The fast fashion industry urgently needs to transition to a “slow” fashion model to reduce its heavy environmental toll, researchers at Aalto University, Finland, say.


The environmental impact of fashion’s global supply chain continues to rise, they say in a paper published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth and Environment, with the industry now producing over 92 million tonnes of waste and consuming 79 trillion litres of water per year. It causes around 10 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and is also a high source of chemical pollution.

Developing countries tend to be most vulnerable to the environmental impacts of the industry, the paper says, since production often occurs there, even if developed countries largely consume the final products.

The fashion industry is also projected to grow significantly in the coming decades. Fashion brands are already producing almost twice the amount of clothing as they did 20 years ago, while global consumption of textiles is projected to increase by over 60 per cent by 2030 to 102 million tonnes, the paper says.

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Around 15 years ago, brands would produce four collections a year, whereas now many are constantly introducing new collections, according to Kirsi Niinimäki, associate professor in fashion research at Aalto University in Finland and lead author of the paper. She argues the whole fashion system has to slow down again.

“It is quite critical that we as consumers accept that these cheap garments are not possible if the environmental impacts are really all taken care of,” says Niinimäki. “In the future, we should produce less, we buy less and there will be less waste.”

People in the UK buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe. Last year, a cross-party parliamentary committee in the UK called on the government to add a one penny “producer responsibility charge” on each item of clothing to pay for better clothing collection and recycling.

Fast fashion needs to slow down, scientists warn © Getty Images
© Getty Images

Mark Sumner, a lecturer in sustainability in retail and fashion at the University of Leeds, says the paper gives a good overview of the material aspects of the industry, but missed the opportunity to highlight efforts by more responsible brands to address these environmental problems.

“There are definitely success stories out there in terms of what industry has done,” says Sumner, adding that not enough brands are using that best practice. He also says it’s important not to see “slow” fashion as the only answer.


“But I do agree that we need a system-wide approach to understand how fashion works, to then be able to work out how we transition to something more sustainable,” he says.

Reader Q&A: Why do clothes get darker when wet?

Asked by: Anna Daca (Leicester) and Calvin Tomsic (Everett, Washington, USA)

As water is transparent, it seems odd that it makes clothes look darker. After all, it doesn’t have that effect on, say, a hard plastic surface. Surprisingly, the science behind the phenomenon was only fully investigated around 30 years ago.

Physicists John Lekner and Michael Dorf at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, showed that the darkening effect is the result of fabric being both rough and absorbent. When light strikes any surface, some of it is reflected back into our eyes.

But damp clothes have a thin layer of water on their surface (held in place by the material’s roughness), which leads to more of the reflected light rays being bent – ‘refracted’ – off-course. Some of the light also gets reflected back into the film of water, or scattered off the tiny water-filled holes in the fabric.

The combined effect is a reduction in the amount of light reaching our eyes, which makes the fabric look darker.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.