
These intentions are also not yet matched by the required infrastructure. Under new waste and recycling targets for example, member states will be required to collect discarded textiles from 2025. But in many cases the necessary recycling facilities are not widely available to deal with fabrics made up of multiple fibres, such as cotton and polyester. Elastane, which is added to many garments to increase stretchiness, can act as a contaminant during the recycling process and must first be extracted, increasing the cost.
“There seems to be a lot of emphasis on disclosure of information in clothing, and circularity,” adds Bédat, who wants to see a greater focus on tackling emissions. “But we don’t have the technological solutions for this mythical circular world.”
The global fashion industry has long been a dirty business.
But it is the rise of ultrafast online retailers that has led to an unprecedented volume of cheap, poor-quality clothes made from virgin polyester and other synthetic fabrics derived from fossil fuels. These items have little to no resale value and end up being incinerated or languishing for hundreds of years in landfills, usually in developing countries.
Global textile production, of which 81 per cent is used by the clothing industry, nearly doubled between 2000 and 2015. Consumption of apparel and footwear is expected to grow another 63 per cent between 2022 and 2030 to 102mn tonnes, predicts the European Environment Agency.
The glut of low-priced clothes has contributed to a culture in which consumers increasingly think of them as disposable. More than half of all fast fashion is discarded in less than a year, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a non-profit that campaigns against waste and pollution. If the average price on an item sold by Shein is about $7.60, for example, it becomes more convenient for consumers to buy new than to repair existing clothing or buy second-hand.
The fast fashion model has also been accused of contributing to exploitative working conditions in order to maintain the low prices customers expect. The 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy, in which an eight-storey commercial building in Bangladesh collapsed and killed more than 1,100 people, mostly women and children, helped expose the dire circumstances many garment workers face.
Lawmakers pushing for change often cite the incident but the pace of those efforts since has been slow at best. Bédat, the author, says the EU should make it a legal requirement for brands to pay living wages across its supply chain to enable workers and their families to meet their basic needs.
Yet, so far, the fashion industry has been largely left to self-regulate, despite industry groups and designers, such as Stella McCartney and Orsola de Castro calling for greater government intervention. Out of all the EU’s member states only France, Sweden and most recently the Netherlands have implemented schemes to make producers financially responsible for the waste they create.
Another problem with relying on voluntary action, says Valérie Boiten, senior policy officer at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is that brands trying to do better are “put at a competitive disadvantage”. “At the end of day, there is a premium to pay for circular design [and other sustainability measures],” she adds.
This will change when EU-wide legislation comes into force in 2030 but Emily Macintosh, senior policy offer for textiles at the European Environment Bureau, argues that the proposed extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme should not simply “allow producers to pay to pollute for a negligible fee”. She adds: “We can’t just raise money through an EPR system to fund collection, sorting, recycling, circularity . . . in Europe without recognising that a huge amount of our fashion and textile products are exported to the global south.”
On the industry’s side, progress has been slow. Brands including H&M, Zara and Primark have launched in-store clothing “take-back” schemes, inviting customers to drop off worn clothing from any brand in exchange for a discount on a future purchase, which have been widely condemned by sustainability advocates for encouraging further consumption. To date, 369 textile, apparel, footwear and luxury goods companies have voluntarily committed to science-based targets, in line with efforts to keep global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Only 170, however, have been approved by the Science-Based Targets initiative, a partnership between the Carbon Disclosure Project, the UN Global Compact, World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Greenwashing, whereby brands market themselves as more climate-friendly and sustainable than they really are, is rife. How best to measure how companies’ claims of sustainability is something the EU has tried to tackle in its Green Claims Directive, which was published in March. The aim of the new law is to regulate how businesses verify their environmental claims. Statements that do not meet the minimum criteria set will be banned. The European Commission estimates that substantiating a single claim about materials used could cost around €500, a cost that could rise to €54,000 if businesses wanted to prove statements about their overall environmental footprint depending on the method used.
Separately, the World Resources Institute sets out guidance for companies to measure emissions both from their own production and that of their suppliers but with less focus on waste or consumption. Given the industry involves complex, multinational supply chains, the WRI admits that it is difficult for companies to access the necessary primary data, particularly on the production of upstream materials such as cotton.
Efforts have been made to address the lack of information. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition launched the Higg Index in 2012, a set of standards designed to help companies around the world trace the environmental and social impact of their products. It covers issues from waste and chemical use to human rights and labour practices.
But the index, since rebranded as Worldly, has been criticised by NGOs for being too heavily skewed by industry interests and not robust enough, which it has since pledged to address. Other measures including Life Cycle Assessment and Product Environmental Footprint, both designed to calculate the effects a product has on the environment from creation to disposal, have also been accused of falling short.
“The reason [such methodologies] are falling down is because we are taking materials from nature, from a farm, and putting them in a mix with materials of a very different origin” such as oil-based polyesters, says Dalena White, secretary-general of the International Wool Textile Organisation. “We are making natural fibres much higher in terms of [environmental] footprint because we never measure where the oil comes from.”
Burden of change
In an atmosphere of high inflation and tensions around global trade, many companies fear that the EU’s push for sustainability comes at too high a price.
Part of the issue is the sheer amount of legislation the commission has introduced. Euratex, the European textile industry body, estimates that there are 16 pieces of legislation relevant to textiles currently being worked on, covering everything from sustainable public procurement to chemical use and waste shipment rules.
And that is only in the EU. In the US, fashion trade groups recently endorsed a proposed bill in California, known as SB 253, that requires companies with revenues of more than $1bn to report greenhouse gas emissions across their value chain on an annual basis.
A separate proposal in New York known as The Fashion Act would require all apparel and footwear retailers with global revenue of at least $100mn to set and achieve science-based targets to reduce their climate impacts — or face fines of up to 2 per cent of annual sales.
Some in the industry argue that the EU’s demands are unrealistic. “For what is probably the oldest industry in the world, [the green transition] is a big challenge because we want to change everything in a short period of time and the value chain is not prepared for that,” says Mauro Scalia, Euratex’s director of sustainable businesses.
Scalia argues a better way to promote sustainability would be to mandate that governments have to ensure that they purchase sustainable fabrics for public workers and services, such as towels in hospitals or uniforms for firefighters: “If you start to ask that all of them have some sustainability criteria incorporated then you send a tremendous signal to the market.”
There are others who believe that changing consumer behaviour is the key to pushing the industry towards greater sustainability.
One of the ways this can be done is through so-called ecolabels. Germany’s “Grüner Knopf”, or Green Button, for example, launched in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, gives a seal of approval to products that can prove they have robust environmental and social credentials. Yet just over two-fifths of German consumers are familiar with it. Similarly, the Nordic Swan, a voluntary initiative, has been around since 1989.
The EU, which has a similar system for white goods, is working on a revised version for textiles. Brussels also plans to establish a “digital product passport” that will provide consumers with information about how an item can be recycled or repaired. But officials warn that the commission must carefully balance the need to prevent erroneous green claims without confusing consumers with a plethora of labels.
“The problem is we have too many labels,” says one EU official working on consumer legislation, who also complained that half of an online sample of green claims made by businesses did not meet the criteria.
The rise of online shopping also means that measures like these have less impact. Instead, young consumers in particular are bombarded with advertisements and aspirational sponsored content on social media sites such as Instagram and TikTok. Shein, which has 30.1mn followers on Instagram, and Boohoo, which has 12.6mn, both make effective use of so-called influencers to market their clothes.
Shein says its “on-demand, lean production model” is well-aligned with EU efforts to cut waste, adding that it had established a road map that “outlines our commitment to addressing social and environmental challenges by embracing sustainable practices”. Boohoo did not respond to requests for comment.
But those who represent consumers say that the responsibility of building a cleaner industry cannot hinge solely on people changing their lifestyles. Monique Goyens, director-general of BEUC, the European consumer association, believes that addressing the huge damage that the textile industry causes to the planet means moving away entirely from a growth economy that requires people “to go on buying things with money they don’t have for things they don’t necessarily need”.
“Circularity doesn’t mean it is not capitalistic. You can create new companies and new wealth [without exhausting] the raw material,” she says, adding that there is a business “opportunity for people who are creative and innovative”.
But until the industry is forced to change, a majority of the world’s clothing will continue to simply be thrown away. Campaigners are resolute that if Europe is serious about wanting to clean up fast fashion it must legally require companies to set and meet science-based targets. “The methodology for [making the fashion industry sustainable] is already there,” Bédat says. “If that’s what the EU wants to achieve, that’s what the law should be.”