Fast fashion is on the rampage, with the UK at the head of the charge

<span>Photograph: AM Ahad/AP</span>
Photograph: AM Ahad/AP

Fast fashion – the rapid system of trend-driven, low-cost clothing manufacture beloved by UK consumers – is on the rampage. We crossed a worrying line in 2014, scaling up garment production to 100bn pieces of new clothing a year. These are clothes, made from virgin resources, increasingly plastic, pushed out into the world with little thought as to where they will end up. Without rapid reform, the fashion industry – of which fast fashion is the dominant player – could be responsible for a quarter of the Earth’s carbon budget by 2050. This threat to the planet has, not surprisingly, attracted the attention of climate protesters. Extinction Rebellion picketed London fashion week for the first time in February.

The UK’s contribution is enormous. Not only did we invent fast fashion, but our fashion consumers are among the most voracious in the world. One in three young women, the biggest segment of consumers, consider garments worn once or twice to be old. UK consumers sent 300,000 tonnes of textiles to be burned or dumped in landfill in 2018.

Related: Fast fashion is eating up the planet – and this feeble government enables it | Gaby Hinsliff

The drive to fast fashion began from the moment Hargreaves of Oswaldtwistle built the first spinning jenny to spin cotton faster. By the 1770s the mill owner Richard Arkwright’s version could spin 20 to 30 warp threads at once. With faster material production came more ready to wear clothes. By the early 1800s the well-heeled were writing to newspapers complaining that their housemaids were asking for higher wages to fund dress purchases. The poor maids were likely to have been trying to fill the same void in their lives that we do today, but we have fallen hook, line and sinker.

To take the heat out of dressing we’re often told to think of our grandparents and the make-do-and-mend spirit of the 1940s. In reality though this period, when the purchase of civilian clothing was restricted to free up materials and shipping space for the war effort, is an anomaly. These forebears were perhaps the only ones who had a truly sustainable approach to fashion.

Ultimately fashion sped up not just the fibre production but also garment making. By the 1990s the UK’s industry had been almost entirely exported to some of the lowest wage economies on earth.

Related: Forget fast fashion: slow style pioneers on the clothes they've worn for decades

If there is one point where we should have stopped the madness it was the aftermath of the morning of 23 April 2013, when the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh collapsed. More than 1,300 people, mostly young female garment workers making for western brands, died in the disaster, which exposed the true cost of our fast fashion habit. The industry, however, was allowed to mark its own homework, taking control of a limited programme of reform that would retrofit factories to bring them up to minimum safety requirements. Not one brand moved to change the system.

Instead, fast fashion pushed onwards and upwards. Brands sought cheaper more compliant manufacturers in new territories, exporting the same system for production that had led to Rana Plaza to Ethiopia, the lowest-wage economy on Earth. A recent study by NYU Stern into fast fashion production at the Hawassa industrial park found workers barely covering the cost of food and transport.

This week the Manchester-based launched a £1 plastic polymer bikini. It serves as a reminder that the new crop of online retailers make high street fast fashion look as slow as a diplodocus. These brands are social media and Snapchat tacticians with a direct line to very young people. Digital natives “swipe up” and instantly purchase an outfit worn by someone they follow.

Consuming at this speed removes any possible moment for pause and reflection. The online fashion retailers have stripped out every barrier to purchase, even the one of not actually having the money. At even your £1 bikini can be purchased in instalments over four weeks using Klarna, a Swedish version of an increasing number of buy-now-pay-later platforms that do not require credit checks.

This business model might seem one that cares little for the planet, but launched a sustainable collection this week. They might want to be careful overselling their commitment. H&M, one of the biggest producers of fast fashion and generator of an extraordinary number of sustainability initiatives, has run slap bang into the Norwegian Consumer Authority. Set up to police Norway’s Marketing Control Act, the NCA has concluded that H&M’s conscious collection gives consumers the impression that their clothes are more sustainable than they actually are.

This is a welcome intervention but it does not compensate for the government’s failure to help fix fashion here. The point is that we are in a fashion industry emergency, at risk of having to explain to future generations that we missed the climate change targets because we couldn’t resist a £1 bikini advertised during Love Island.