Sustainable fast fashion- is it possible?

​The clothes we wear have become one of our great environmental challenges. The fashion is changing fast and clothes have become so cheap that many of the garments we buy are used just one or a few times. Low quality is no problem since they were only meant to be used a couple of times. The business model that this is built upon is called Fast Fashion and makes the latest fashion available for more people, but the consequences are that the clothing industry now has become one of the most pollutant industries. The demands from the consumers on low prices are at the same time making the people that are making the clothes earn less and less, often under two dollars a day and often is child labor occurring in the factories.

​Recently Bahareh Zamani, at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Chalmers, defended her PhD-thesis named The challenges of Fast fashion- Environmental and social LCA of Swedish clothing consumption made in cooperation with the research programme Mistra Future Fashion. In it she makes a Life Cycle Assessment on the Swedish fast fashion industry and also on alternatives within the circular economy scheme.​
   

- Fast fashion as a business model is linear. The material is extracted, the garment is produced, used and thrown away. It is obvious that this is not a sustainable business model. The raw material is a resource problem. To produce polyester oil is needed and great amounts of water is used to produce cotton, often in regions where water is a major issue, she says.

The carbon footprint from the Swedish fashion consumption is approximately 0.25 tonnes CO2-equivalents per capita and year. This figure can be compared with the average carbon footprint for a Swedish person, which is around 10 tonnes of CO2-equivalents per year. 

- Although the share from fashion to the total carbon footprint is only 2.5% today, the climate impact from textile consumption needs to be reduced considerably in a sustainable future, she says. 

She has assessed the environmental impact along the life cycle of five common Swedish garments; jacket, dress, t-shirt, jeans and hospital robes and has focused on how much carbon dioxide and how much water each garment is using during its life cycle. The jacket and the dress were the garments that turned out to produce the most CO2. Both produce around 16kg per unit while the t-shirt produces a little more than 2kg CO2 per unit. Here one have to consider that a t-shirt isn’t used quite as much as jeans or jackets. It therefore evens out in the long run. The dress in the study stands out as a garment that contributes to high carbon emissions since it is 100procent polyester.


The diagram compares carbon footprint and water use in different kinds of production situations and consumption.

Bahareh Zamani does not believe that changing the consumption pattern is an easily reachable alternative.

Keeping up with the latest trends by buying a low-priced garment is attractive to consumers, she thinks. Instead she has investigated other alternatives within the circular economy scheme to minimize the waste by using them as an alternative for raw material.

- Our purpose is not to criticize fast fashion, but rather to help the fast fashion industry. I don’t want to lecture and ban the rapidly changing fashion. I want to show that there are circular alternatives that are more sustainable than the present linear business model, she says. 

The first alternative she has been studying is how an increased textile recycling could reduce the environmental impacts. The life cycle assessment showed that an optimized recycling system could reduce the CO2- emissions and consequently global warming potential with 10 tons per ton textile that is produced. 

- If we replace newly produced cotton to recycled viscose then we could save lots of water and lots of CO2. Each single recycling system doesn’t do very much, but a combination of different alternatives can make a great change and take us towards a more circular economy, and reduce CO2 emission and water use, says Bahareh Zamani.

Another alternative that she has been looking into is what effect on the resource use it would have if more would start using clothing libraries. In this case it was important to compare different types of business models to see which one is impacting the environment the least when it comes to how the garment reaches the consumer. It proved to be the online clothing libraries that has the least impact on the environment since, at least in Sweden, it is estimated that the consumer will walk to the closest parcel distributer instead of taking the car or the bus to a clothing library in a town.  

 

If we imagine that Sweden would start recycling clothes instead of buying clothes from new materials and at the same time start using clothing libraries much more, then we could reduce our resource consumption with around 50 percent. If the clothing factories would only use renewable energy then the potential to increase global warming would be reduced with almost 100 percent. 

- Many of the companies that we have been in contact with are interested and want to learn more about the different alternatives to be able to reduce their impact on the environment. But this cannot happen from only one side. Consumers must be encouraged to use their clothes more before throwing them in the dust bin and not buy as much new as they do today. Also smaller companies that want to produce clothes from recycled material should be encouraged and supported, says Bahareh Zamani.

She now hopes that her research may help politicians to have better knowledge when they are making decisions, that the industry gets better understanding of the potential that lies in recycling and circular economy and also that the consumers understand the impact of their purchasing habits.


Bahareh herself is very interested in fashion and is aware of trends when she buys clothes, but she does her best to mainly buy garments that will last a long time, both so they don’t wear out fast but also so they don’t go out of fashion too fast. 

- But it is unavoidable to buy fast fashion now and then. That is why it is so important to help them implement more sustainable strategies, she says.

 
Text: Mats Tiborn

Published: Thu 07 Jul 2016. Modified: Fri 19 Aug 2016