Fast fashion is in fashion. It also makes the world warmer.

When people think of who is responsible for global warming, they are likely to point the finger at oil and gas companies, logistics companies and airlines. They’re probably not as quick to think of cheap, fashionable tops and jeans they might wear.

But fast fashion – the clothing sector which includes brands like H&M, Zara and the now – 100 billion dollars Chinese retailer Shein is one of the biggest carbon emitters in the world.

Overall, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and shipping combined. according to the World Bank. Of the $551.4 billion global apparel industry, about 18% is fast fashion, according to market research firm Business Research Company.

Because stocks are turning so quickly as consumers switch to new trends, it’s especially worrying for climate advocates.

Still, if Shein’s success is any indication, those worries haven’t dampened investor enthusiasm for the sector. On the same day, in early April, when the United Nations published his latest report on climate change, warning that countries were not doing enough to combat global warming, a the wall street journal The article revealed that the Chinese retailer had raised between $1 billion and $2 billion.

So why is our desire for cool, cheap clothes fueling a global catastrophe? And what, if anything, can clothing brands or consumers do to limit the impact? The answers to both questions are beginning to become clear.

Retailers, for example, are already moving to implement more sustainable methods in their supply chains — with varying speed and success, said Carol Spieckerman, president of consultancy firm Spieckerman Retail.

These retailers know that a new generation of shoppers, led by Gen Z, cares about sustainabilityclimate change and the environment, she said.

“Sustainability is critical to the long-term viability of their brands,” Spieckerman said.

Partly out of concern for the environment and partly out of concern for cost, Gen Z has propelled a rise in clothing resale businesses, such as apps like Poshmark and Depop. Clothing exchange businesses have also grown in popularity.

As for Shein, Spieckerman notes that Asia, particularly China, is less committed to reducing greenhouse gases than the West if it means damaging their ever-growing economies. Consumer demand for sustainable products may therefore not be as strong, she said.

So yes, fast fashion is big today. However, “it may not stay that way for long,” Spieckerman said.

At Target, the root of fast fashion

People normally think of H&M and Zara as the pioneers of fast fashion, in which retailers quickly make and sell cheap trendy clothes to consumers.

But in many ways, fast fashion’s roots go back to Target, at least with the fashion part. Thanks to its limited-time partnerships with fashion designers like Isaac Mizrahi, Missoni and Jason Wu, the company convinced consumers they could buy fashion-forward clothing and accessories at low prices.

H&M and Zara took the model from Target and put it on steroids. They quickly developed, manufactured, and sold inexpensive clothing that could regularly appeal to fashion-conscious consumers.

While traditional retailers like department stores would need a year to roll out a seasonal collection, fast fashion stores could do so quarterly or even weekly. It’s also no coincidence that the rise of fast fashion has coincided with the rise of social media and the culture of instant gratification the internet fosters.

Why wait for Target’s semi-regular design partnerships to hit stores, maybe once or twice a year when you can replace your wardrobe every two weeks?

500 billion dollars of abandoned clothes

According to one estimate, according to consulting firm McKinsey.

But these booming sales have consequences. A model that encourages consumers to buy new clothes quickly and frequently means that the environment will suffer.

To keep up with demand, manufacturers will run their factories longer to make clothes, producing more greenhouse gases. And consumers who replace their wardrobes will throw the clothes in the trash. Piles of unwanted clothes that end up in landfills will be burned, dumping more carbon into the atmosphere.

In 2000, 50 billion new clothes were made; nearly 20 years later, that figure has doubled, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. And every year, some $500 billion in value is lost to clothes that are barely worn, not donated, recycled or end up in landfill, the foundation said.

The World Bank estimates that Less than 1% used clothes are recycled into new clothes. If the industry continues at its current rate, its greenhouse gas emissions will increase by more than 50% by 2030.

Using sewage and waste to make jeans?

Spieckerman is a bit more optimistic than these numbers suggest. The global pandemic, which forced people to stay at home, started to convince people that they weren’t buying a lot of clothes anymore. Why buy a new suit when the company can only see your head in that Zoom call?

And manufacturers and retailers in general are focusing more on sustainability efforts. For example, Levi’s Strauss uses sewage to make jeans and has partnered with the World Bank to provide low-cost loans to suppliers who meet sustainability goals.

Even H&M has explored ways to clothes made of grapes and plastic waste. The company is also testing Looop, the world’s first in-store recycling system that turns old clothes into new, in one of its stores in Stockholm.

However, these efforts will take time. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and investors are pumping money into fast fashion startups like Shein.

You can see why. Since June 2021, Shein has overtaken its European rivals to become the big fast fashion brand in the United States, according to data firm Ernest Research. The company controls 28% of the market against 20% for H&M and 11% for Zara.

The total US market grew 15% between January and mid-June of the year, while Shein grew nearly 160% over the same period, “suggesting that the brand’s mobile-first strategy has resonated with the post-Covid consumer,” said Ernest Research.

Perhaps the long-term image promotes a more sustainable approach to clothing. But for now, fast fashion retailers are making big bucks and nothing, not even alarming climate change reports, is likely to change that any time soon.

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