What are we going to do about fast fashion?

Fast fashion is wasteful. I know, it is a line you have heard a million times before (or seen in print in a thousand different iterations). The problem is, we still haven’t changed, no matter how often it is said or written. So, it bears repeating. Fast fashion is wasteful.

Just so we are all on the same page, we are going to define fast fashion. The term is used by the fashion industry to refer to designs which capture current fashion trends quickly, inexpensively, and in mass quantities. However, most people outside the industry who use the term define it as “the rapid turn-over of low-cost garments in the global clothing industry”, according to Smart Asset in a 2018 article on credit card debt. This definition encapsulates everything from the design through to consumer sales and the one we are definitely using here.

There are a lot of issues with fast fashion, many writers have tackled the subject, and BookRiot has a list of the most eye opening books on the issue. A lot of these books cover the human cost but there is an environmental toll to pay as well. In her 2013 book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline attempts to give readers insight into some of the cost impacts, “[i]n 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits. Today, we buy more than 60 pieces of new clothing on average per year.” This is in part due to the decrease in the cost of clothing, facilitated by fast fashion companies and brands. According to the European Environmental Agency, the price of clothing dropped 30% between 1996 and 2018. Which means we just purchased more clothing.

The True Cost, a 2015 documentary film directed by Andrew Morgan that focuses on fast fashion, is credited by many as one of the moving forces behind uncovering the realities of fast fashion production to the public eye.

According to Smart Asset, people buy five times as much clothing as we did forty years ago. And in an article Cline wrote for The Atlantic, she says that Americans send 10.5 million tonnes of clothing waste to landfills every year, according to 2014 research. Europe is no different, according to 2016 numbers, the EU textile industry sends 16 million tonnes of waste to landfills each year. This number does encapsulate the whole of the textile industry, which does mean the manufacturing process as well, so the waste which comes from cutting the pattern is wrapped up in this number as well. However, before we manage to rationalize half the environmental impact away and place it firmly on the shoulders of producers, we need to remember that wasted fabric is also wasted money for them. They will stretch the fabric as far as it can go and cut as many pieces from it as possible.

And this is just what gets sent to landfills. The textiles people throw away because their jeans have a hole in them or they ripped a t-shirt at the seams.  But what about the stuff we donate? The things in the back of our closets from a couple of seasons ago that we wouldn’t wear anymore because the trends have moved so far forward or because our weight has fluctuated enough to necessitate the purchase of a new wardrobe. We donate them in the bins conveniently placed throughout Vienna or to individual shops. But given the amount of clothing we purchase it means charity shops and thrift stores can rotate out stock which doesn’t sell faster than a major fast-fashion brand. This has created a whole global supply chain of second-hand clothing. According to the BBC there is a €3.6 billion global market in second-hand clothing. In his book, Clothing Poverty, Dr. Andrew Brooks suggests consumers are unaware of the totality of their impact on the global environment when they purchase clothing from fast-fashion brands. His research shows that anywhere from 10-30% of donated clothing is sold at shops. The rest is sold to clothing recyclers and the global market. He details where several items of clothing end up, like donated dress shirts often get purchased in bulk by dealers in Pakistan, winter coats by dealers in Eastern Europe, and summer clothing in the clothing markets in Northern Africa, where they are suffering from an influx of surplus second-hand clothing. According to Patrick Grant, a prominent fashion designer and judge on the Great British Sewing Bea, “we have enough clothing on the planet right now to clothe the next six generations of the human race.” And that is a lot of clothing when you consider the exponential growth rates we are currently experiencing.

There is also just straight up pollution and resource use as an ecological impact. The European Environmental Agency reports 3500 separate chemical used in the manufacture of clothing, with 750 of them being hazardous to humans and 440 being hazardous to the environment. Their research suggests that 20% of global water pollution is caused by the textile industry, through dying or other chemical processes used in production. Furthermore, the report states a production of a tonne of textiles creates 15 – 35 tonnes of CO2. In 2017, they estimate that each person accounted for 654kg of CO2 as a direct result of textile consumption, which really just means purchasing new clothes.

And finally, we come to microplastics. Oftentimes, cheaper fabrics used in fast fashion are synthetics, like polyester, nylon, and acrylic. The European Environmental Agency mentions this in their report. According to an article in Vogue earlier this year, clothing made from synthetic materials are shedding these microplastics into the water when they are washed and the air when they are worn. And researchers are not entirely sure how much is directly related to the clothing we wear, yet, but the current estimate sits at about 35% according to research published in the Environment Journal. But it is probably quite a lot.  Given that a WWF report, as detailed in The Telegraph, estimates we consume the equivalent amount of plastic to a bank card every week.

Policy Progress on Regulating Fashion Industry

This is a huge problem, and one social entrepreneurs cannot be expected to tackle on their own. Fortunately, the European Union is already making policy recommendations and funding research and task forces. With the backing of the European Civil Society Strategy and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, who has a make fashion circular initiative, the EU is taking steps to change our current ideas about the economy of fashion.

Policy Progress on Regulating Fashion Industry

The EU initiative RESYNTEX, hopes to create a new idea for a circular economy for fashion. They are currently billed as a research project looking to understand how to keep “post-consumer non-wearable waste” from our landfills and incinerators. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is throwing their whole weight behind the idea of circular economies and waste reduction. WRAP is a new initiative at the EU level which is designed to fight clothing waste. The program has some high-profile influences, from the Danish Fashion Institute, the British government’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), and significant links to the Ministry of the Environment in the Netherlands.

According to the WRAP reports, if the SCAP 2020 targets are met this would mean saving “16,000 tonnes of waste (equivalent to over 1,300 double decker buses), 420 million m3 of water (or 160,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools) and 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions (or the annual emissions of almost 250,000 cars).”

In September 2018, the Danish government released their strategy for a circular economy. The plan aims to have businesses incorporate circular economic models into their business plans and manufacturing processes. This cross-sector, multi-level strategy represents the Danish government’s commitment to decreasing waste and wasteful practices by changing mindsets throughout the consumption process. And, from a policy perspective, this followed shortly on the heels of Sweden’s policies on tax breaks for repairing clothing and household items in 2016, which the government did as the first steps towards creating a circular economy.

However, this idea of environmentally friendly clothing and lack of waste in the fashion economy has affected some high-profile brands. Patagonia has won the circular economy multinational award at the economic forum in 2017.  If your Patagonia gear is ripped, worn, or broken, they will repair it.  They want to help keep customers using their high-quality products for as long as possible. “Repair is a radical act,” their website Worn Wear states. Not only do they offer the repair service but they also offer blogs on how to extend the life of your gear and how to care for it so it won’t need to be repaired for a long, long time.

Vienna’s Forward-Thinking Fashionistas

Impact Hub Vienna’s social and environmental entrepreneurs are creating new brands which are sustainable and circular. If you want something fashion-forward and forward-thinking then these brands and initiatives can help you find a sustainable solution to enjoying fashion responsibly.

Endlos Fesch – Vienna’s Fashion Library is the ultimate in sustainability.  This pop-up library lets you rent clothes.  Need a drindl for Wienner Wiesn’ Festival? No problem, you can rent one for €45 for the whole month.  Need a ball gown? They have them. The founders say the library allows us all to enjoy our soft spot for fashion while keeping our environmental impacts low.

MaMaMu and The Shirt System enables shoppers to mix and match various designs to create their own shirts. They have worked with artists to create a variety of eye-catching patterns which can be snapped together to make endlessly interesting designs from a few articles of clothing. Meaning your look can change but your ecological footprint doesn’t.

Kindby takes the hassle out of buying environmentally friendly baby clothes when you already have so much going on. The birth of a little one can be stressful enough without having to think about how your choices for your baby’s clothes affect the environment. Every month, they put together a box of clothes from environmentally friendly producers in your baby’s size which are seasonably appropriate. They choose clothing made to last, so the next little one can wear them too.

Fitico Sportswear makes all of their sportswear from recycled plastic fishing nets. They design their clothes in Austria and then they are made in Portugual. The brand is ethical from start to finish. “In all we do, we put people and planet first.” And they have you covered from head to ankles, with headbands, tops, jackets, and leggings. So, get moving with your favourite environmentally sustainable exercise and fitness clothing brand.

Montreet offers so much to the environmentally minded consumer. From repairs and make-overs should the item be worn out or damaged to rentals of their clothing if you are a fair-weather climber or event only jogger. They use resource saving materials and processes to craft their fashionable sportswear and encourage consumers to purchase a single jacket to cover off every sport, weather it is climbing, jogging, cycling or other outdoor activities.

New Drivers for a New Accelerator

These brands all contribute to positive environmental impacts, whether it is through renting clothing or removing plastics directly from the oceans, they are all making consumers lives a little better and easing out minds. But these are well-established brands within the Impact Hub Vienna network. Some of them having been with us for years and we have watched them grow through accelerator programs and flourish in the new environmentally-conscious market place they are helping to shape.  And while, they are doing their part and helping you to do yours, there are still gaps in the ethical fashion market. Impact Hub Amsterdam, supported by Impact Hub Vienna, developed a new accelerator program to facilitate new social and environmental entrepreneurs entering this market; The Fashion Accelerator for Better Business (FABB).

The start-up accelerator is aimed at companies working in the Netherlands or Austria in garment production which incorporate circular economies and/or sustainability into their business models and planning and sell directly to the end consumer.  This new program will be bringing new brands and entrepreneurs into the spotlight in a challenging market segment which must compete with the juggernauts in the fast fashion industry.  Both Amsterdam and Vienna are placing a high degree of importance on sustainable fashion, according to the accelerator’s Netherlands counterpart, which make them the best places for new brands because of the high degree of government support for environmentally sustainable initiatives and companies.

Environmental Impact and You

Outside of shopping these brands and keeping tabs on the new developments from Impact Hub Vienna, what can you do?

“Make and mend” is the term used in the Navy (notably Commonwealth of Nations navies) for an “afternoon off”. It is derived from the time of sailing ships when sailors would, occasionally but regularly, be allowed time to “make and mend” their uniforms. (Wikipedia)


“Make Do and Mend”, which means fixing our clothing rather than throwing them out and getting something new. Patagonia offers the service at an international level for their clothing, and locally, so does Montreet. Patrick Grant, British fashion designer and owner of bespoke tailoring services in Saville row, recommends picking up a needle yourself to repair your clothes. There are so many ways to do this. If you were one of the many who took up sewing during the covid-19 precautionary measures, then you probably have learned some skills. This includes the new class of “Sew-Bros”.  But if you didn’t, there are other options. The trend of visible mending is on the rise, everything from iron patches, sewn on appliques, and traditional embroidery techniques can be used to patch up a few holes and give your clothes a bit more longevity. This is an art form which used to be employed all over the world. Not confident wielding a needle at all, Vienna has a venerable tradition of tailors and dressmakers who can help you out for reasonable rates. Vienna has an excellent repair network which is featured on the European Union’s Circular Economy Stakeholder website. Or, if you happen to know a Sew-Bro or anyone else who has the confidence, offer a trade for services or teaching, just like in the repair cafes.

Take conscious stock of your purchasing habits. How much clothing do you own? Do you need to buy more? Can you access a service for it instead, like Endlos Fesch? If you need to replace something, can you afford to invest in a piece you would rather care for and repair rather than something you would consider disposable? Is there a consignment shop or thrist shop option instead? We all need to ask ourselves these questions and more as we approach textile consumption. The waste is just too much to not.

Pool wardrobes with friends. Sometimes, but not always, we need a suit. Sometimes, but not always, we need a ballgown. Again, Endlos Fesch and Montreet offer a library of options but what if you want something a little more permanent. My grandmother and three of her friends who were getting married in the same year and were all relatively the same size, purchased a wedding dress together. All four wore it. When my friends started having children, they decided to share the expense of maternity clothing. Sometimes closet swapping is a great way to refresh what you are wearing. No one in your office has seen your friend’s pieces. Hand me downs worked for us for years before, all of us in an older sibling’s clothing or something from one of our parent’s friend’s kids, we can do the same thing for us and our families and reduce textile waste in the process. Besides, pre-worn jeans are the best feeling ones.

We are always looking for the best ways to help you create a social or environmental impact, either through our forward-thinking entrepreneurs or through savvy suggestions like the ones above. We are eagerly awaiting the new brands and entrepreneurs from the first iteration of the FABB accelerator. Stay posted!