The cost of fast fashion

Some clothing might be cheap, but the environment is paying the price
18 January 2021

Interview with 

Kirsi Niinimäki, Aalto University


Laundry drying on a washing line


We've come along way from laborious hand-crafting of textiles to the mass manufacturing of today. In recent years there’s been a big shift from things being built well and intended to last a lifetime to fast and loose fashions intended, in some cases, to be worn once and thrown away. But what price is the planet paying for this? Kirsi Niinimäki is a professor at Aalto University’s Department of Design, and she spoke to Eva Higginbotham...

Kirsi - Yes, the global fashion business is a huge industrial sector, and fast fashion has really increased the manufacturing figures. So the last 20 years actually, the fibre production has doubled. And of course that also has led to a huge amount of new fashion items, as well as speeding up the consumption side. So there's a lot of this, kind of like, environmental impacts throughout the whole supply chain, and it's also a complex supply chain. So that means that industries are located in different countries, and each step in the process might happen in different countries. That means that actually, might be that some garments have travelled, two times around the globe before they reached the end consumer. So that of course causes a lot of environmental impacts.

Eva - Are there specific points in the supply chain, from growing a fibre, or collecting a fibre from a sheep, wherever it is that you've got it from, down to making a piece of clothing that someone's going to go buy in a shop, are there points in that process that are particularly harmful for the environment, and how does that work?

Kirsi - All those kinds of processes which use a lot of water, or chemicals are quite harmful. For example, starting from cotton cultivation. So actually cotton uses a lot of water as well as a lot of chemicals used in that process. But also there are a lot of steps when the fibres are made, when the yarns are produced. And especially those ones where the chemicals are used to dye textiles, or printing textiles, or do some kind of finishing processes. All these kinds of chemicals, and waters, and the use of energy are quite harmful. And of course in those processes, also a lot of waste is produced to soil water or air.

Eva - And so there are some different materials, or different fibres that are grown in different ways, aren't there, between cotton or hemp, or a polymer, something that's an artificial material. Are there some materials that are better for the environment, and some which are worse?

Kirsi - Yes. That's actually a quite interesting question because each garment has some kind of environmental impact, but they might be different in different fibres. So for example, with the cotton. Cotton, so it uses a lot of water and chemicals in the cultivation phase, but also throughout the industrial processes. Polyester on the other hand uses a lot of energy. So it has a huge carbon footprint, but nowadays we also know these kinds of problems from the polyester use, that actually this kind of microplastics in ocean waters, are actually quite big part of it is caused by washing polyester garments. But then these kinds of good ones are those like plant-based materials, renewable materials, for example, linen and hemp, which actually has quite a small environmental impact. And even this carbon footprint is quite small. So it doesn't use so much water when it's cultivated and not so much chemicals. So those kinds of fibres are quite good from the environmental point of view. But of course, when we talk about fibres, also, they use phase is quite critical in that sense, that of course we should always select a fibre, which is most suitable for that use context. So that is the garments should be durable. So this kind of like a balance is you always have to think when you are selecting different fibres.

Eva - When we think about all of the different parts of modern life that are contributing to climate change and the destruction of different environments, how big of a problem is the fashion industry within that context?

Kirsi - Actually, this is quite an interesting point of view because in recent years there has been a new discussion in the sustainable fashion field, linked to this climate change. A recent study shows that even 8 to 10% of global climate change is actually caused by the textile and fashion industry. So there's a huge impact from this industrial sector.

Eva - And what about homemade clothing? I have recently started knitting and although my skills aren't quite there yet, I have grand plans for the jumpers and the scarves and the hats and things that I want to make. What could be said about the environmental impact of making yourself a jumper versus going to any high street shop and buying one?

Kirsi - Yes. I think that these kind of Do-It-Yourself practices are really good ones. Of course it might be that those textiles or yarns that you are still using are produced on the other side of the globe, but there are some processes that you could actually avoid by making your clothes yourself, and what is also important is that you learn skills. That means that you actually understand how the garments are constructed, so that it's possible even to repair the garment or even redesign or modify the garment with this kind of new skill set that you are learning by making things by yourself.

Eva - You've shown that the fashion industry is playing this big role in environmental harm and in climate change, what do you think we need to do to try and fix this problem?

Kirsi - Well, we should try to create a new balance in the fashion sector. The main thing is that we try to slow down the material throughput in the system. That means that we should actually manufacture a little bit less, we should consume a little bit less. We should extend the use time of the garments. So actually those are quite effective ways of trying to build a new balance in the system. And of course, all the models - coming from this fast fashion might be that those also need to change, creating a little bit of a new kind of business understanding in the fashion sector is really important.

Eva - And what about for the average person who's trying to reduce their environmental impact?

Kirsi - Well, yeah, of course we have other ways of consuming fashion so we can buy second hand, for example. We can swap clothing items or we can rent or lease. The main thing is that we try to extend the use time of the garment. So that's really important. So in that way also we can decrease buying new stuff and still try to appreciate what we already own.


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