Foto di Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Ultra-fast Fashion, the toxic fashion that is suffocating the planet

Foto di Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Anyone flying over the province of Iquique, in the northernmost portion of Chile, will notice that in some places the Martian landscape of the Atacama Desert is interrupted by large multicolored areas. Those that at a distant glance may seem like kaleidoscopic plays of light created by the heat, when approaching turn out to be something much more prosaic: they are used clothes. Tons upon tons of used and trashed clothes in a matter of months by US and European consumers.

Chile today is one of the largest importers of used clothing: 60,000 tons arrive in the Iquique region every year; of these, less than half are actually resold, the bulk ends up in illegal landfills in the desert, creating gigantic problems for citizens and local ecosystems.

It is one of the most predictable reverses of fast fashion, a business model that has spread and imposed itself since the end of the 90s and which aims to maximize the number of items sold by focusing on very low prices and a very rapid wardrobe change. Today, fast fashion is one of the most damaging commercial trends ever for the planetand not only because of the impressive amount of clothes that every year is dumped in landfills around the world, but also and above all because of the cost in terms of emissions and water consumption that this trend imposes.

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From fast fashion to ultra-fast fashion

The roots of fast fashion date back to the 1980s, when in the United States it became necessary to develop a manufacturing approach that would allow to optimize the production times of a garment in order to compete with the growth of low-cost products produced abroad. This approach, called Quick Response Method (in Italian: Quick Response Method), has allowed some brands to produce thousands of new garments every year, speeding up the replacement to such an extent that they can send batches of new and different garments to the shops. several times a week.

Last year alone, H&M and Zara brought more than 10,000 new garments onto the market. An impressive figure, of course, but nothing compared to the Chinese startup Shein, which in just twelve months added 315,000 new garments to its website, practically 1000 a day. Shein’s growth has been so rapid and massive that her business model has earned the label of “ultra-fast fashion”.

This term might suggest that this new trend is nothing more than an extremization of the existing one. But that’s not quite the case: Shein actually created something different. “The normal model [della fast fashion, N.d.R.] I think we are all familiar with consists of a brand, for example Zara, which goes to fashion week in Milan or New York, checks what the trends are, then presents a new line based on those trends “he declared in an interview with Slate Louise Matsakis, tech reporter who analyzed Shein’s model in depth: “Shein uses a different approach. Rather, they control what people watch on social media, it’s all based on data. “

Shein’s business model basically works like this: users have a platform designed to ensure fluid interaction, with a sliding interface not too different from that of Instagram and other social networks. Shein adds hundreds of new items to the platform every day and waits to see how they react. And here we have the first advantage over traditional fast fashion: if a brand tends to produce an entire line of novelties to be distributed to various stores around the globe, Shein, relying on a very large network of small manufacturers in China, can afford to produce small quantities of garments for each type of garment, and then increase production if that particular item begins to sell well.

The whole process is so fast, and its costs so low (apparently thanks to the exploitation of very low-cost labor), that Shein is able to reproduce a type of garment that its algorithms have intercepted online in less than ten days. . Thanks to this approach, in the space of four years the Chinese startup has gone from a valuation of 5 billion dollars to one of 100 (more than Zara and H&M combined), surpassing Amazon as the most downloaded app in the US and raking in more than 43. millions of buyers around the world.

The interesting fact is that the typical customer of a platform like Shein is not necessarily a person with limited financial resources, often and willingly middle-income people buy truckloads of clothing every week who could afford to buy durable garments, but who opt for a constant change of their wardrobe. This replacement is so fast that although many of these garments are programmed to last a year or so, they are often thrown away well before their planned obsolescence, sometimes after just one use.

And then it becomes clear that by now the problem of ultra-fast fashion is not only of an economic nature: it is above all cultural.

The perfect addiction for a post-pandemic world

It’s not that hard to understand why ultra-fast fashion works: the garments have incredibly low prices (at the time of writing this piece on the site there are 7500 different items under 5 euros), so low that one person can afford to order them in bulk without worrying too much that they may not fit well. The goal is often not to find a garment to add permanently to your wardrobe, but to have it possibility to show off a different outfit every daywithout the hassle of going to a store and trying several.

But as we said, it’s not just about convenience: the brands that focus on ultra-fast fashion are instrumental in relying on social media to fuel this trend of constant wardrobe replacement. Instagram, Tik Tok and YouTube are full of “haul videos” of influencers emptying full packages of clothing, normalizing the purchase of new clothes every week. It is no coincidence that platforms like Boohoo, Pretty Little Things and Shein grew a lot during the pandemic: the possibility of receiving so many new garments at home that they can fill their social profiles with new outfits every week, at a time when many aspects of daily life had moved online, has prompted many people to develop a kind of addiction.

And I’m not using the term “addiction” lightly: several studies have shown that when faced with the possibility of buying new things (and doing it in the belief that we are saving money), the same reward circuit associated with psychotropic substances and gambling is activated in our brain. Every time we buy a new item of clothing online, at a lower price than expected, our brain produces more dopamine than when we buy clothes on sale in the store, and this is because an element of anticipation is created, linked to a wish that we have expressed (by ordering the product) but which still has to be fulfilled (with the arrival of the goods). This dynamic in some cases ends up creating a dependency loop that is difficult to stop.

The result is that more and more people tend to buy new clothes that they don’t even use, and that in many cases end up in landfills like the one in Iquique. But there is also another problem, which has more to do with the new relationship we are establishing with our wardrobe: the price of an ultra-fast fashion garment is in fact so low that in many cases it is less expensive. terms of time and money, buy a new one rather than take care of it. This new disposable trend has a devastating impact on an environmental level, and it is one of the reasons why fast fashion is often indicated as one of the worst threats to our ecosystem.

The most toxic fashion ever

The clothing industry today represents the third most polluting sector by far, after food and construction, and is responsible for 10% of the greenhouse gases produced each year. To be clear, the fashion industry produces more emissions than all international flights and commercial ships combined. And if the fast fashion trend continues at this pace, emissions related to the sector will increase by 50% between now and 2030.

It’s not over: producing clothes, as we have already seen, involves first and foremost a huge waste of water. Suffice it to say that the textile industry, including cultivation, production and transport, consumes 93 billion cubic meters of water every year, an amount sufficient to meet the water needs of 5 million people on average. Added to this is the fact that 20% of all wastewater produced in the world is due to the treatment and dyeing of textile fibers, and that as many as 87% of the fibers produced ends up in a landfill or incinerator.

Over the past 20 years, the fast fashion trend has led to a doubling of the amount of garments produced each year. At the same time, the need to produce faster and cheaper has increased the percentage of synthetic fibers used (mostly polyester), which translates into an increasing amount of micropolastics and nanoplastics being poured into the oceans.

If 67 million tons of new clothes are produced annually today, it is expected to exceed 100 million tons within eight years. To avoid such a scenario, at the end of March the European Commission announced a plan that should impose new production standards that guarantee a greater durability of the garments and incentives to increase the share of recycled fibers (today only 1% of the textile fibers produced).

Measures of this type will make it more difficult for platforms like Shein to offer items on offer at such reduced prices, and will certainly help to encourage the recycling and purchase of second-hand garments. But in the face of what increasingly seems like a paradigm shift in the way we manage our wardrobes, and with platforms that have perfected systems that leverage shopping addiction, these measures are unlikely to be enough.

Fabio Deotto is a writer and journalist. Graduated in biotechnology, he writes articles and insights for national and international journals, focusing in particular on the intersection between science and culture. He published the novels Condominium R39 (Einaudi, 2014), A moment before (Einaudi, 2017) and the essay-reportage on climate change “The other world” (Bompiani, 2021). He teaches creative writing at the Holden School in Turin. He lives and works in Milan.

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