While the battle to clean up the clothing industry in 2023 intensified, there was a huge rise this year in hyperfast fashion, leaving a huge carbon footprint and terrible waste. Still popularizing clothing repairs was an encouraging development.
The outgoing year has been one of hyper-fast fashion, extreme price tags (both high and low), and toxic spills of polyester clothing. The sheer volume of clothing the world is producing, and buying has taken on a life of its own.
Fossil fashion is at the core of many of fast fashion’s worst problems: cheap materials, over-reliance on synthetics, a spiraling waste crisis, and spiking emissions. Fossil-fuel-based polyester is cheap and is the fiber of choice for hyper-fast fashion, which has continued to dominate the market despite a torrent of criticism in June after the leading producer, Shein. The Chinese shopping app Temu, which gives Shein a run for its money with its “lightning” 99 percent discount deals, has been downloaded more than 7m times since it launched in the UK in April.
Still, the link between farming and fashion has never been discussed more; “regenerative” is one of the year’s biggest buzzwords. This showed that fashion is not just about ensuring farmers keep carbon in the soil but the whole process – from how cotton, hemp, flax, wool, and leather are farmed to end-of-garment life.
One win for regenerative fashion occurred in October, when the UK’s first homegrown, home-spun jeans made from flax and wool cultivated on wasteland in Blackburn, Lancashire, were launched.
In February, The Or Foundation – based in Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana, is dedicated to tackling the injustice of the fashion’s trash problem – published its report Stop Waste Colonialism. It explained how “the fashion industry uses the global secondhand clothing trade as a de facto waste management strategy.” In May, a group of clothing traders went to Brussels to debate with policyholders about European legislation on extended producer responsibility (EPR) – to ensure that the Kantamanto market is part of the conversation because the world’s fashion trash is ending up on their doorstep.
Artist Jeremy Hutchison took the idea of trash on your doorstep one step further when he became a “monster of post-consumer imperialism” in the form of a suffocating 8ft textile zombie called Dead White Man. It was a collaboration with The Or Foundation about the Ghanaian phrase obroni wawu, meaning dead white man’s clothing. This is how the traders of the Kantamanto market refer to their stock of cast-offs from the global north.
In September, Clare Press, in her latest book, Wear Next, stated that over-production and hyperspeed are two of the fashion industry’s biggest problems. In its annual Fashion Transparency Index, Fashion Revolution reported that 88 percent of significant fashion brands still do not disclose yearly production volumes. According to the Index, globally, the system has enough clothing to clothe the next six generations.
This year was also the year European legislation started to dig in to regulate fast fashion. In December, the European Parliament agreed to ban the destruction of unsold clothing, accessories, and footwear as part of its new “eco-design” framework. It will also see clothing given a Digital Product Passport. Expected to come into force in 2026, a QR code will provide shoppers with greater transparency over the materials and manufacturers and even tips on repairing their items. Without regulation, brands are still not taking responsibility for their products, the materials they use, and their supply chains. Legislation will start to push them into taking collective action.
The year 2023 has also seen the continued exploitation of garment workers around the world. The year marked ten years since the Rana Plaza factory disaster that killed 1,134 people, with at least another 2,000 injured when the factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed. In December, more than 50 brands signed up for the newly extended International Accord, contributing to safer working conditions for more than 2 million garment factory workers in Bangladesh, with 48 signing up for the Bangladesh Safety Agreement and 88 for the more recent Pakistan Accord.
But there continues to be a lack of transparency. In November, a woman in Derbyshire found a Chinese prisoner’s ID card in the sleeve lining of her Regatta coat, raising warnings over modern slavery hidden in supply chains. And poverty pay is still the industry norm. As the Clean Clothes Campaign reported, on 25 June this year, union leader Shahidul Islam was beaten to death for labor rights activism in Tongi, Bangladesh. Ongoing protests against the new minimum wage in Bangladesh resulted in four workers dying in November and at least 115 workers and trade unionists in prison. Maeve Galvin, Fashion Revolution’s global policy and campaigns director, said, “We are so far from workers achieving social justice that it is shameful.”
On a more hopeful note, young people continue to buy their clothes second-hand, online, or at car boot sales. Fast fashion brands see that Depop, Vinted, and eBay are their biggest competitors and have started turning over valuable retail space to second-hand clothing.