Fast fashion is the rapid production of low-quality garments and it is consuming vast amounts of the Earth's natural resources. These clothes are plentiful and very cheap: on the high street, some T-shirts can sell for as little as $2.
Charlotte Turner, the head of sustainable fashion and textiles at brand consultancy Eco-Age, describes it as: "Fashion that is produced very, very quickly, responsively to trends. It's not the highest quality and it is not made to last."
However, it is not simply a problem of quality. Turner is concerned by the opaque way that much of fast fashion is made: "It's all propped up by the fact that brands are able to have products produced very cheaply because they are not legally required to pay a living wage to workers."
Companies that produce fast-fashion garments have been plagued with controversy. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a series of scandals when it was discovered that many suppliers to mainstream fashion brands were using child labor. According the International Labour Organization, little has changed: the UN agency estimates that 11 percent of the world's children are "in situations that deprive them of their right to go to school without interference from work." A significant number of these children are laborers within the fashion supply chain.
The global garment industry also incurs great environmental cost. Every year, 53 million tons of materials are turned into clothes. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, this process makes the industry the second-largest water polluter after the oil industry and releases more carbon emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
What's the worst that could happen?
The fashion industry has acknowledged many of the problems, taking steps to prevent child labor and making its practices less damaging to the environment, but this has done little to alleviate the problem.
"What the fashion industry has done so far is acknowledge that there is a problem," Aja Barber, a writer and sustainable fashion consultant, tells CGTN Europe. "But acknowledging and really acting on the change that we need in order to have mutually assured futures are two different things."
"Populations are growing, and we're seeing a raise in disposable income," says Turner. "If we continue to produce and purchase and consume at the rate that we are, we're going to end up with a depletion of natural resources, [we are] polluting our natural resources from land to air to water."
At the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, countries around the world agreed on a carbon budget for the world economy, which set out the amount of carbon admissions that can be released without increasing the world's temperature by 2 degrees. Currently, the fashion industry uses two percent of the global "carbon budget" but if nothing changes by 2050, that percentage is expected to increase to around 26 percent of the global budget.
Over the same period, the amount of oil used by the industry is expected to triple – and the industry will add 22 million tons of microfibers to the ocean.
What can we do to help?
While the problems with the fashion industry are systemic, there are many things that individuals can do if they want to mitigate the potential damage. One thing is to shop for brands that are transparent about their ethical and sustainable practices.
While these clothes might be more expensive than the products sold by brands at the lower end of the fast-fashion price spectrum, Barber argues that not all fast-fashion brands are actually that cheap: "If we're looking at an $89 [fast fashion] dress, I can pull 100 dresses off Etsy right now that cost that same price that are made in an ethical way that are supporting small businesses."
A simpler thing that individuals can do is wear their clothes for longer. Turner's consultancy, Eco-Age, is asking consumers to only buy products that they are sure they will wear at least 30 times – and at the end of that garment's life, to donate it to charity or give it to a friend instead of throwing it away.