For a long time I never thought about clothes I bought and wore. If I liked it I bought it, without thinking twice. However, a few years ago when I began my journey of low waste living, I began to learn more about the fashion industry and devastating realities it created. I think deep down most of us know that fast fashion is bad…but do you know why?
When we say fast fashion we are referring to “a term used by fashion retailers to describe inexpensive designs that move quickly from the catwalk to stores to meet new trends. As a result of this trend, the tradition of introducing new fashion lines on a seasonal basis is being challenged. Today, it is not uncommon for fast-fashion retailers to introduce new products multiple times in a single week to stay on-trend”.
Perhaps some of the most well-known examples of this in the United States, come from companies like Forever 21 and H&M. Just walking into the store it can be baffling to see how many different products there are. Many of these companies are mass producing new products, in many sizes, in multiple colors, every single day. While fashion used to have specific seasons, maybe four per year, items are being manufactured on a daily basis just to try and remain “on trend”.
But what are the reprecautions of fast fashion?
Let me ask you a question. How you ever wondered WHO made your clothes? My guess is probably not, or probably not until recently. In western society we often have a disconnect from the story behind our clothes, the factory, the people, and the conditions they work by.
Seven years ago the fatal Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,100 factory workers, bringing fast fashion to the forefront of many people's minds. Despite the workers expressing their concerns for the stability of the building, the companies who employed them insisted they return to work. Days later the 80 story building collapsed killing over 1,000 individuals with many workers never being found. The sad part is that incidences like the Rana Plaza collapse are only scratching the surface of the working conditions. It highlights the utter disregard for human life that many of these major companies have. They find it more important to churn out cheap garments to make money than to provide their employees with humane and ethical working conditions.
In an effort to appear less horrible than they truly are, many companies are being more transparent about their practices. They ensure consumers that their employees are being paid “at least the minimum wage”. But exactly how much is that?
By saying this companies are also shining a light on the fact that many companies are not evening do this! In the countries where most of the garments are being made (China, India, Bangladesh) “the minimum wage represents between half to a fifth of the living wage. A living wage represents the bare minimum that a family requires to fulfill its basic needs (food, rent, healthcare, education). So in summary, these brands are bragging about paying their employees 5 times less than what a person actually needs to live with dignity”.
Not only is fast fashion a human rights issue, but it is also one of the leading polluters on this planet. It is responsible for nearly 10% of all green house gases, roughly the same amount as the entire EU. But how is that possible? Well nearly every single aspect of fast fashion is unsustainable. The production of the textiles, the textiles being used, the creation of the garment, shipping the product, washing the product, and finally disposing of it.
It’s important to note that in the past two decades the production of garments has more than doubled. Even though consumers are buying more products than ever, we are keeping them for half as long. Fashion in our eyes has become disposable. After all, fast fashion companies want us to do this so we can buy new clothes time and time again.
The fast fashion industry is a major contributor when it comes to depleting our non-renewable resources and using massive amounts of water and energy. The fashion industry is the second largest consumer industry of water. It requires “700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt and 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jean". Textile dyeing is also the second largest contributor to water pollution since the leftover water is often dumped into streams, rivers, and ditches.
Nowadays over 60 percent of garments are made from synthetic materials (in the US the number is closer to 85% percent). This means that when these clothes are thrown away, they go straight to landfill, are burned, or, like much of our waste, are shipped across the world to a lower income countries. Plus, producing polyester and other synthetic materials releases two to three times as much carbon emissions as producing cotton (which as we saw, is already a water intensive plant).
The production of the garments themselves are also a reason the fashion industry is so horrible for the planet. Think of how quickly companies are able to produce clothes and ship them all over the world. A company like ZARA is able to design, manufacture goods, and ship to retail in just two weeks. Such fast production increases the carbon emissions by transporting the goods and textiles faster, the emissions of the factory itself, as well as the shipping of the completed garments all over the world.
Once the garment is in the hands of a consumer, it can still have a major impact on the planet. Business Insider found that simply washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year. That is equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles. Textiles like polyester don’t break down in the ocean and it is estimated that 35% of all micro-plastics in the ocean come from laundering of these synthetic textiles.
As the fast fashion industry has grown over the past few decades, so has amount of items we consume and dispose of. A large majority of clothing ends up in the dump. In fact “the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second”. The items are burned or placed in a dump, where they are emitting still more green house gases.
The fast fashion industry is sustained off of our desire for more. More cheap clothes, more trends, more unethical and environmentally disastrous items. When many consumers are done with one item, they simply toss it away and move onto the next, and thus the cycle continues. So, what should we do now?
I am a firm believer that knowledge is power. In fact, when it comes to fast fashion, I would say that an educated consumer is a company’s worst nightmare. When we are educated, we can make better decisions, like ditching fast fashion for good and creating more awareness around this issue. It is important to recognize our own level of privilege and how we can use that in the fight against fast fashion.
So, where do you buy clothes? You can sill acquire new articles of clothing without the negative affects of fast fashion.
Thrifting: (finally a trend that I can get behind) Not only is utilizing your local thrift stores better for the planet, it’s also easier on your wallet. There are boutique vintage shops you can search if that’s your taste, but I wouldn’t overlook your local stores.
Buying online thrift: Online stores/apps are also another great option. Poshmark and ThredUp are two that I have used in the past, to both sell and buy items. Obviously these items are still being shipped but it does allow you to refine your search for a specific item.
Clothing swap: If you have clothes you want to get rid of, chances are your friends and family do too. Organize a clothing swap with friends where you can exchange old clothes and give them a new home.
Sustainable companies: Lastly, support sustainable companies. Companies that are certified Fair Trade and ones who are honest and transparent about the ethical nature of ALL aspects of their product.
My final tip for you is to practice patience. We have grown so accustomed to being able to walk into a store or go online and immediately buy a cheap garment that fits our exact needs. But at what cost? This is not a sustainable way of life, for us, for the workers, or for the planet. Take time to care for what you already own, treating it well so that it can last much longer than it is intended to.
It’s time to realize that our actions do indeed have consequences. It’s time to ditch fast fashion.
If you're looking to learn more about fast fashion, I highly recommend you watch "The True Cost" on Netflix.