The Psychological Foundations of Fast Fashion’s waste Problem
Nowadays you can’t talk about the fashion industry without mentioning ‘fast fashion’. It is this revolutionary business model that has transformed the way that people consume clothing and has ultimately made the fashion industry into the environmental monster it is today.
The fashion industry creates more than double the amount of clothing it did just 20 years ago, and the average fast fashion garment is only worn 7 times before it is discarded. This means that an enormous amount of clothing waste is generated every year and it’s often the consumers themselves who are blamed for this catastrophe.
But I’d like to argue the opposite; that fast fashion companies are shunning the responsibility of clothing waste onto the consumer, whilst they ramp up production of their latest collections.
To truly understand the fashion industry’s waste problem, we have to go back to basics and discuss what clothing fundamentally is. When we look at the world, we see tools, not objects. Look at a bottle. Do you see cylindrical box with a funnelled end, or do you just see something you can use to drink out of? Chances are it’s probably the latter.
Clothing is a tool in as much the same way as a screwdriver is a tool. Clothing serves a purpose. It was one of humanity’s first inventions and for millennia, unless you were rich enough to commission a fancy dress or a tailored suit, clothing remained an invention, a tool.
Unfortunately, clothes as tools do not make for good business. Once you have your clothes (your tools) you don’t need to buy any more (until they break). However, when you use a tool, it becomes an extension of yourself. When you hold a pen, your brain thinks of it as being part of your body and will automatically account for the new range of movement associated with it. When you drive a car, you gain an instinctual sense of your new size. Your no longer end at your fingers and toes, but at your bumpers and wheel arches instead.
When you wear an item of clothing, it literally becomes a part of you – and this is the psychological pitfall that fast fashion has exploited to transform people’s view of clothing from tools to objects; from something you use, to something you use-up.
Humans are social creatures. We are all consciously or unconsciously comparing ourselves to one another to gauge our position in society. When we see that the clothing we have is suddenly ‘out of fashion’, and that there is something new we must have instead, we begin to worry that our societal position has been compromised.
Since our clothes are an extension of ourselves, any insult towards them is an insult towards us. And so, our clothes, our tools, become useless. They are broken, and small part of us breaks along with them. What we are currently wearing becomes obsolete. It becomes an obstacle in the way of social acceptance. Fast fashion doesn’t produce clothes. It produces rungs on the societal ladder and then reminds us not to look down.
That is how fast fashion transforms our view of the world by replacing useful tools with simple, unusable, unwanted objects. Fast fashion as a business model is as much about subconsciously recalibrating our own psychology as it is about making money.
And what a success it’s been. Every year UK citizens throw away roughly 350,000 tonnes of textile waste – or to put it another way, every year UK citizens throw away roughly 350,000 tonnes of perfectly useful tools.
This is the reason why fast fashion has become so successful at making money, creating waste, exploiting workers, paying shareholder dividends and destroying the planet. So, you see that the problem with fashion waste lies not with the consumer, but within them – and it was placed there by the devastatingly brilliant tactics of large fashion retailers, perhaps even unknowingly, as an emergent property of global consumerism.
So, to summarise:
- Fast fashion has transformed people’s view of clothes from tools to objects.
- It did this by exploiting pitfalls in human psychology that allow us to determine our place in the social hierarchy.
- All this means that we now throw away millions of tonnes of perfectly useful clothes, who’s creation used up valuable finite resources (that could otherwise have been used elsewhere) and contributed to the global catastrophe that is climate change.
Linear economy to Circular economy
Many people in the fashion industry (myself included) believe that we must transition towards a circular fashion economy where garments are used as many times as possible and are then recycled into new items instead of being tossed into landfill. This ultimately starts by recalibrating people’s psychological perception of what fashion really is and getting them to see clothing once more as tools, rather than objects.