Why we adhere to the fast fashion lifestyle

The consumer culture has found its perfect match in the western world; our fast-fashion habits. Consumerism is becoming a form of entertainment. Clothes shopping used to be something people did when they simply needed new clothes. Nowadays, it has become a social activity, something people take pleasure from, treat as a hobby and often become addicted to.

By Kirsty Hunter

In just 15 years we have seen an extreme shift from most clothing shops doing four collections a year to doing 12-18 collections a year. Zara sees new clothes coming into its stores twice a week, and H&M every day. The availability of cheap clothes and the constant turn around of new lines makes it an easily accessible form of entertainment, one that sometimes doesn’t even rely on what you buy, but on the fact that it was a bargain. Fast fashion is feeding the habit of consumerism.

pic 1
Swedish clothes store, H&M sees some of the quickest turn arounds in clothing lines.

This dynamic has significant consequences. Our clothes go from the back of our wardrobes, to second hand shops that are receiving way more than they can manage, to landfills that are overflowing with textiles and fabrics that don’t break down easily. Consumers run the risk of ending up on hedonic treadmill in which the continuous pursuit of new things leaves them displeased and disappointed.

“It’s the whole consumer culture; that we need to consume in order to feel happy, to be able to show people that we are on top of things and have success, therefore we consume all the time” says Rasmus Nordqvist, member of the Danish Parliament and lecturer at the International Fashion School in Berlin, ESMOD. “The whole psychology behind it is this total constant need of renewing who we are, what we’re buying and what we are reflecting to other people in our image.”

Pleasure from purchasing

When we shop, our brains do a trade-off between the potential pleasure of acquisition and the pain of paying. Acquiring a brand new top would no doubt out weigh the pain of paying if it were only to cost £6.99. The environmental and social consequences of this purchase most likely don’t cross people’s minds during this process.

“The impact is extreme, even if its conscious collections or organic cotton or whatever, the problem is that we’re buying a t-shirt for what £6-7 and because it costs so little we see people who are not even washing their clothes, they buy something new. I saw once a paper describing that in the UK people are on average using an item of clothing six times from when they’re buying them to when they throw it out.” Said Nordqvist.

Customer confidence

“The consumer needs to feel empowered, like they understand and know the clothing industry. It should be less about fashion and more about taking care of their clothes properly. Because fashion is really just a concept that was created to sell more clothes” said Tone Skårdal Tobiasson, responsible for Nordic Initiative, Clean and Ethical (NICE) Norway and editor for nicefashion.org website.

“People don’t like change anyway, if you find something you like, you keep coming back to that over and over again. Why do people wear jeans and t-shirts? It’s not to be fashionable, it’s because they’re comfortable. The customer needs to have the pride and the understanding that they know a lot more than they think they do. And they can help the consumer by building up that confidence.”

Scandinavian sustainability

Scandinavia has long since been famous for its sustainability. Peter Dammand, Lecturer at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation claims Scandinavian consumers may not be contributing to fast fashion as much as they think. “A Danish university did some research where they actually went into people’s homes and looked in their cupboards or wardrobes and found that it’s actually a little bit different than what the industry says. We don’t consume as much as we think we do.

“Often when we actually look in people’s wardrobes there are a lot of items, which are actually quite old, they purchased them many years ago, and they still have them. And I think we can all connect to that because we all have those items that we are really fond of, that we attach to.”

Better understanding

Josefine Koch Jürgensen from Neutral, a Danish sustainable fashion brand tries to explain why Scandinavian countries are often shown in the limelight when it comes to sustainability. “Maybe sustainability has been a focal point in Scandinavia for a longer time and therefore is a better understood area among both brands and consumers” she said.

“But whether it results in different production methods or consumer habits is difficult to say. But one thing is certain; social responsible production is on Danish officials’ agenda, e.g. the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.”

Perhaps this is the mind-set that other governments, businesses and consumers worldwide should be adapting to also, in order to stamp out consumerist behaviour.


Why we adhere to the fast fashion lifestyle

Scandinavian slow fashion and the blind spots of the sustainable textile movement

Every year, fashion brands produce approximately 150 billion items of clothing. That’s 21 new wardrobe additions for every person on the planet.

By Sophie Thomas

The skyrocketing global growth of the fashion industry is undeniable. Earlier in the year, Amancio Ortega, the founder of apparel powerhouse Zara, briefly usurped Bill Gates as the richest man in the world. While the industry as whole is estimated to be valued at 1.2 trillion USD.

In spite of its great success, the textile industry has faced heady criticism in 2015. American commentator John Oliver addressed the many failings of the fast fashion industry in a viral video earlier in the year and a full-length documentary titled ‘The True Cost’ highlighted the damage the industry is inflicting upon the environment and society.

pic 2
Scandinavian brands are famous for their sustainability, but Swedish store H&M has been known to contradict this claim.

In the European Union, textiles represent the fourth most environmentally damaging area of consumption – after housing, transport and food. It is clear fast fashion may be doing more harm than good when it comes to the planet and those who live on it. In light of this, the sustainable apparel movement is becoming bigger than ever.

The Nordic regions’ social democratic societies have deep-rooted traditions for taking responsibility – not only for people, but also the environment, ensuring the sustainability of industry’s like fashion is seen by many as crucial. Scandinavia therefore has a large base of sustainable fashion brands aiming to create change in the industry, many of which have been active for over two decades.

Microplastics: the invisible enemy

Tone Skårdal Tobiasson is the director of the Nordic Fashion Association’s NICE project which aims to reduce the impact of water consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, inefficient waste, hazardous chemicals and dangerous labour conditions to make the Nordic region more responsible when it comes to responsibly producing fashion apparel.

“I would say that because fast fashion is so related to the use of synthetics, one of the major issues that is floating up – so to speak – is the microplastics issue… It’s a huge health problem.” Skårdal Tobiasson says.

Microplastic pollution may be the sustainable fashion world’s biggest blind spot. They are tiny plastic fibres that are less than a millimetre wide that make their way through sewage and draining systems into rivers and oceans. Fibre pollution is not a visible problem, and therefore not an issue debated within the textile industry.

These invisible pollutants are seen as problematic because they damage the natural environment while entering the food chain through the ingestions of fish and damage the lungs of humans and animals. Microplastic fibres often contain chemicals that can cause skin rashes as well as compromise the immune system and kill wildlife.

A November study by the Danish EPA found that textiles are one of the main sources responsible for microplastic pollution in Denmark.

The study found that secondary microplastics – abrasions of larger plastic particles that are broken down as they make their way to the aquatic environment – make up 99% of the total amount emitted to rivers, seas and sewage.

The report reveals wear and tear of clothes and other textiles made of synthetic fibres are one of the most prominent sources of secondary microplastics. Finding that powder-based, high-pH detergents and washing in hard, high-temperature water all contribute to high fibre loss from the apparel being laundered.

Murky waters of the supply chain 

According to Professor Peter Dammand, who teaches sustainability in the fashion department at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, a core problem of the global textile industry is the fact that, due to outsourcing, “companies do not have any connection to production any more.”

In order to produce one garment, companies may have utilised a zipper from Taiwan, cotton from Brazil, production in Bangladesh and retail stores in the United Kingdom. On average, a piece of clothing will have components from three different countries. This can breed a lack of control over materials, production methods and conditions for textile workers in poor nations.

Some think there is a distinct ignorance when it comes to the realities of what occurs at each prong of the supply chain.

“For the environmental cost, try and go to India and see some of the rivers being totally polluted with colours. You can see blue rivers because of fabric dye,” Danish Alternativet politician and fashion industry veteran Rasmus Nordqvist says.

However, countries like Denmark may have an advantage in this area, according to Dammand. The country started outsourcing their textile production decades ago in the wake of tight environmental laws and minimum wage increases.

“If you compare to France or Italy and countries that have more recently outsourced their production, it’s much more difficult for them to control their production because they don’t have the knowledge yet. It’s very big advantage for Denmark because we actually have some knowledge and have had time to develop our knowledge on sustainability and social responsibility and so on.”

Over consumption and a ‘slow’ alternative

Perhaps the most useful of the Nordic approaches is the emphasis on ‘slow fashion’ and longevity that aim to tackle the over consumption encouraged by the low-price, trend driven structuInfographicre of the fashion world today.

Swedish shoe brand ATP Atelier is taking an alternative route to the fast fashion tactics employed by their competitors. They monitor production closely at their Italian factory and are currently in the process of creating videos instructing customers on how best to take care of their shoes for longevity

“Today fashion is moving so fast. We want our client to feel that they are investing in a pair of shoes when they buy from ATP Atelier that can last season after season without going out of fashion. We believe in style over fashion,” the brands founder Maj-La Pizzelli says.

Danish company, Neutral, takes a slightly different approach, operating at the B2B-level, to sell products to other companies, organizations, the public sector and so on. They sell apparel that has been carefully sourced and rigorously certified to prove they can be held accountable when it comes to social and environmental responsibility.

“The textile market is extremely cost-competitive. The price is therefore an important factor and one of the main drivers in the industry. The challenge is to come up with sustainable clothing that can compete with the conventional despite being a bit more expensive,” Neutral spokesperson Josefine Koch Jürgensen says.

However, it may not all be rainbows and sunshine in the Scandinavian textile industry, with both Nordqvist and Skårdal Tobiasson saying the region’s governments need to be doing more to encourage sustainability.

The Nordic Council of Ministers this year released an action plan for sustainable design, production and consumption in the period up to 2020. Skårdal Tobiasson was critical of the initiative

“They are, for the most part, getting mired down in discussions in this and that chemical, about organic cotton or not, and things like that. When the overriding solution to the problem is probably right in front of us, and that would be to consume less and to consume better.”


Scandinavian slow fashion and the blind spots of the sustainable textile movement