HomeFashionHow Ireland got to lead the world in fast fashion addiction

How Ireland got to lead the world in fast fashion addiction


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Two decades ago, Ireland created a new normal. In an uphill battle won against one of the world’s most powerful industries, the Irish government successfully implemented the smoking ban in 2004, prohibiting it in workplaces, bars and restaurants and becoming the first country in the world to do so.

While controversial at the time, the government’s efforts paid off. In the 20 years since the ban was introduced, the rate of smoking in Ireland dropped from 27% to just 18% in 2024, reflecting a reduction of about 800,000 people.

More than 70 countries have followed Ireland’s footsteps by implementing similar bans, and now a quarter of the world’s population lives in a country that prohibits smoking in bars, workplaces, and public transport. 

Ireland’s efforts were pivotal in the fight against smoking, showing successful government intervention can invoke positive change when consumer-targeted nudges fall short.

However, Ireland now faces a new yet familiar beast — one posing catastrophic problems for the climate and public health but, like the tobacco industry, has deep pockets and a diversified game plan, ready to divert attention and greenwash their image as needed.

“Irish people consume double the amount of textiles than the EU average,” says Mark Sweeney, chair of Charity Retail Ireland and Donated Goods Strategy Manager at Oxfam Ireland. 

It’s not a criticism, it is a fact. Ireland overconsumes textiles. 

Most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that per capita consumption of new textiles in Ireland is 53kg per year, more than twice the European average of 26kg reported by the European Environment Agency (EEA).

This has been enabled in no small part by the growing prevalence of concerningly cheap and materially ambiguous clothing made in abundance half a world away, demand for which is shaped by aggressive advertising, a strong social media presence and prices lower than their social cost.

Mr Sweeney said he had been “bombarded with messaging,” from all four corners of the internet. “They’re on the sidebar of almost every website. I have two small kids playing games on my iPad receiving ads for Shein and Temu every few minutes.

“They just want their ad out there, which is one of the problems. Advertising has a huge part to play in overconsumption.”

These companies’ marketing tactics are not just limited to direct ads, however, with fashion brands like Temu, Shein, Zara and H&M also largely reliant on influencer marketing, offering industry-leading rates to those with an online platform to share and promote their products in a way that looks genuine and authentic.

An often lucrative business for aspiring content creators, the deal comes with free clothing, the opportunity to collaborate with an industry giant and monetary payment, making it hard to refuse for many, but not all.

Irish influencer and content creator Keelin Moncrieff has dedicated a large portion of her online platform to discussing climate issues and sustainable clothing

With an academic background in fashion, Irish content creator and influencer, Keelin Moncrieff has dedicated a large portion of her online platform to discussing climate issues and sustainable clothing while promoting second-hand stores and charity shops as substitutes for fast fashion.

“I was coming to the end of my studies in fashion buying and was looking into potential careers. The only position you can go for in Ireland is working at Penneys, which would be a huge producer of fast fashion.” 

In March of this year, fast-fashion giant Shein posted a record $2bn (€1.87bn) in profit for 2023, according to the Financial Times, with the retailer’s total value of goods sold on its website totalling $45bn (€42.1bn) — not bad considering the average garment costs around €9.

“There was no module on sustainability during my studies or any focus on the impact of textiles on the environment,” the 25-year-old content creator told the Irish Examiner. “The fashion industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change — it should have been at the forefront of our studies.”

“I got to see all the behind-the-scenes — where the textiles come from, the huge profit margins behind it and how they cut costs so huge corporations can make more and more money.” 

According to Oxfam, about 63,000 tonnes of textiles in Ireland end up in landfills annually. Across Europe, textile consumption has the fourth highest impact on the environment and climate change after food, housing and transport.

Boasting almost 120,000 followers on Instagram, a further 112,000 followers on TikTok and 88,000 subscribers on YouTube, the Dublin native recalls looking for ways to dress and style herself without buying anything new.

As Ms Moncrieff says: “A huge part of social media and influencer culture is that we are all sold the idea we need to buy new things to look nice and fit in for the new season.

“The fashion industry is behind this. They changed it from only four seasons to weekly cycles, which is where the term ‘fast fashion’ comes from.

“The pressure is on to buy new things and it’s weighing down heavier and heavier on people to keep up. I don’t feel like that’s people’s fault, it’s a marketing ploy that’s been pushed upon them.” 

Fast fashion’s rising popularity is largely helped by its questionable prices, with such a low opportunity cost pushing many to purchase in bulk.

“People pay so little for it — they think because it is so cheap, there’s no harm in buying it because if it doesn’t fit, it’s only a few quid anyways,” says Mr Sweeney. 

“That creates a bigger problem, which is the waste element of it.

From experience, what we see when people buy those large quantities from Shein, is they throw half of it into a charity bag with the tag still on it. It’s poor quality, ill-fitting, it doesn’t look like how it did on the model, it’s not meant to.” 

This influx of Shein rejects is becoming a growing problem for charity shops, warns Mr Sweeney.

It is not welcome. If you pay €2 for a top and put it in a bag for the charity shop, what value can a charity shop sell it for? It doesn’t matter that the tag is on it, it is perceived as second-hand.

“Charity shops run as fundraisers for charity. We need to present good products and we want to raise as much money as we can to support our respective charities.

“I don’t think even the public wants fast fashion in a charity shop because that’s not what we’re about. We are about people being able to go in and find a good piece of clothing for an affordable price. With fast fashion coming into charity shops now, it creates problems.” 

Textile waste will become a major problem in the future for Ireland, Mr Sweeney warms, citing new legislation from the European Commission aiming to restrict the export of textile waste.

“There is also legislation coming in January where textiles cannot be put into domestic waste. All these things coming down the line means we will need to change our behaviours in a big way.” 

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, a spokesperson for the Department of the Environment said: “At an EU level, the department is actively participating in policy and legislative developments regarding textiles.

“The EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles proposes measures to make producers take responsibility for products throughout the value chain, including waste. The aim is to make producers who manufacture and sell disposable goods for profit environmentally accountable for the products they place on the market.” 

Mr Sweeney points to a clear solution. Earlier this year, the French government supported a pioneering bill targeting the fast fashion industry’s largest culprits. It proposes stringent regulatory measures, including the banning of advertising for fast fashion products, as well as the introduction of environmental levies on these low-cost products.

“It is almost like cigarettes or alcohol — it reduces the temptation to purchase,” says Mr Sweeney. “I think that is very positive.” 

Ms Moncrieff agrees, adding a similar model could greatly benefit Ireland. “I think it would really help in terms of the influence these brands have on people. There should be limits on where these retailers can promote products. It’s just like Botox or plastic surgery — these things need regulation.” 

As Mr Sweeney argues: “We will not properly see the impact of fast fashion on public health and the climate for possibly another generation, but we can’t just wait around. When it comes to legislation, the Irish Government would do well to look at what France is doing.”

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