- by Marta McFadden -
How is it that a trend takes off on Instagram one day, and by the next week I can get the same item in a range of colors and variations from all the most popular stores?
The answer is fast fashion.
While this may sound great, the second a demand is created, factories start pushing out more than enough supply. The problem is, fast fashion is taking a toll on the Earth. In one way or another, it is damaging. It is harming the environment, often operates under unethical labor, and produces waste at an incomprehensible level. The only way to combat the flaws of fast fashion is for consumers to independently make sustainable conscious decisions while shopping.
There are many reasons why fast fashion exists. Workers in underdeveloped countries work for little pay while producing a surplus of clothing. This surplus of clothing made by deprived workers and with artificial materials ensures the clothing is created as inexpensive as possible while still maximizing profits. Just as fast as the clothes are produced, they go out of style even faster. This leads to a waste of resources, clothing being incinerated, or filling up landfills. These effects have only gotten worse.
A 2012 statistic stated that “we throw out 78 pounds of textiles per person-five times as much as we did in 1970.” (Philpott, 2012).
It doesn’t look like fast fashion is going anywhere. However, there are improvements consumers can make to combat this issue such as shopping sustainably and repurposing clothing.
The Ability to Exploit Workers in Underdeveloped Countries
For brands to get the hottest trends on shelves the next week and the lowest price possible, workers in underdeveloped countries are overworked in poorly ventilated rooms with chemical fumes from dying and manufacturing clothes. They are also underpaid, barely making enough to survive. They also can’t risk missing a day because they would be fired and easily replaced.
“For Taslima Aktar, [missing a day] wasn't an option. The 23-year-old couldn't afford to lose her job at the Windy Apparels factory in Bangladesh. So when her manager refused to give her time off to see a doctor last year about a persistent fever and cough, she accepted it. Weeks later, Aktar passed out at work. After she was revived, her boss sent her back to her sewing machine. Shortly afterward, Aktar's heart stopped and she died” (Anastasia, 2017).
The conditions of the factories can be so bad because the workers have no other choice, they need the job.
“Young women hunch over sewing machines in a windowless workroom in the Asian nation of Bangladesh. Elbow to elbow in the stifling heat, they assemble jackets. Together, the women must sew hundreds of jackets an hour, more than 1,000 a day. They are paid less than $3 a day for their work” (Anastasia, 2017).
Fast fashion items may not cost you much money. However, they come at the price of tens of millions of people in developing countries, some of them just children, work long hours in dangerous conditions to make them every day.
Surplus of Clothing
Due to the workers exploited in underdeveloped countries manufacturers can produce clothing for extremely cheap prices and create more than enough clothing. As many as “20 items of clothing are manufactured per person, per year. This is because of ''fast fashion'': clothes that are produced quickly, cheaply and unsustainably” (Albeck-Ripka, 2019).
Since a brand's main goal is profits they will create as much clothing as possible. This is at the cost of good quality products. “In 1985, Americans on average bought 31 items of clothing a year. Today, we buy roughly 60-more than one per week” (Philpott, 2012). Consumers feel no need to stop buying clothes because they are so cheap and available. Companies can easily afford to make more clothing even cheaper which leads to people buying more, and more ending up in a landfill.
With such a surplus of clothing, a lot ends up wasted. When all the unused and discarded clothes in the world are burned, the incineration creates pollution in addition to the harmful chemicals used to make the clothes in the first place.
“Right now, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fast fashion accounts for over 10 percent of global carbon emissions” (Neufeld, 2020).
Most clothing ends up discarded and an overwhelming amount is barely worn and in great condition, clothing has become a cheap and disposable form of entertainment.
“From manufacturing garments with toxic chemicals to the fuel burned to transport the clothing around the globe, the fashion industry has become the world's second-largest polluter, after the oil industry. Plus, millions of tons of discarded clothing pile up in landfills each year” (Anastasia, 2017).
What doesn’t sell ends up in a landfill or is burned, either way releasing toxins into the air. The negative effects don’t end there.
The clothes that did sell may also end up in a landfill or incineration when the consumer decides it is out of style or when it becomes flawed due to being cheaply made. They then will go buy the next trend and it all keeps going in a never-ending cycle.
Clothing Left in Landfills
You may be thinking, is it absurd to stop throwing away unwanted items? and won’t anything I throw away end up in a landfill? This is most likely true, however, some items in perfect condition can be donated or given a new home as opposed to being thrown away.
Every piece of clothing repurposed or donated counts because “84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator” (Wicker, 2016).
Like I mentioned before, some clothes in landfills are incinerated releasing toxins in the air. Even if items are made from natural fibers (like cotton, linen, and silk) they end up going through a lot of unnatural processes which means they release toxins when they are burned. Something people could overlook is the clothes that aren’t burned and just sit in landfills. Synthetic fibers (like polyester, nylon and, acrylic) take hundreds of years, if not a thousand, to biodegrade.
“In less than 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans toss each year has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons, or an astounding 80 pounds per person. The EPA estimates that diverting all of those often-toxic trashed textiles into a recycling program would be the environmental equivalent of taking 7.3 million cars and their carbon dioxide emissions off the road” (Wicker, 2016).
Buying more clothes means throwing more away. If people were more thoughtful with their purchases, toxic fumes wouldn’t be ruling our planet. Even if you do decide to throw your clothes away, instead of repurposing them, the material they are made of is the difference of something easily biodegrading or taking a thousand years. If you look for a fair-trade, or similar logo on your clothes this will tell you that it was made sustainably.
Not only are resources wasted on the number of unsold clothes, but creating fast fashion products uses an overwhelming amount of resources. TV Trade Media (2019) includes a shopping up-to-date statistic reporting “that the volume of water needed to make a pair of jeans and a shirt reaches up to 20,000 liters”.
This means that absurd amounts of clean water are wasted on clothes that don’t even sell or are only used for a short amount of time. Also, many would be shocked to learn that “the fashion industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined” (Tv Trade Media, 2019). If more people were conscious about what they needed to buy, the demand for clothes would go down causing brands to make less supply which would save resources.
Solutions: Shopping at Sustainable Brands and Thrifting
Buying something pre-owned or made from recycled materials eliminates the demand for more clothing. Slow fashion surrounds creating quality ethical products. These brands such as Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, and Levi’s often come at a much higher price than fast fashion brands such as Zara or Forever 21.
Although there are sustainable brands, many are not affordable for people to consistently buy from. An alternative would be shopping at thrift stores!
There is a misconception that you shouldn’t shop at thrift stores unless you need to, however, “according to the Council for Textile Recycling, charities overall sell only 20 percent of the clothing donated to them at their retail outlets” (Wicker, 2016).
Clearly, thrift stores have plenty of clothing!
In addition to big charities like Goodwill or The Salvation Army, there are tons of local thrift stores to also support. Thrift stores aren’t the only ways to buy pre-owned clothing, there are clothing swaps, and apps for purchasing or trading second-hand items.
“Clothing swaps and free-cycle programs are community-led programs that allow members to swap clothes (and often other items) for free. These types of networks alleviate financial pressure and reduce waste. Check community listings, local publications, or search online for programs in your area” (Neufeld, 2020). Clothing swaps are a great way to stay sustainable and be a part of your community. In addition, apps such as Depop, Poshmark, and Mercari are all online thrift stores where you can buy, sell, and trade clothes internationally!
Upcycling, Fixing, and Repurposing Old Clothes
One great way to stay sustainable but still within a budget is to repurpose old clothes. If you aren’t the best with designing or a sewing machine look for companies repurposing recycled or deadstock fabrics. For example, Hannah Rohan, a Salt Spring Island seamstress and founder of the slow-fashion company Honeysuckle Gathering.
Rohan explains, “everything I use is already in existence. So, the first place I look is second hand stores for upcycled clothes. I also sometimes use deadstock. Whenever you buy something new, it usually means that some raw resource has to be extracted and manufactured" (Neufeld, 2020).
Rohan’s brand is a great way to get use out of recycled clothes without needing the time or talent of designing clothes. In addition, “some major retailers (Patagonia, Eileen Fisher) encourage customers to send back used clothes-then repurpose them or offer them for sale at a steep discount” (Philpott, 2012).
Brands like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher already produce sustainable high-quality products. Although they are pricier they will last much longer and have a warranty so you are guaranteed a great product. Reusing clothes doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be a seamstress or designer. It’s super easy to find brands that reuse clothing or use sustainable materials.
Big brands take advantage of desperate workers and utilize the cheapest material possible at the cost of the Earth’s well-being. Fast fashion has many flaws. The only way to reduce the negative effects is for you, the consumer, to independently make sustainable conscious decisions while shopping. Fast fashion is unethical in every way. Spreading the word on social media and showing support for sustainable practices online will shed more light on this issue.