Just how much harm is fast fashion doing? | Gregor Fischer/picture alliance via Getty Images

Is It Time to Give Up Fast Fashion?

Can big clothing retailers change and become more ethical and sustainable? Or is it time to give up fast fashion for good?

There was a time when most of our clothing was hand-sewn and produced carefully by local tailors and seamstresses. Clothing was not easily purchased off the rack, and therefore it had to be taken care of, mended, and handed down. But times have changed dramatically since then. Now, it just takes a few clicks of the mouse, and you have thousands of cheaply priced, mass-produced garments at your fingertips.

While that may be good for a quick dopamine hit, how much damage are we doing by making all of these rash clothing purchases? It might only cost $15 for a cute dress you’ll wear once to that post-lockdown wedding, but what about the cost for the planet, or for the factory workers? Can we make the fast fashion industry kinder and more sustainable, or is it time to give it up for good?

We spoke with Sandra Capponi, founder of brand sustainability and ethics rating app Good On You, about her hopes for the future of fashion and what’s next for her company. We also asked her for advice on how we can all make more ethical fashion choices. But first, let’s take a look at where fast fashion began and some of the biggest issues the industry faces today.

Thousands of cheaply-priced garments are at our fingertips. But at what cost? | PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

When Did Fast Fashion Start?

In 1830, French tailor Barthélemy Thimonnier patented the first-ever sewing machine. He was tasked with mass-producing uniforms for the army, but around 200 other tailors in the country were having none of it. Concerned the little machine that could stitch all by itself would ruin their industry, they destroyed his invention.

But their outrage didn’t stop progress in the sewing industry. In 1846, Elias Howe from Massachusetts patented another, new and improved sewing machine. And it turns out, those French tailors were right to be nervous. The invention ultimately led to the mass-produced fast-fashion model that we know today.

It wasn’t immediate domination for fast fashion. It was a slow buildup, hindered by two world wars, but its eventual take-off in the 1960s was quick. In this decade, young people were rejecting the make-do-and-mend attitude of their parents, they wanted fun, cheap, fast clothing. The industry obliged, and it hasn’t slowed down since. In fact, in the last 20 years, it has accelerated beyond control. 

Fast-fashion brands like H&M produce billions of dollars worth of clothing every year. | iStock

Is Fast Fashion Bad for the Environment?

The Zaras, Boohoos, and H&Ms of the world produce billions of dollars worth of clothing every year, much of which is considered old by consumers of today after one or two wears, and subsequently thrown out.

The average consumer throws away around 70 pounds of clothing per year; much of that sits in the landfill and doesn’t biodegrade. It’s a lot of waste for an industry that eats up significant amounts of natural resources, like water and land. 

To put fashion’s footprint in perspective, here are some sobering statistics: 

  • It can take 2,700 liters of water just for one cotton t-shirt. 
  • The fashion industry emits 10 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Textile dyeing is the second largest cause of global water pollution.
  • It takes around 70 million barrels of oil every year to make the world’s supply of polyester.
  • That same polyester can take over 200 years to biodegrade.

And then there’s the human cost. 

Factory workers were left vulnerable due to order cancellations amid the pandemic. | Ahmed Salahuddin/NurPhoto via Getty Images

How Fast Fashion Exploits Workers

Most fast fashion companies use factories in Asian countries, including Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka, and India. Many of the workers in these factories are women, and an increasing amount of evidence suggests that the majority of them are exploited and treated as second-class citizens. 

A 2018 report by international labor rights forum Global Labor Justice, based on 569 interviews at 50 supplier factories, uncovered multiple accounts of sexual harassment, physical abuse, and forced overtime. These factories supplied to major brand names in the fast fashion space, including H&M and Gap.

Safety often isn’t a priority in these facilities. In 2019, 40 workers died at a garment factory fire in New Delhi. There was no emergency escape route or fire certification to keep people safe. It wasn’t an isolated incident; in 2012 a Bangladesh factory fire killed more than 100 people. 

After the pandemic was declared, things got worse. Major retailers cancelled billions of dollars worth of orders. Many factories were forced to shut, and millions of workers were sent home without an income to feed themselves or their families. 

Most fast fashion companies use factories in Asian countries, like Bangladesh. | MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Can Fast Fashion Change?

The fashion industry’s problems are serious and complex. But this is a lot to put on the invention of the sewing machine, so let’s call out where the blame really lies: excessive production, overconsumption, and a lack of corporate responsibility.

But saying that, no system is without hope. The fashion industry can change. And Capponi believes it will change, because it doesn’t have a choice.

Consumers are more clued in to the fashion industry’s impact on the planet and people than ever before, and they’re looking for ethical brands, or at least brands that are trying to do better. That’s where Good On You comes in; the app gives honest, informed ratings of more than 3,000 companies, judging them on the way they treat the environment, people, and animals. The lowest rating a retailer can score is “We Avoid”; the highest is “Great.”

You can use Good On You to find vegan and sustainable alternatives to your favorite fast-fashion items, and discover new, upcoming ethical brands. The accompanying website also provides a wealth of tips, guides, and information around shopping sustainably.

For Capponi, hearing about the fashion industry’s problems with human rights motivated her to try and make a difference. 

LIVEKINDLY: Sandra, can you recall the moment when you knew for certain that you wanted to be involved in ethical fashion? What motivated you to get involved in this space?

Capponi: There wasn’t really one specific moment, but I remember hearing about the terrible treatment of garment factory workers all around the world and feeling more and more uncomfortable buying clothes without knowing how they were made.

I also spent many years working behind the scenes of big business in supply chain management and CSR. I became especially concerned about the impact of fashion and other industries on our planet. It still shocks me today to think that fashion creates so much pollution and waste and is responsible for the exploitation of so many workers, mostly women and sometimes even children.

LIVEKINDLY: Why did you decide to start Good On You? Did you feel this was a service that consumers wanted, but didn’t have access to? 

Capponi: I realised that I’m not the only one that cares. Millions of people, like me, love fashion but want to buy from brands that do the right thing for people and the environment. And there’s great power in the choices we make when we shop, to drive industry change. The trouble is, it’s too hard to know what brands are really doing – the information shoppers are looking for is either too confusing, or missing altogether.

In 2015, I was fortunate to meet my co-founder Gordon Renouf, a consumer expert who shared a passion for empowering conscious choices. We joined forces to build Good On You, a platform to help shoppers know the impact of brands and buy better with easy-to-use ratings.

Good On You wants to change the landscape of fashion. | Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

LIVEKINDLY: What are the main issues you have learned about the fashion industry since you became involved in this space? Are there issues you wish more consumers knew about?

Capponi: Probably one of the biggest lessons is that sustainability issues in fashion are really complex, and they’re constantly evolving. The facts can be overwhelming – from how fashion is a major contributor to climate change (producing over 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions) to the unfair and unsafe conditions that have led to widespread human rights abuses and the tragic death of thousands of workers in factory fires. Materials used in fashion also cause the suffering and deaths of billions of animals each year. All just so shoppers can buy more cheap, fast fashion and big brands can reap more profits.

That’s why our rating system looks at over 100 sustainability issues and indicators to assess a brand’s impact on people, the planet and animals. We look at how a brand reduces resource, water and chemical use, how it traces suppliers and treats its workers all the way down the supply chain, as well as how it protects animal welfare.

Last year we completed a review of our brand rating system to stay on top of emerging issues, including how brands responded to the COVID-19 crisis, microplastics, and gender equality.

I realise affordability is a big concern for many people, especially with the year we’ve just had, but I do wish more consumers would think twice about purchasing very-low cost fashion. Because someone, somewhere has paid the price for that cheap garment. Not to mention the cost to the earth.

LIVEKINDLY: Do you think fast fashion brands are truly aware of the full extent of the damage their supply chains have on people and the planet? Where does the responsibility lie to improve practices in the industry?

Capponi: The impact of fashion is no secret, and the good news is many brands are starting to take action. For instance, the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord signed in the wake of the deadly Rana Plaza collapse in 2015 saw over 100 global fashion brands commit to making factories safe for millions of workers. Even Zara and H&M, the industry’s largest fast fashion brands, have made bold commitments to tackle some of the challenges and have released ‘sustainable’ collections.

But sadly there’s still a long way to go, and the coronavirus pandemic has caused another shock to an already fragile system. Brands have been scrambling to recover losses by cancelling billions of dollars worth of orders, demanding discounts and delaying payments to suppliers. This is having a disastrous impact, as suppliers already squeezed by tight margins are having to lay off workers and shut factories, putting millions of vulnerable people at risk.

Ultimately, brands need to take more accountability for protecting the environment and the very makers of our clothes. They need to find ways to support their suppliers and empower their workers, especially in times of crisis. 

Importantly, we all have a role to play too, by choosing brands that protect the things that matter and urging brands to change their practices for the better. That’s where Good On You can help.

Through Good on You, Sandra Capponi is changing how people shop. | Good on You

LIVEKINDLY: For you personally, what has been the best part of your journey so far with Good On You? What has been the worst?

Capponi: Everyday we get messages from people who say that Good On You has changed the way they shop and is their go-to source for sustainable fashion choices. This is so rewarding and gives me so much hope for the future. What makes it even more rewarding is being able to share this with our incredibly talented team, whose passion and commitment to what we do at Good On You never ceases to amaze me. And now the industry is taking notice too, with major retailers like Farfetch using Good On You ratings on their own platform to help their customers choose sustainable brands. 

Of course, it hasn’t always been an easy ride for us. Like any startup, we’ve struggled to get access to enough funds and resources to develop our products as quickly as we had planned. But the momentum we have right now is undeniable and makes me super excited about the impact we will have in the future.

LIVEKINDLY: What is your vision for the future of the company?

Capponi: Good On You is all about making sustainable shopping easy for everyone, and our big vision is to use people power to create a sustainable future.

Consumers have a huge role to play in driving better outcomes for our planet. It’s their dollar that ultimately incentivizes business behaviour. We aim to be the best, most comprehensive brand rating system so people have all the information they need to make better choices. Continued tech innovation, and ongoing dialogue with consumers and industry on sustainability issues, will be essential for us to get there.

We’re starting in fashion, but longer-term, we plan to expand to other consumer verticals, like beauty, where the issues are similar, and consumers’ appetite for sustainable alternatives is just as strong.

LIVEKINDLY: What is your hopeful, yet realistic, vision for the future of fashion? Could there be a time when exploitative, environmentally destructive practices are history? 

Capponi: I imagine a future where it’s as easy for a shopper to check the sustainability credentials of a garment as it is to check the price. Fashion brands and retailers of all sizes will take full responsibility and be completely open to customers about their impacts so that in the end no person or animal will be exploited making clothes, and the industry will thrive in a healthy environment. It might seem overly optimistic but I have to be hopeful for this kind of future. Things can’t keep going on the way they are. It’s simply not sustainable. Our only choice is to keep acting, innovating and pushing for change, pushing for a better future for all of us.

Instead of new, consider opting for second-hand clothing. | Gregor Fischer/picture alliance via Getty Images

How to Make More Ethical Fashion Choices: Sandra Capponi’s Top 3 Tips 

Before You Buy, Stop and Think

“Think about what you really need, and what matters to you. Is it about caring for the people who made our clothes? Is it about protecting our planet for future generations? Or is it about being vegan and avoiding harm to animals?  Try to support brands that don’t compromise on the things you care about.”

Consider Alternatives to Buying New

“Repair something in your wardrobe, rent or shop second-hand. Extending the life of garments has a massive impact on the environment and is the easiest way to ensure that no people or animals were harmed in making your clothes.”

Recognize the Power in Your Choices

“Whether it be buying less, shopping pre-loved, or choosing brands committed to the planet, these decisions have a really important role in creating a fair and sustainable future in fashion and beyond.”

To get started — and discover some amazing sustainable fashion brands and thrifting tips — check out Good On You here