Living in Milan we are exposed to fashion on a daily basis. Even though fashion is a unique and interesting part of our culture many of us remain unaware of the environmental and social impact that the global fashion, and especially fast fashion, industry has. Recently, the topic of the sustainability of fashion was once again revisited in the light of the recent Paris Fashion Week environmental protests.
For fashion, design, and art there are very few places in the world better than Milan. As Bocconi students, we get an opportunity to witness and experience the fashion world firsthand. The September fashion week shows, such as the Max Mara one, were literally held on-campus. You might also bump into Anna Wintour or Gigi Hadid on your way to class. At the same time simply strolling through campus and observing other students could be a fashion experience of its own. Fashion can be creative, fun, or shocking while providing a valid means of self-expression.
With all that said, nowadays a conversation about the sustainability of fashion is becoming more prominent. Just recently the public was shocked by the climate protest which took place during the Louis Vuitton 2021 show where an activist rushed onto the catwalk holding a sign “overconsumption = extinction”, aiming to raise awareness of fashion’s detrimental impact on the environment. The latter especially applies to the fast fashion industry which has been consistently growing and gaining popularity among young consumers. Fast fashion clothes are in line with the latest styles and thus provide an alternative to high fashion garments, enabling us to chase current trends without hurting our wallet. The fast fashion business model based on cheap and quick mass production sounds like a great deal to customers, but it isn’t such an amazing “deal” for the environment. With low prices of clothing often comes rather low quality of the products. How overwhelming is the sorrow that fills us when our new favourite 10 euros t-shirt is destroyed after a few washing machine cycles! The destroyed clothing is quickly dumped in a bin and a customer heads out to shop again, rarely wondering what happens to the clothing he or she disposed of.
The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the global carbon emissions and 20% of global water waste. Fashion is an enormous business, estimated to be worth 3 trillion dollars. Simultaneously, it remains between the 4th and the 10th most polluting industry in the world. With the amount of cloth produced every day the disposal is gigantic, and countries struggle to find ways to get rid of used clothing. Some of them export it to developing countries but sorting companies tend to deny transporting clothing coming from fast fashion brands, as it gets destroyed easily and isn’t useful for those in need. As a result, 80% of the produced garments end up in the landfill where they decompose, while releasing methane for up to 200 years. Furthermore, the toxic chemicals used to develop colours and prints on clothes pollute the ground and water. Even some commonly used clothing materials, such as polyester, pose danger to the environment. When put into a domestic washing machine the polyester clothing sheds nonbiodegradable microfibers which increase the level of plastic in the oceans and put marine life in jeopardy.
Above the environmental impact, the fast fashion industry has a significant social impact. Most of the clothes we wear are produced in Asia, due to low labour costs. Workers earn miserable wages, work for up to 16 hours a day, and usually cannot form workers’ unions. Furthermore, the working conditions of the employees are often scandalous with factories lacking ventilation and workers being exposed to toxic substances. In textile factories, there is also a huge problem of child labour and abuse.
That is not to say that all fashion is bad, and we should completely boycott the industry. Fashion is a huge part of our culture and daily lives. Nevertheless, it is important to consider where our sparkly tops and fashionable jeans are produced and what broader impact such production has. Investing in better quality or secondhand clothing is a valid alternative as even though the price you pay for fast fashion garments might be low, their environmental and long term social cost is high.