Ultra-fast mode, the poisonous mode that suffocates the planet

Photo by Tim Boyle / Getty Images

Anyone flying over the province of Iquique, in the northernmost part of Chile, will notice that the Martian landscape of the Atacama Desert is punctuated in places by large multicolored areas. Those that may, in the distance, resemble kaleidoscopic plays of light created by the heat, turn out to be something far more prosaic on approach: they are used clothing. Tons and tons of used and discarded clothes in a matter of months by American and European consumers.

Chile is today one of the largest importers of used clothing: 60,000 tons arrive in the Iquique region every year; less than half of this is actually resold, the majority ending up in illegal desert landfills, causing massive problems for citizens and local ecosystems.

It is one of the most predictable counterparts of fast fashion, a business model that has spread and self-imposed since the late 1990s that aims to maximize the number of items sold by focusing on very low prices and a very quick 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 clothing that is dumped in landfills around the world every year, but also and above all because of the costs in terms of emissions and water consumption that this trend entails.

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From fast fashion to ultra fast fashion

The roots of fast fashion go back to the 80s, when it became necessary in the United States to develop a manufacturing approach that would allow optimizing the production times of a garment to compete with the growth of cheap products produced abroad. This approach, the Quick Response Method (in Italian: Quick Response Method), has enabled some brands to produce thousands of new garments each year, speeding up replacements to the point where they can send batches of new and different garments to stores. . several times a week.

Last year alone, H&M and Zara released more than 10,000 new garments† An impressive number, of course, but nothing compared to Chinese startup Shein, which added 315,000 new garments to its website in just 12 months, nearly 1,000 a day. Shein’s growth has been so rapid and massive that her business model has earned the label “ultra-fast fashion.”

This term could 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 else. “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 and then presents a new line based on those trends,” he stated in an interview with Slate Louise Matsakis, tech reporter who has analyzed Shein’s model in depth, said: “Shein takes a different approach. Instead, 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 gliding interface not much 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 a whole range of novelties that are distributed to different stores around the world, Shein, relying on a very large network of small manufacturers in China, afford to produce small quantities of garments for any type of garment and then increase production once that particular item starts to sell well.

The whole process is so fast and the costs so low (apparently thanks to the exploitation of very cheap labor), that in less than ten days Shein can reproduce a kind of garment that his algorithms have intercepted online. † Thanks to this approach, the Chinese startup has risen from a valuation of $5 billion to one of 100 (more than Zara and H&M combined) in four years, surpassing Amazon as the most downloaded app in the US and taking in more than 43. millions of buyers around the world.

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

And then it becomes clear that the problem of ultra-fast fashion is now 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 7,500 different items under 5 euros), so low that one person can afford it to order them in bulk without worrying too much that they might not fit properly. The goal is often not to find a piece of clothing to permanently add to your wardrobe, but to have it opportunity to show off a different outfit every daywithout the hassle of going to a store and trying different ones.

But as we said, it’s not all about convenience: the brands that focus on ultra-fast fashion play a major role in relying on social media to fuel this trend of constant clothing replacement. Instagram, Tik Tok and YouTube are full of “haul videos” of influencers emptying full packs of clothes, normalizing the purchase of new clothes every week. It’s no coincidence that platforms like Boohoo, Pretty Little Things and Shein grown enormously during the pandemic: The ability to get so many new pieces of clothing at home that they can fill their social profiles with new outfits every week, at a time when many aspects of everyday life had moved online, has led many people to develop some kind of addiction.

And I don’t use the term “addiction” lightly: Several studies have shown that when we are presented with the opportunity to buy new things (and do so in the belief that we are saving money), the same reward circuitry associated with psychotropic substances and gambling is activated in our brains. Every time we buy a new piece of clothing online, at a lower price than expected, our brains produce more dopamine than when we buy clothes that are available in the store, and this is because an element of anticipation is created, coupled with a wish that we have declared (by ordering the product) but which have yet to be fulfilled (with the arrival of the goods). In some cases, these dynamics lead to a dependency loop that is difficult to stop.

As a result, more and more people are buying new clothes that they don’t even use, which in many cases end up in landfills, such as the one in Iquique. But there is also another problem, which has more to do with the new relationship we are entering into with our wardrobe: the price of an ultra-fast fashion garment is so low that in many cases it is cheaper. money, buy a new one instead of taking care of it. This new disposable trend is having a devastating impact environmental, and it’s one of the reasons fast fashion is often referred to as one of the biggest threats to our ecosystem.

The most toxic fashion ever

Today, the clothing industry represents by far the most polluting sector after food and construction, and is responsible for 10% of the greenhouse gases produced annually. 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 rate, emissions related to the sector will increase by 50% between now and 2030.

It’s not over yet: making clothes, as we have already seenprimarily includes: a huge waste of water† Suffice it to say that the textile industry, including cultivation, production and transportation, consumes 93 billion cubic meters of water annually, an amount sufficient to meet the water needs of an average of 5 million people. In addition, 20% of all waste water produced in the world is due to the treatment and dyeing of textile fibres, and as much as 87% of the fibers produced ends up in landfills or incinerators.

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

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

Measures like this will make it more difficult for platforms like Shein to offer items at such discounted prices, and will certainly help boost recycling and purchase of second-hand clothing. But in the face of what increasingly appears to be a paradigm shift in the way we manage our wardrobes, and with platforms that have perfected systems that take advantage of 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 interface between science and culture. He published the novels Apartment R39 (Einaudi, 2014), A moment before (Einaudi, 2017) and the essay report on climate change “The Other World” (Bompiani, 2021). He teaches creative writing at the Holden School of Turin. Lives and works in Milan.

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