10 years after the Rana Plaza disaster: Why we need to make the fast fashion industry go circular now

How do your new socks get holes two weeks after you buy them? Do you hesitate to wear your favourite skinny jeans because they’re “out of fashion” again? Or have you ever wondered how a t-shirt can only cost 1€ in the summer sale?

This is fast fashion – and it’s a growing problem for people and the planet. We believe that it is time for a fashion revolution!

Fast fashion exploits cheap labour and our natural resources.  Read here how the European Commission plans to fix this with the EU textile strategy, what we can improve about the proposal and what we can do to make the fashion industry part of the circular economy.

The ultra-fast fashion world – it’s time for a fashion revolution

New in for autumn! Shop our Spring-Summer collection now. New year, new wardrobe, new you! Blink – and you’ll miss them. The speed with which fast fashion brands produce, sell and throw away clothes is truly breathtaking. Fashion Weeks in London, Paris, New York and Milan boast a new range of designs every year. These events fuel the demand for our clothing to be “bang on trend” season after season. Textiles are being designed, produced and sold faster than ever before.

The scale of this fashion frenzy shook the world 10 years ago in 2013, with the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh. Over a thousand garment workers, the majority women, died in the biggest garment factory disaster in history. We still feel the effects of the Rana Plaza tragedy nearly a decade later. The factory produced clothing for the likes of Prada, Gucci and Versace – some of the most famous fast fashion brands. Yet the workers were earning less than 100$ a month.

As a reaction to Rana Plaza, a movement for a fashion revolution has sprung up in more than 100 countries all over the world. Among their demands is greater transparency and responsibility of fashion companies for their workers and the environment. During the month of April, they remember the victims of the collapse of Rana Plaza and ask fast fashion brands: “who made my clothes?”.

MEP Alice Bah Kuhnke at this year’s Elle Gala Sweden, in a dress made out of ripped old jeans:

The problems with fast fashion – how do we make our clothes?

Of course, knowing who makes our clothes is just the tip of the iceberg. With the climate crisis knocking at our door, we also need to know how our clothes are made.  The fast fashion industry is infamous for violating human rights and environmental standards – you don’t have to have been alive in the 90’s to know about the Nike sweatshop scandal.

Workers in the fast fashion industry are exposed to toxic chemicals used for cotton cultivation. Fast fashion uses toxic substances for dyeing and printing fabric with devastating consequences for the worker’s health.

And the planet doesn’t fare any better. According to the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP), the fashion industry is responsible for around 8-10% of the world’s carbon emissions. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of the global water supply. Scientists estimate that textiles contribute to around 9% of the microplastics lost to our oceans. What’s more, fast fashion is powered by fossil fuels – and not by renewables.

We’ve got to start asking some tough questions. How many natural resources does it take to make our clothes? How many greenhouse gases does a new t-shirt produce? And how much land do wegrow the cotton that feeds our throwaway fashion culture?

The true cost of a cotton T-Shirt – what did our study on fast fashion find?

The Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament commissioned a study to find out about the true social and environmental costs of the fashion industry. We compared the social and environmental costs of a cotton t-shirt produced outside of the EU with a similar shirt produced inside the EU.

Here’s what we found.

The true cost of a cotton t-shirt produced in India and Bangladesh was €18.27 in 2019. This cost was mainly driven by forced labour (46%), child labour (11%), biodiversity loss from land use (13%) and scarce water use (12%).

The true cost of a cotton t-shirt produced in Greece and Italy was only €5.58 in 2019. The main factor of this cost was the large consumption of scarce water for cultivating European cotton.

The external costs of cotton t-shirt production per value chain

The external costs of cotton t-shirt production per value chain

Source: Reducing the true cost of cotton T-Shirts study – commissioned by the Greens/EFA in the European Parliament.

Fast fashion will leave a long legacy. Every single item of clothing produced for the fast fashion industry is still on our planet in some shape or form. Only 1% of our clothing worldwide is recycled into new clothing. Modern fabrics – like polyester made out of plastic – are almost impossible to recycle. Still today we cannot recycle mixed fibres at all. This makes it hard for fair fashion brands to keep up with fast fashion styles. All the more reason to end our throwaway culture.

What can we do to make fast fashion go out of fashion?

More and more people are choosing slow fashion and preloved clothes. Fair fashion brands are developing slower fashion models, based on sustainable and fair practices. Marketplaces for second hand clothes are on the rise. Things are starting to shift in the right direction. But the burden to leave fast fashion behind should not just be on consumers.

Buying fast fashion is not always a matter of choice. Fashion at affordable prices is essential for people with fewer financial resources. The demand for fast fashion will not vanish until we are able to tackle the inequality in our society as a whole. A shift in the fast fashion industry cannot come from consumers alone.

We need strong laws to stop the garment industry from producing at the cost of the environment and workers’ rights. We need safe and sustainable jobs in a green economy to ensure that the need for fast fashion disappears. The answer – for a healthy planet and for people’s safety – is a shift in the way we produce, use and recycle all our goods. We need a fair and circular economy!

But what does circular fashion mean?

Traditional life cycles for products that we make are linear. We produce something, we use it, we throw it away. This also goes for our clothes, and it’s one of the reasons why we burn or landfill the equivalent of one rubbish truck’s worth of clothing every single second.

A linear product uses up resources and creates harmful waste during its very short lifespan. Not to mention, the production of this item emits unnecessary greenhouse gases. This model of production is simply unsustainable.

A circular product is created from recycled or sustainable materials. It’s built to be reused and easily repaired. And at the end of its life, we know how it will be recycled or safely disposed of so that it doesn’t cause harm to our environment. The line of production, use and waste becomes a circle.

It requires a bit of joined-up thinking about how we can intertwine certain production lines. Like using old car tyres to make pencil cases. But a circular economy could mean a win for both companies and consumers. If we can use waste to create shiny, new products and shoppers can wear their clothes for longer, we can all save money – and the planet – in the long run.

The Greens/EFA MEP and Vice-President Alice Bah Kuhnke about fast fashion, the textile industry and how we can consume more consciously.

A circular economy – can we imagine a world without fast fashion?

The way we make our clothes is unsustainable, and change has already begun. The European Commission has proposed an EU strategy for sustainable textiles. It aims to help the EU shift to a climate-neutral circular economy. We need to design products to last longer. They’ll need to be reusable, repairable and recyclable. And use less energy in their production.

The new textile strategy should make the fashion market more competitive. Finally, the European Commission promised that sustainable principles will be at the core of the production, consumption and waste management within Europe’s fashion industry. We, the Greens/EFA in the European Parliament, have been working hard on our position towards the proposal these past months and will soon vote for it in plenary. 

As Greens we asked the European Commission to find tools to fight unfair trade practices to make sure that textile workers worldwide work under fair working conditions. We also demand the protection of consumers from greenwashing fast fashion and from harmful chemicals in their garments. To end the wasteful line of production of the fast fashion industry, we demand clear recycling targets for the whole fashion sector. Luckily we have the EU supply chain law and the import ban on products from forced labor to support us in creating more transparency for consumers and in securing workers’ rights everywhere!

Let’s close the loop – we need to make circular economy the law

The EU needs to set a strong example in the global protection of the environment and of human rights. Ending fast fashion must be a priority. The European Commission must do more to promote a circular economy for people and the planet.  We, the Greens, ask the commission to improve their proposal to ensure the protection of consumers, workers and the planet.

To end fast fashion and to create a strong circular economy, the Greens/EFA are fighting for:

  1. Clear rules on mandatory human rights and environmental protection: all companies must check their value chains
  2. Mandatory circular product design to be able to reuse and recycle existing fabrics and make them last longer
  3. Fair trade and fair wages for everyone working in the fashion industry, banning unfair trading practices
  4. A ban on the import of products that have been produced using forced labour
  5. Support of organic cotton farming practices and proper water and waste management to reduce the costs of cotton cultivation
  6. Requirements on the restriction, testing and disclosure of chemicals in our clothes but also of chemicals used throughout the production process
  7. A strict ban on the destruction of all unsold and returned textile products and making producers responsible for collecting worn clothes after we have thrown them away
  8. A gender-responsive, intersectional approach throughout the supply chain to protect vulnerable workers

Let’s act now – be part of the circular economy and help us make it the law!

We the Greens/EFA fight for the fashion industry to be a sustainable industry. Sign up below and stay up to date on our fight for a fashion revolution!

What is a circular economy?

  • In a circular economy everything we use is produced in a way that allows us to repair, share, reuse and recycle it.
  • Through greater product transparency consumers can make sustainable choices and have to buy less.
  • A circular “repair” economy generates jobs and opportunities and decreases the amount of chemicals and land uses for production