Can fast fashion brands really produce ‘sustainable’ ranges?

Far too often, sustainability claims by large fashion brands boil down to nothing more than 'green washing', and one area that is rarely talked about in this topic is quantity.

Every year in the UK, around 350,000 tonnes of clothing goes into landfill. That’s worth around £140 million. Over the last 15 years, the average number of wears that a garment gets before it is discarded has decreased by 36% - it is estimated that the average garment is only worn 10 times before it is disposed of. (Traid UK)

More concerning is that in those 15 years, clothing production has roughly doubled, and the quality of clothing being produced is decreasing too, meaning when garments are no longer wanted by their owner, they are not in a desirable condition to be resold as second hand, or passed down in the family. As little as 10% of the clothing donated to charity shops are sold in the UK.

So, how many garments are actually being produced? These numbers are not often talked about, and unless you’re in the industry, they are quite hard to guess at. Brands purposely leave consumers in the dark about these figures, because they do not paint them in a good light.

To get a rough idea at the enormous quantity that we’re talking about, today alone, online retailer Missguided have 15,880 different styles of clothing listed on their website for sale. That’s right, 15,880. M&S lists 5,508 different styles across Men's and Women's and Next stocks 35,669 different styles across Men's and Women's. (For comparison, by the end of the year, Onesta might have produced 20 different styles, and that’s a high estimate). Now let’s break this down. Taking Missguided as an example, out of their 15,880 styles, 4,058 of these are dresses. Sizes range from 4 -18, and assuming each size has available stock of 500 pieces (which, realistically, is a very low estimate for a fast fashion brand of this size), then over 16 million dresses are being made and sold by Missguided. (16,232,000 to be exact). That's just one type of garment, in just one season, and just one fast fashion company on a planet full of brands like, and bigger, than this.

This drive to achieve constant ‘newness’, as it’s called in the industry (a constant push to persuade customers to carry on buying products that are slightly different to what they already own), is what’s promoting the continuous cycle of new styles. To quote their website, they “drop up to 1000 brand new styles every week”. That’s 52 thousand new styles every year. So, assuming 500 garments are made in each of those styles each week, (again, that’s a VERY low estimate) then that’s half a million garments per week! Missguided is just one cog in a very large wheel, and is an easy example to choose after their escapades on Channel 4’s ‘Inside Missguided’ which almost seemed like propaganda – showing the business model and the lifestyle that the brand promotes as desirable, rather than showing it’s true cost and disastrous consequences.

When huge retailers and marketplaces like H&M are introducing 'sustainable' ranges with ‘sustainable’ fabrics (even though with just a little digging, big holes can be found in these too), the sheer volume of their production quantities surely undermines any of these attempts? Of course, it is better to use recycled polyester instead of new polyester, and organic cotton instead of conventional cotton, but the sheer quantity of 'stuff' being produced is simply not sustainable: it promotes over consumption and waste.

On top of this, these brands do not seem to consider the fact the ‘sustainability’ and ‘ethicality’ are intertwined. You cannot have one without the other - yet these so called ‘sustainable’ ranges do not seem to take into account the true cost of labour, otherwise how are they still managing to make profit on a ‘sustainable’ jumper for £17.99? From the point of view of a small brand who is trying to do things differently, these numbers are hard to ignore; our quest for a more sustainable industry is made ever more difficult when large corporations continue to pump out hundreds of thousands of garments a week.

Regardless of whether the material is better, manufacturing in this quantity is heavily depleting the planet of natural resources and promoting overconsumption - it cannot continue in this way forever.

As a smaller brand, we have chosen to only produce limited runs of our small collections - we don't want to be responsible for wasted garments and wasted resources. We don’t want to live surrounded by landfill sites, which is ultimately what these unbelievably high numbers of production create. And we know we’re not the only ones trying to do things differently. There are many other small brands out there who are trying to change things too, and we will only be able to do it by working together.

We’d love to know your thoughts on this topic, let us know what you think.

(Photo source: The Guardian)

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