Australia has an addiction to fast fashion. Every year, Australians acquire on average 27 kilos of new clothing per person, chucking out 23 kilos each year. 800,000 tonnes of clothing and textiles are discarded by Australians each year, 90% of which ends up in landfill.

It’s such an issue that in June Environment Minister Sussan Ley added clothing textile waste to the National Priority Waste List alongside electronics, plastic oil containers and child car seats. A $1 million grant has been given to the Australian Fashion Council (AFC) to help address fast fashion waste.

But we’re not alone: the fashion industry business model has changed, relying on constantly evolving fashion trends to peddle products by exploiting workers, producing mass amounts of waste every year.

While the pandemic slowed fashion spending, the changes were temporary, with the industry set to bounce back. According to McKinsey & Company’s 2022 State of Fashion report, non-luxury fashion sales dipped by 20% in 2020, but rebounded in mid-2021 with pent-up demand creating spikes of so-called “revenge buying”. In the US that year, sales increased by 5-10% compared to 2019 levels, while globally sales about returned to 2019 levels.

It’s a different story online: the online apparel market grew faster year-on-year in 2020 than the years before, while in 2021 clothing was the top segment for online shopping.

How has the fashion industry changed?

The fashion business model has changed dramatically across the past two decades, largely driven by social media, University of Technology Sydney fashion and textiles designer Mark Liu tells Crikey. 

“In the past, companies and the designers predicted what is going to be popular,” he said.

“Now, companies are taking analytics from people’s social media and search behaviour … then making products that sell and making variations of them. So it’s this cycle where what sells gets replicated. You don’t need to guess what will be successful — you just need to put it out there.”

This process is called consumer-to-manufacturer: instead of seasonal styles, fashion trends are ongoing, tailored to niche trends and aesthetics driven by shoppers.

Chinese-based fashion company Shein has been successful at cornering this market, with shirts selling for as little as $3.76. On TikTok, users show off their “Shein hauls” — dozens of clothing items they model, mix and match. It was the top-visited clothing site for several months across 2021 and is worth more than $20 billion.

With young people documenting their lives daily online, there’s pressure to always show off new outfits and stay on-trend, Lui said.

“The cycle just churns … creating needless amounts of clothing.”

How are things so cheap?

Clothing remains low-cost by using cheap textiles such as polyester, and by exploiting labour markers in developing nations. Manufacturers including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Izod are turning away from China and to Ethiopia where workers are paid as little as US$26 ($37) a month — the world’s lowest wages. Ethiopia has no legally mandated minimum wage for the private sector.

As a result, waste isn’t an issue for brands, Lui said — staying on trend is. “Wastage has been built into the business model, so then wasting things is not going to negatively affect the bottom line. It’s just going to affect the environment.”

Even those attempting to shop sustainably are often duped: greenwashing is prominent in the fashion industry, with many “sustainable” brands still relying on fast-fashion manufacturing chains to stay both profitable and on-trend.

In the US, New York is introducing a bill where clothing companies will have to map 50% of their supplies across all tiers of production.

But, Lui said, this wasn’t enough: “Some of the worst offenders at the moment disclose about 70% of their supply chain, but they don’t tell people what happens in the rest. That’s where all the big problems occur.”

What can be done?

Australians often turn to charity stores to dispose of the 23kg of clothes a year they no longer want — but it’s costing charities $13 million a year to send unusable donations to landfill, equalling around 60,000 tonnes of waste. Some donations are given to developing countries — but this can have negative impacts on local textile markets.

Senior adviser to the AFC Kellie Hush said recycling clothing is incredibly complex. Globally just 12% of clothing textiles are recycled.

“Textiles have to be pulled apart and put through processing,” she said, with tags and lining often made from different materials than the rest of a piece of clothing. As part of the $1 million grant, the AFC is undertaking a 17-month research project into fast fashion manufacturing, clothes disposal and consumer awareness.

Five key questions shoppers should ask themselves, Hush said, were around where the clothing materials came from and where it was manufactured; whether shoppers really needed the item; how long the item was likely to last; whether the clothes could be recycled or what could be done with them at their end-of-life; and why something was being sold so cheaply.

Both Hush and Lui said while shoppers should be taking care of what they buy, manufacturers needed to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility.

“Companies are overproducing and the industry needs to slow down and start producing what people really need,” Hush said.

“Even when brands use best practices, things can still slip through because there’s corruption in some manufacturing countries.”

This is part three of a series. Read part one here and part two here.

This article was first published by Crikey.