Since 2000, fast fashion—the speedy delivery of inexpensively produced hyper-fashion trends—has been a boon to retailers that subscribe to the model, as well as to sellers of polyester and other inexpensive textile fibers. The predilection of polyester over natural fibers may keep prices low, but the costs to brand perception, not to mention the environment, may be high.
What’s in Store?
As a retail model, the success of fast fashion can be viewed by a range of factors. A report by Daedal Research suggests that retail sales of fast fashion apparel have been increasing at a rate of U.S. $5 billion per year since 2013, and are poised to top U.S. $110 billion in 2017. This translates to rather a lot of apparel. A Greenpeace study in 2016 reveals that the total number of garments available at retail doubled from 2000 (the year fast fashion emerged) to 2015.
Like fast food before it, consumer response to fast fashion has fueled its growth. According to Lifestyle Monitor™ survey responses, 47 percent of U.S. consumers want their favorite clothing brand to offer new styles once per month or more. That figure rises to 70 percent among millennials. Close to 20 percent of all consumers surveyed say that they shop at fast fashion retailers, with 33 percent of millennials making the same claim. The result is that consumers are buying 60 percent more apparel than they did 15 years ago and keeping them half as long. And, like fast food, it’s not the fast fashion model that is at issue, but the ingredients that go into the products.
What’s in a Thread?
Polyester is found in approximately 60 percent of garments on retail shelves today. That equates to approximately 21.3 million tons of polyester—a 157 percent increase between 2000 and 2015.
These are worrying statistics when viewed through the sustainability lenses of production, use and disposal. Keeping the current increase in polyester tonnage in mind, consider that producing enough fiber for a polyester t-shirt contributes more than twice the amount of CO2 as does an equivalent volume of cotton fiber.
A production excess of CO2 might be dismissed, but then there is the challenge of disposal. At the end of the life cycle, polyester decomposes at a much slower rate than cotton and other natural fibers, creating a landfill challenge for all those additional clothes consumers are purchasing. But it is the middle of the life cycle, the consumer-use phase, that has emerged as the latest environmental negative for polyester.
What’s in the Water?
In the fall of 2016, the outdoor apparel brand Patagonia furthered its environmental commitment by publishing the results of a study it had commissioned from the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. The results of the study, “Microfiber Pollution and the Apparel Industry,” were published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology in September, 2016. A key finding was that for each time a polyester fleece jacket is laundered, an average of 1.7 grams of microfibers are released from the washing machine. The study estimates that up to 40 percent of these microfibers migrate into rivers, lakes, and streams.
A literature review that accompanied the study reveals:
- Analysis of global water and sediment sampling data indicates that microfibers are ubiquitous in aquatic environments. Recent evidence supports microfiber pollution pervading terrestrial environments and the atmosphere as well. Although soil systems may be the primary receptors of microfibers, microfiber distribution in aquatic systems is currently the best understood.
- Aquatic organisms throughout the food chain consume microplastics and microfibers both directly and indirectly. Within the food chain, these particles have been found to cause physical and chemical impacts, resulting in starvation and reproductive consequences in species. Microplastics and microfibers have also been found in marine species directly consumed by humans, the effects of which are unknown. They have also been found in abiotic ocean products like sea salt.
Additionally, the study found that top-load washing machines contribute 5.3 times the average microfiber shedding of front-load machines, and that aging of jackets increased the average mass of fibers shed by nearly double. According to findings by the 2016 update to the Cotton Life Cycle Inventory and Life Cycle Assessment of Cotton Fiber & Cotton Fabric, 41 percent of global consumers have top-load washing machines. But that number climbs to 71 percent among consumers in the U.S., the largest consumer market.
What’s in the Air?
Other studies, such as one from the University of Alberta in Canada, find that polyester apparel is more apt to retain odors than cotton apparel, suggesting that consumers may have to home-launder polyester apparel more often. The additional launderings generate additional microfibers, thus increasing the accumulation of them in waterways.
The low price of fast fashion appeals to global consumers. In fact, 91 percent of respondents to the Global Lifestyle Monitor™ survey ranks price as a key purchase driver for apparel. However, these same consumers are also concerned about the environment. Where sustainable apparel is concerned, survey responses indicate that 65 percent of consumers would hold brands, manufacturers and retailers responsible for non-sustainable apparel.
A Cleaner Choice
Along with low-cost apparel and the environment, consumers around the world love cotton. Nearly three-in-five global consumers say that better-quality garments are made from cotton. Eighty-five percent of consumers say cotton is safe for the environment; more than double their safety rankings for rayon (54 percent) and polyester (51 percent), according to the Monitor™ survey.
Consumers’ environmental ranking of cotton is validated by the gains made over the past 30 years in cotton production, particularly in the U.S. Though often inaccurately portrayed as a water-intensive crop, roughly half of the cotton grown around the world today relies on rainfall alone to provide water needs. That number jumps to two-thirds for cotton grown in the U.S. Figures for cotton’s pesticide use is also often exaggerated or mischaracterized. Global pesticide sales are currently the best proxy for understanding the use of such chemicals. In 2015, cotton accounted for 5.7 percent of all pesticide sales. To put it into perspective, in 2015 U.S. cotton growers applied insecticides an average of 1.96 times, or less than twice.
The issue of synthetic microfiber accumulation is receiving a great deal of attention already. As non-government agencies, research institutions and apparel-related companies take up the cause and publicize how they are addressing it, consumers too will become increasingly aware. Whether their love of fast fashion and low prices will win out over their concerns for the environment remains to be seen. But at this point in apparel history, fast fashion brands might want to take a second look at more natural fiber options, like cotton, if only to mitigate any potential environmental and perceptual backlash.