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The end of the road for fast fashion? The EU hopes so

A woman searches for used clothes amid tonnes discarded in the Atacama desert, Chile
A woman searches for used clothes amid tonnes discarded in the Atacama desert, Chile Copyright AFP via Getty Images
Copyright AFP via Getty Images
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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It’s estimated that the fashion industry is one of the world’s greatest polluters, responsible for about 20% of the planet’s waste water and around 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The EU is setting out to change this - but is it a real possibility?

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Could fast fashion finally be running out of steam? The European Union certainly thinks so.

While many consumers, spurred on by the ‘woke’ Gen Z, claim to want to be more sustainable in their clothing choices, the EU might just be thinking wishfully.

Industry leaders Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing and ASOS have indeed seen their profits take a hit in recent years, but Zara and H&M have posted huge gains.

And Shein - despite frequent copyright claims and its now infamous influencer trip - still continues to attract thousands of customers, all champing at the bit for cheap, trendy clothing.

The very fact that the China-based giant is able to add a staggering 6,000 new pieces to its website on a daily basis suggests that the concept of fast fashion is going nowhere fast.

Francisco Seco/The AP
Shopping remains a favourite pastime for many - but what's the cost?Francisco Seco/The AP

The EU, though, is hopeful the damaging model of consuming clothing could soon be a thing of the past.

Last month, they adopted recommendations for the body’s strategy, including policies to make clothes tougher, repairable and recyclable. They also backed regulations which suggest production must respect human, social and label rights, animal welfare and the environment throughout the entire supply chain.

"Consumers alone cannot reform the global textile sector through their purchasing habits. If we allow the market to self-regulate, we leave the door open for a fast fashion model that exploits people and the planet’s resources”, explains MEP Delara Burkhardt, adding, “The EU must legally oblige manufacturers and large fashion companies to operate more sustainably”.

Thierry Monasse/Getty
Delara Burkhardt is one of the MEPs behind the EU's plansThierry Monasse/Getty

The real cost of fast fashion

Burkhardt and countless other MEPs have long called for changes in the fast fashion industry, criticising its cavalier attitude to human beings and the environment.

“The disasters that have occurred in the past, like the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, growing textile landfills in Ghana and Nepal, polluted water, and microplastics in our oceans, show what happens when we do not pursue this principle,” she says. “We have waited long enough - it is time to make a change!"

While the idea is transformative in principle, there are concerns from all sides over whether the regulation would be able to help countries outside of Europe.

Places including the Atacama Desert in Chile and the African nations of Ghana and Kenya are currently bearing the brunt of much of the world’s textile waste.

The Atacama Desert has earned the undesirable title of the “world’s dumpster” following reports that the space is home to an estimated 741 acres of deserted clothing. That’s the equivalent to an area as large as Central Park.

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An aerial view of vast piles of used clothes discarded in the Atacama desertAFP via Getty Images

Many of the garments present have never been worn and, due to their low quality, are impossible to resell.

Chile is the number one importer of second-hand clothing in South America, but the sheer volume of fast fashion pumped out means much of it is simply dumped.

The mountain of unwanted fast fashion isn’t just an eyesore - it’s bad for the environment and people living nearby too.

This is also the case dogging countries in Africa like Ghana.

The country imports a vast 15 million pieces of second-hand clothing every week. Known locally as “obroni wawu” - or “dead white man’s clothes”, Ghana is the world’s largest importer of used garments.

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Clothing donated to charity shops from countries including the UK, US and China are sold on to exporters and importers who continue the chain by selling them on to vendors in markets like Kantamanto in Accra.

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Kantamanto market in Accra has thousands of stalls offering clothing from low-end retailersWikimedia Commons

Kantamanto is host to thousands of stalls, all offering clothing from low-end retailers like H&M, Primark and New Look. Many of the garments still have charity shop labels attached.

It’s impossible to sell everything, due to the utter magnitude of pieces on display.

The Or Foundation, which funds social impact projects in Africa, estimates that about 40% of the clothing in Kantamanto leaves as waste.

While some is disposed of by waste management services, other pieces are burned near the market, sending pollution from unnatural fabrics into the air.

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Wikimedia Commons
Korle Lagoon is hugely polluted as a result of discarded fast fashionWikimedia Commons

The rest is dumped in informal landfills. The community of Old Fadama is just two miles from the market but is now used as a dump for clothing waste.

Some 80,000 people call the area home but it isn’t a pleasant place to live. Many houses are built on top of rubbish and animals are forced to graze on vast piles of waste.

Korle Lagoon is nearby and it leads to the ocean. From there, waste is washed out to sea, with beaches across the country covered in mounds of unwanted clothing and textiles. 

"People and the planet are more important than the textile industry’s profits."
Delara Burkhardt
MEP

The EU is hoping to move away from a linear model to a circular one, a model in which every garment can be reused, recycled or, at the very least, made to be biodegradable and compostable.

That’s certainly a sensible aim at a time when many of us realise how crucial it is to tackle fast fashion’s negative impact on the planet.

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Critics, though, have said it simply won’t be enough to report the damaging trend and tempting nature of cheap, easily accessible clothing.

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Bales of second-hand clothes on show in KenyaSOPA Images/Getty

Why is it so hard to kick the fast fashion habit?

In the midst of an economic downturn and rising inflation, it’s hardly surprising that a great deal of people with stretched budgets are finding it hard to turn away from brands offering trendy and, crucially, very cheap clothing.

Even if some of us have been able to escape the grasp of fast fashion, choosing circular options, it seems as though the alternatives aren’t actually much better.

“Often touted as an eco-friendly option, fashion rental services have been found to be less sustainable than throwing clothes away post-use, adding to consumers’ confusion about how to be greener”, consumer analysts at Canvas8 tell Euronews Culture_._

The Ellen MacArthur foundation estimates that 30% of new clothes made every year are never worn and it seems that it’s not just durability - or lack of - that’s the problem.

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A rack of second-hand clothes on sale in KenyaSOPA Images/Getty

A 2022 French study concluded that while 35% of people say they throw away their clothes because they’re worn out, a vast 56% say that it’s down to the garments not suiting them, or that they’re just bored of them.

It seems as if more than 50% of clothing is disposed of for reasons other than durability, much of the problem lies with the consumer and not just the fast fashion brands themselves.

Cally Russell, CEO and Co-Founder of Unfolded, tells Euronews Culture, “We have mass over production driven by brands not knowing what to make for consumers and just chasing sales - they can do this as they operate on such high profit levels. Sadly, the brands that have created this problem aren't going to be the ones that fix it”.

Can the fast fashion industry really be stopped?

Some say the EU’s focus on resale and repair doesn’t appear to make financial sense or will go far enough in changing attitudes among consumers.

Several fast fashion brands are, to their credit, already making inroads into making their clothes last longer. Retail giant Zara has recently started offering a repair service, but when the average price for 70% of all pieces of clothing bought in France is just €8.20, it’s unlikely many people will opt to pay more than that purely to have a button sewn back on or a dress re-hemmed.

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Thomas Trutschel/Photothek/Getty
Zara has recently started offering a repair service - but some say the cost is off-puttingThomas Trutschel/Photothek/Getty

Many have criticised the repair and reuse aspect of the EU’s plans, there has been more praise for its extended producer responsibility (EPR) proposals.

Under that scheme, retailers will be financially responsible for all of the end-of-life stages of clothing. That includes the collection, sorting and recycling of garments.

While the EPR proposals are still in the working stages, with no details made public as yet. But, unless brands are hit with a hefty fee, it’s fairly unlikely they’ll change the way they approach production or their business models.

“Sadly legislation alone doesn't fix the fast fashion problem. Regulation is the starting point for change but so long as there is consumer demand companies will find ways around regulation or find ways to water it down”, explains Cally Russell, adding, “The real way to tackle the fast fashion problem is to educate customers and show them there is other ways to engage with fashion”.

Alain Pitton/Alain Pitton/NurPhoto
Members of Toulouse's Extinction Rebellion organisation protest at a pop-up SHEIN shop, 2022Alain Pitton/Alain Pitton/NurPhoto

How much hope for an end to the culture of fast fashion actually is there?

It is apparent that attitudes are changing among a growing portion of consumers.

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Data from eBay suggests that second-hand clothing makes up for 22% of the wardrobes of 18-to 34-year-olds in the UK, with the figure likely to increase.

Much of that age group is made up of Gen Z, many of whom actively choose to buy clothing from thrift shops and clothes swapping apps.

However, TikTok hauls which feature garments costing pennies from brands like from Shein still prove too tempting for many. For the chronically online, it’s often important to never be seen in the same outfit twice, regardless of the consequences.

While consumer analysts at Canvas8 found that 43% of Brits have felt guilty for buying from the likes of Zara and H&M, just 17% intend to spend less on fast fashion over the next five years.

Behind that seems to be price, with 72% of people surveyed saying they choose to purchase fast fashion because it’s “good value for the money”.

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In the same study, over half of Britons admitted knowing very little about the impact of fast fashion, with many saying they’d appreciate more information from official sources.

Romy Arroyo Fernandez/Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto
XR activists protest against Black Friday in Amsterdam, 2021Romy Arroyo Fernandez/Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto

One particular criticism levied against the EU’s plans is the lack of introduction of living wage legislation.

If put in place, it would mean retailers could no longer sell clothing at rock bottom clothing as they wouldn’t be able to rely on cheap labour.

Shein in particular has often been criticised as particularly guilty of this practice, with a number of allegations made against them on their labour policies.

JADE GAO/AFP via Getty Images
Workers make clothes at a Shein garment factory, a company which has long been accused of labour abuseJADE GAO/AFP via Getty Images

Last year, UK TV station Channel 4 sent an undercover worker into two Shein factories in Guangzhou and found that workers receive a base salary of just 4k yuan per month - or about €503 - for up to 18-hour-long days and are expected to produce 500 pieces of clothing per day with just one day off a month.

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That sees many - often female - workers trapped in poverty, pressured to produce more garments more quickly in order to keep the jobs they so desperately need. Higher wages would mean less mass overproduction as well as a better life for these employees.

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The Oxford Circus branch of fast fashion favourite Primark on Europe's busiest shopping streetMike Kemp/Getty

While the EU’s proposals are certainly a move in the right direction, it’s clear they don’t go far enough to bring an end to fast fashion for good.

Ideally consumers will need to distance themselves from the industry and make more sensible choices, but the current economic situation remains a real challenge for many.

Cally Russell’s advice for those on a budget?

“Move away from chasing the quick hit that fast fashion provides and start buying less. This doesn't mean spend more but buy pieces that offer more versatility and are made in a way that's better for the planet.”

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