Article par Farah Doumit (EnvIM 2019)



Fashion is our chosen skin. It is a way to communicate who we are as Orsola de Castro said [1]. In fact, fashion and textiles have always been part of human society. The clothes we wear tell stories of our culture and our heritage. However, the role of the global fashion industries has shifted far beyond meeting a basic human need. The relationship with fashion in our modern lives has had a collateral and significant impact on our planet: introducing a new type of fashion also known as the Fast Fashion.


Fast Fashion

Fast Fashion is a term that describes a new trend in the fashion industry. In fact, after the creation of the sewing machine that contributed to an extremely rapid fall in the prices of clothing and an increase in the scale of clothing manufacturing and the desire of middle class consumers to purchase mass-produced clothing after the war imitating the Haute couture fashion: the democratization of fashion. This has led to an accelerated fashion business model  emerged in the 1980s. This approach focuses on an operating mode of take, make and dispose of mass produced, homogeneous and standardized fashion items [2].

Fast fashion shortened the fashion cycles with innovative excessive production and distribution models. In fact, instead of the conventional two seasons, spring/summer and fall/winter fast fashion involves  50 to 100 micro seasons[3]. This model is characterized by quick turnaround and often lower prices. It is actively reacting to the ever-increasing demand of consumers to offer new products focusing on strategic efforts to make the most efficient supply chain [4]. The graph below illustrate the business model of the fast fashion industry, compared to a conventional one [5].


Figure 1 Traditional vs. Fast fashion design-to-sales processes for a product introduced in January 2013 - Source: Caro and Martínez-de-Albéniz (2013)
Figure 1 Traditional vs. Fast fashion design-to-sales processes for a product introduced in January 2013 – Source: Caro and Martínez-de-Albéniz (2013)

Undeniably, the fast fashion sector has an important and significant presence in the apparel industry in terms of scale. For example, according to Hitwise data, fast fashion retail (compared to mid, premium, and luxury brands) accounted for 66% of all online fashion traffic in the first half of  2019.


Measuring the Fashion Industry

Today the Fashion industry accounts for 2.5 trillion dollars and employs over 75 million people [6]. It is one of the biggest industries in the world generating 2% of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is witnessing a never-ending expansion and growth. In fact, according to McKinsey; between 2003 and 2013 the global apparel, fashion and luxury industry outperformed all other market indexes in profitability, outstripping the technology and telecommunications sectors [7]. Also, the number of fashion retailers grew by 9.7% from 2010 to 2015 [8].

By 2030 there will be 5.4 billion people in the global middle class since hundreds of millions of people in China and India enter will join this class [9]. Therefore the apparel sector is projected to grow In China for instance it will grow by 9.18% in 2020 [3].


Fashion’s Environmental Price Tag

This success story does not go without a gloomy side. Everything comes with a cost. And unfortunately, the environment is paying the price.

In fact, the apparel industry represents 6.7% of global climate impacts with 3,290 million tons CO2 eq [10].

It is the second biggest consumer of water, producing alone 20% of global wastewater and releasing half a million tons of synthetic microfibers into the ocean annually. It contributes to 10 % of global carbon emissions, making it the second largest polluter after oil. Fashion industry sets a record by consuming more energy than aviation and shipping industry combined [11].

The textiles industry relies mostly on non-renewable resources. To produce synthetic fibers and fertilizers, to grow cotton and chemicals, to produce, dye and finish fibers and textiles; 98 million tons of resources including oil are consumed in total per year [12]. With its low rates of uses (leading to high levels of throughput) and low levels of recycling, the current wasteful, linear system is the root cause of this massive and ever-expanding pressure on resources. The industry’s immense footprint extends beyond the use of raw materials. Throughout its entire value chain, the apparel industry impacts the environment: From raw material extraction and processing to end-of-life processes and transportation.


Figure 3 Apparel value chain - Source: Science based targets (2018)
Figure 3 Apparel value chain – Source: Science based targets (2018)


All the steps require raw material, energy and water and generate environmental emissions. According to a study done by Quantis Fiber production and dyeing (in the finishing step of the material production) are two of the main drivers of the industry’s global pollution impacts [10].

Fiber Production is the extraction and the processing of fibers.  Polyester is the most popular fabric used for fashion. In 2015, the polyester production for textiles released about 706 billion kg of greenhouse gases which is the equivalent of 85 coal fired power plants annual emissions [3]. During the dyeing and finishing process, bleaching and dyes are excessively used making textile dyeing the second largest polluter of clean water globally, after agriculture.

“Fast fashion has made the sector a monstrous disposable industry” – Phoebe English

The apparel’s production reaches 80 billion garments per year, among which T-shirt and jeans are the most common, taking an important place in the fast fashion industry [13].


  • An Enormous T-shirt Footprint

Each year, approximately 2 billion T-shirts are sold. Typically, a T-shirt’s life begins in a farm in America, China or India where cotton seeds are grown and irrigated. The cotton is harvested and pressed into 225-kilogram bales. Annually, 22.7 million tons of cotton are produced worldwide. [13] To grow cotton, a big amount of water is required. It takes 2700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt, enough drinkable water for one person for 2 years and a half. Also, it requires more pesticides and insecticides than any other crop in the world to grow in good conditions. Annually 43 million tons of chemicals are used to produce textiles [14]. In India, for instance, pesticides applied to cotton production account for over half of the total amount applied annually despite cotton acreage representing just 5% of all agricultural land there[15]. The Swedish chemicals agency KEMI showed that 30% of the substances used in the textile production could generate a risk to human health. In fact, skin burns, and eye damage can occur during farming and fiber manufacturing. After this step comes the spinning process in a facility usually located in China or India. The cotton is transformed into ropes of yarn called slivers. They are sent to the mill where they are knitted by machines and treated with heat and chemicals to make them white and soft. The fabric is then dipped into bleaches and dyes containing cadmium, lead, chromium and mercury that cause contamination when released as toxic water in rivers and oceans. To make a kilogram of this pigment of synthesis it takes a 100 kg of solvent oil and 1000 liters water. The final step is the stitching, often done in Bangladesh, China, India or Turkey where human labor is required. Most of the time the workforce faces very bad conditions and low wages. After manufacturing, the T-shirt is shipped to be sold in high income countries, giving it an enormous carbon footprint. Finally, in a consumer’s home the T-shirt goes through the most resource intensive phases of its lifetime when they are put in washing and drying machines. When polyester garments are washed in domestic washing machines, they shed microfibers that add to the increasing levels of plastic in our oceans. One load of laundry takes 40 gallons of water and could release 700 000 microplastics fibers into the environment [16]. One may argue that more efficient wastewater treatment plant could be the solution, however the cost of such facilities is often massive and politically and socially unbearable for citizens. For example, the company Wexco developed technologies “Cora Ball” created to reduce microfibers release during the washing process but are still expensive and difficult to install since washing machine are still not equipped [17]. Also, drying clothes in the machine requires five times the energy used to wash it. At the end, the total journey of this simple T-shirt is approximately 32000 kilometers.


  • A pair of Jeans in numbers

2.3 billion jeans are produced worldwide. Some of the jeans displayed in stores will have consumed about 11 thousand liters of water and travelled 65 thousand kilometers, the equivalent of a round and half around the earth [18].

Figure 4 The impact of a Levi’s Jeans – Source Levi’s (2015)
Figure 4 The impact of a Levi’s Jeans – Source Levi’s (2015)
  • Out of fashion?

With the linear system (take-make-dispose) adopted nowadays, a large amount of non-renewable resources (oil to produce synthetic fibers, fertilizers to grow cottons, chemical to produce dye) are extracted to produce clothes that are often only used for a short period of time, after which the materials are largely lost to landfill or incineration. It is estimated that more than half of fast fashion produced is disposed of in under a year [19]. When out of fashion, clothes, which are no longer in use or in good shape, are mainly thrown away. According to a study conducted by the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation, the fashion industry is responsible for one truck of textiles wasted every second, which equates to 92 million tons of solid waste in landfills per year [20].

You don’t learn the details because at the end of the day it is not a selling point.

If the industry proceeds by the business-as-usual, its profit will face a reduction by 45 EUR billion [21]. In fact, as attention is more drawn to the fashion industry labor costs will increase. As well, energy and water prices will grow strongly, so the industry’s profitability will be under pressure. Furthermore, by 2050 it could use more than 26% of carbon budget associated with a 2˚C global warming limit, input a fossil feedstocks for textiles production of 160 million tons, accumulate an excess of 22 million tons of plastic microfibers, material equivalent of around 4 billion polyester tops.

However, the impact clothes have gone far beyond the above huge pressure on resources, impacting also the health of cotton farmers’ and driven questionable human labor practices.


The social Cost of our Clothes

The biggest retailers have chased the cheapest needle around the world. Those at the top of the chain are the most powerful; so, they get to choose the cheapest factory. Thus, they look for cheap material source and low-cost economy characterized by very low wages avoiding all accountability for the growing cost of human health and environment, in order to increase their profit. They created a competition between poor countries and also poor workers.

This situation left the factories in low income countries with no other choice than putting their workers in dire conditions, disregarding their safety and rights, to meet the clients’ demand and get a very limited cut of the profit. The heavy toll of this decision?
Pakistan Karachi, Ali enterprises, September 2012, 289 dead [22].
Bangladesh Dhaka, Tazreen Fashions, November 2012, 112 dead [23].
Bangladesh Dhaka, Rana Plaza garment factory April 2013, 1132 dead [24] and the death roll goes on.

Hasan Ashraf, a Bangladeshi anthropologist conducted six months fieldwork at a Dhaka knitwear factory and listed out in the book Unmaking the Global Sweatshop: Health and Safety of the World’s Garment Workers the everyday health threats he witnessed. Exposed to dust and smoke inhalation, noise, lack of ventilation, eyestrain, musculoskeletal pain, stress, electric wires, and chemical adhesives, workers are forced to make a trade-off between earning a living and caring for their mental, physical health and well-being.

In Punjab, genetically modified cotton is being planted due to the high demand for cotton. This has led to an increase of cotton price caused by seed companies’ monopoly, putting cotton farmer in debt because they cannot afford the higher seed prices. In the last sixteen years, 250,000 farmer suicides were recorded, making it the largest wave of suicides in history [25].

A hidden side of fashion was brought to light: 1 in 6 persons of the global fashion industry has no voice in the largest supply chain. They work for 2-3 $ per day. So, the question everyone should ask is: Why is an industry, with such high profits, unable to guarantee its workers’ safety?

To make changes happen in the fashion industry we either need strong minded pioneers or a boycott from the consumers. People must change their buying habits, ask questions about where their clothes are coming from and remember that everything they wear has been touched by human hands.



There are different motives for people to wear and purchase clothes. One is the practical motivations such as warmth, comfort, protection and function. The others are more subtle emotional and societal desires such as the exposure of identity and the demonstration of values and status. The act of buying can also be described as an experience also known as the retail therapy, where purchasing and wearing clothes play a role as a satisfier of human needs in a societal context. However, the industry has set an economy based on materialism and excessive consumerism. The average consumer is now purchasing 60% more items of clothing compared to 2000, but each garment is kept half as long [3]. According to Richard D. Wolff, an economist, people are searching for happiness in the consumption of things and the industry is helping this by tricking consumers to believe they are rich. Effectively, the fast fashion industry created a model where consumers buy more items for cheaper price disregarding whether they need it or not. Over the past 15 years, the production of textiles has doubled, but the clothing utilization has decreased by 36% [14]. Another striking finding by the Hubbub Foundation suggested that 17% of young people questioned said they wouldn’t wear an outfit again if it had been on Instagram.

Figure 5 The trends in clothing sales and utilization – Source : Euromonitor International Apparel & Footwear 2016 Edition (volume sales trends 2005–2015); World Bank, World development indicators – GD (2017)
Figure 5 The trends in clothing sales and utilization – Source : Euromonitor International Apparel & Footwear 2016 Edition (volume sales trends 2005–2015); World Bank, World development indicators – GD (2017)


This year, “Singles Day” internet shopping bonanza in China generated $38.4 billion GMV more than twice the amount of last year’s Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Amazon Prime Day combined. 535 million packages across the country on Nov 11, three times higher than the daily processing volume since the second quarter this year, according to the State Post Bureau. In 2016, a research conducted by Greenpeace East Asia showed that the apparel sales alone produced 258,000 tons of CO2 emissions — equivalent to the CO2 absorbed by 2.58 million trees [26].

With this excessive trend of buying more, wearing less and disposing irresponsibly, customers miss out on 460 USD billion of value each year by throwing away clothes that they could continue to wear [14]. However, there is an acknowledgment of the problem. In fact, 60% of Chinese and German admits owning more clothes than they need [27] , which makes room for a new model to be introduced that could change the consumers’ mindset and behavior and shed a different light on the dark side of fast fashion.


Designing a New Future for Fashion

It is the fashion’s creative minds who have the potential to bring sustainability to life and create new business models based on restoration, regeneration and circularity. Textile circularity is the unresolved issue in the sustainable fashion equation. Thus, stakeholders aware of the bad impacts caused by the fast fashion industry came with the idea to create a new textile economy based on 4 principles.

One of the principles is to phase out the substances of concern and control the microfiber release by aligning the industry efforts and coordinate innovation in order to create safe materials cycles and lists of restricted substances. The EU, with its REACH regulation, already restricts the use of certain chemicals in textiles production. Also with the Greenpeace Detox Campaign, 80 companies committed to the ZDHC program to achieve greater transparency and Zero Discharges of Hazardous Chemicals in their supply by 2020 [28]. In 2016, the Better Cotton Initiative gathering 986 members accounted for 12% of all cotton produced. Eliminating the negative health impacts, due to poor chemicals management, would benefit in EUR 7 billion annually in 2030 [21].

Another principle is to transform the way clothes are designed, sold and used to break free from their increasingly disposable nature. This can be achieved by making durability more attractive:  ameliorating the quality, creating non seasonal styles, focusing on personalization of clothes at purchase and boosting clothing care with labels and guides. Increasing clothing utilization further through brand commitments and policy build industry commitments can increase durability. For example, guidelines can be set on how to adopt The Higg Index and its Design and development module [29] and how to follow the Waste and Resource Action program’s clothing longevity protocol [30]. In France and since 2007, mandatory actions to leave low utilization trends were set such as EPR Extended Producer Responsibility for clothing where companies are obliged to create a recycling and waste management system for their clothes or pay an association to finance a third party to do it. Here, EPR focuses only on recycling, they should expand to reuse. In Sweden, since 2017, VAT rates are 50% lower for repair services of items like clothes, setting the right path to reuse. Patagonia Worn Wear Initiative is another way to show Support towards customers to maintain their clothes for longer through repair services or workshops in stores, restyling, washing tips and storing. Since 2005 they recycled over 82 tons of clothing. The use of technology can be an asset to create a product offering longevity tackling overconsumption and waste of clothing, such as Petit Pli clothes that grow with child and offers 7 discreet sizes in one piece. Finally, scaling up the clothing rental and the secondhand market appears to be a genuine solution where fashion becomes a service that keeps clothes longer in use. Rent the Runway in the US, Ycloset in China and ThreadUp in the UK are great models that show that the cloud closet has its place in the fashion industry. In fact, The ThredUp Resale report of 2019 shows that resale has grown 21 times faster than retail sector over the past five years with 56 million women buying second hand in 2018 and 44 million in 2017. This sales model reduces the impact of impulse purchase on the environment; but one may also argue that it could be a new way to further stimulate the conventional transaction model. Another concern is that repeated washing of poor-quality synthetic clothing can lead to leaks of microfibers to the ocean.

Radically improving the recycling system by transforming clothing design, collection and reprocessing is also a fundamental principle. It consists of aligning clothing design and recycling processes. Setting a transparency on the materials flowing through the system is essential for a good recycling process through good labelling and creating innovation in new materials that are recyclable or biodegradable. Here technological innovation can also improve the economics and quality of recycling such as the Swedish Company SIPTex, working on an automated sorting of textiles for recycling. Implementing clothing collection at scale depending on the situation of municipal waste collection, home pick up, neighborhood collection containers, brand mail back, retailer drop off and charity drop off is key for a good recycling model. However, more than half of all clothes worldwide are sold in Europe, North America, and China, but 10% of these end up in other countries after their use. Therefore, collecting systems tailored to those destination countries should be implemented to capture material value in other countries. In order to avoid landfilling, ideas for other end of life of clothes are emerging such as insulation and padding for the building industry, or in sound absorption products in the automotive industry.  Also, the French Government is working on laws to ban the destruction of unsold fashion, in the wake of revelations that many companies were burning excess stock.

Finally, a last principle to switch to a sustainable fashion is the effective use of resources and the transition to renewable inputs. The model would imitate natural cycles. It would lessen and reduce the pollution of the environment by using for example a regenerative agriculture for biological based input like cotton and the sustainability managed forests for wood-based fibers. UN Development Program Goodwill Ambassador, Michelle Yeoh, explains that the use of forest-based materials is crucial for a sustainable fashion. In fact, wood-based fibers use 60 times less water compared to cotton and generates 15 times fewer carbon emissions. Other opportunities can be found in the resources such as sugar cane, corn waste vegetable oil and algae and waste from orange juice. The Orange Fiber Company succeeded to make out of orange juice waste a cellulose based fibre for textiles. Also, Qmilk uses dairy production and Agra Loop uses agricultural waste for their production. Even though on a small scale, these innovations in the world of materials can enable the implementation of a circular system. However these new resources should be used responsibly in a way that doesn’t endanger forest stocks or create a negative competition in the food sector.  To avoid the use of fossil fuel inputs for plastic fibers, bio-based or Co2 based feedstocks could be an option. Biomass feedstock that creates biodegradable plastics can be considered as a solution. A switch to regenerative farming method for cotton and cellulose based fibers should happen where no pesticides and fertilizers are used. Simple measures such as water and energy savings through a good management thinking about the environmental impact are not to be forgotten because they help boost the efficient production methods of fashion companies.

In this new model the clothes, the textiles and the fibers are kept at their highest value during use, reenter the economy after use, and they never end up as waste. The system gives access to high quality affordable and individualized clothing and captures the full value of clothes during and after use. Once they are no longer in good conditions, they are sent to recycling which allows the materials to be used in another stage. This system uses renewable energy to fuel the textile economy and renewable resources in order to keep them in the system. By moving to a circular system, the industry can unlock a USD 560 billion economic opportunity [31]. Pulse of fashion industry report estimates EUR 160 billion benefit if the fashion industry addresses the environmental and societal fallout of the current situation [21].

Everyone is aware that there is an urge to make sustainability the next fashionable trend. In fact, there is a 6% increase in general sustainability efforts across the entire garment industry. (Pulse of the fashion).  At the Copenhagen Fashion Summit of 2017, Global Fashion Agenda called on the fashion industry to act on circularity by signing a commitment as a concrete way to turn words into action. The aim was to increase the number of fashion brands and retailers acting on circularity in order to accelerate the industry’s transition to a circular fashion system and to define key actions for this transition. By May 2018, the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment (henceforth 2020 Commitment) had been signed by 94 companies, representing 12.5% of the global fashion market. Ms. Marie Chartadová, President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), stressed “that the fashion industry needs to change gear”. Therefore, UN committed to changing the path of fashion reducing its negative social economic and environmental impact, turning it into a driver for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals. Effectively, the environmental dimension of the fashion sector is directly linked to several (SDGs) among which the water-use efficiency, sustainable withdrawals, and water pollution under SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), climate change mitigation under SDG 13 (Climate Action), marine pollution under SDG 14 (Life below Water), and the protection of terrestrial ecosystems under SDG 15 (Life on Land) but it is in particular relevant to the release of chemicals, efficient use of natural resources as well as waste and recycling under SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production). The fashion sector is also critical to socioeconomic SDGs linked to jobs, gender equality and women’s empowerment and poverty alleviation. Given these links, the fashion sector is thus crucial for achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Furthermore, the UN created an alliance sponsored by 10 UN organizations supported by the Connect4Climate initiative which was launched by the World Bank partnership with 500 actors. The Italian Ministry of Environment and the UN climate change launched the “Green Fashion Week” to illustrate how sustainable fashion brands are already setting the paths towards less destructive business model.

It is important to understand that the implementation of single measures alone cannot create a permanent sustainable shift. The Fashion industry will need to abide by a set of measures designed to direct the industry towards a sustainable agenda. The efforts must be multilateral: collaboration and alignment on area of actions are required from changing consumer behavior, to establishing a sustainable business model from the creation to the end-of-life. Changing consumer behavior goes through changing the mindset of the people by raising awareness and desire on an acceptance of a sharing economy. This vision should be promoted by NGOs and international bodies that spread awareness worldwide and Brands that can market this new model as an attractive and fashionable option. The path to sustainability has to be powered by a regulatory framework that includes policies, public procurement and infrastructure investment to set directions and commitment on one clear vision.

In that sense, fashion is a People’s industry since it involves all persons designing, purchasing or wearing clothes. When I first started to dig into the fashion industry, I had no idea about all the actors and factors at play.  Ever since I finalized this article, I have drastically changed my consumer behavior: I no longer look at the industry the way I did before. Fashion is no longer about seasons and shopping the latest collection, it is about a circular model that ought to be a sustainable one. I believe that after reading this article you could change, and you would decide to join the green side and raise more awareness because it is by involving all stakeholders that we can create a drastic change. We have to keep on remembering that the fashion cycle runs on human hands and deeply affects the environment. It is only then that we can hope to transform the industry into a more environmentally friendly activity!



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