We see brightly lit displays and mannequins showing off brand new clothing. We are constantly fed images of new fashion trends on social media, every day consuming the words of celebs and influencers telling us what we should be wearing. We are overtaken by “shopper’s buzz” when we swipe our credit cards and walk out of stores with what we are convinced is the latest trending, must-have outfit...only to rinse and repeat the next day.
But what we don’t see is the tremendous impact fast fashion has on our environment. Gigantic heaps of discarded clothing towering in landfills. Millions of tons of CO2 polluting our atmosphere and raising global temperatures. Millions of tons of microplastics and fibers contaminating oceans and poisoning the food chain, including humans ourselves. Millions of people, mostly young girls and women--even children--working in horrible conditions for unlivable wages and facing all kinds of abuses. Our consumer tendencies and appetite for fast fashion support a horrible industry: one we do not hear about often enough.
What is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion is an approach of fashion design, creation and marketing that emphasizes high volumes of low-cost clothing and accessories moving rapidly from the drawing boards to large retail stores. By moving the manufacturing overseas to impoverished counties with weak or nonexistent labor and environmental regulations, and using low-quality textiles and dyes, fast fashion companies are able to mass produce cheap clothing to satisfy short-lived consumer fashion trends.
What Impact Does Fast Fashion Have on the Environment?
A major consequence, however, is that the fast fashion moves from consumers' closets to the garbage just as quickly as it is produced. The production process is incredibly dirty to begin with, as factories indiscriminately dump poisonous wastewater into rivers and pump out millions of tons of greenhouse gases, only to make clothing that ends up in landfills, oceans or burned into our atmosphere. Another shocking fact is that the production of fast fashion uses 8,000 different synthetic chemicals, many of which are known to cause cancer and other diseases in humans. These toxic chemicals are found in the dyes that color the clothing, in the corrosive finishing and bonding agents, and in the synthetic textiles themselves. On the floors of fast fashion factories, workers are constantly exposed to these toxic chemicals and are breathing in their fumes. The wastewater emitted from factories flows into our waterways and seeps into our agricultural systems. Perhaps worst of all is that the long-term effects of wearing these synthetic, chemical-covered garments on our bare skin remains undocumented; there are no nutrition facts or health warnings on clothing tags. All we know is that cancer-causing hazardous chemicals are at the core of fast fashion, and they are literally poisoning our planet and people.
Pictured: Discarded clothing waste piled high in a landfill, much of which will remain for hundreds of years.
Is Fashion The Second Most Polluting Industry?
It’s quite a frequently cited statistic, however some reports do not agree. The Global Fashion Agenda and the Boston Consulting Group released a joint reportcalled the Pulse of the Fashion Industry, which, by the numbers measured, disagrees with the common claim that fashion is the second most polluting industry. That is not to say that the fashion industry isn't a terrible polluter: the report still makes the argument that better resource and waste management is key for fashion companies to survive among growing awareness of their neglect for the planet and laborers. And even if fashion may not technically be the "second most polluting industry", the numbers associated with mindless consumption of unnecessary fast fashion are truly appalling. Making matters even worse, fast fashion's numbers are only projected to multiply in the future, exponentially increasing its horrible effects on the environment and societies. The good news is that global fast fashion is predicted to decline by 12% during the year 2020 - however this decline is likely best explained by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Experts predict that fast fashion will recover, and even grow by an additional 6.7% year over year with the anticipated economic rebound post-covid.
Pictured: Infographic from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. The most shocking takeaway is that 73% of all materials involved in the production of fast fashion end up in landfills or burned; either result is terrible for the environment. When we buy fast fashion, we are not really buying the clothing. We are buying the temporary satisfaction that the cheap textiles provide, even though they are more than likely to become pollution. When we buy fast fashion, we buy garbage.
Another infographic from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation shows how drastically and rapidly the fast fashion industry is projected to grow...if we allow it. These projections are largely based upon current economic trends of increasing global GDP. As more people have access to disposable income, the more fast fashion they can purchase in order to feed our society's fashion cravings. It is an extremely unsustainable model, and one of the most blatant examples of needless consumption industries that have incredible environmental impact.
Fast Fashion Pollution Statistics:
- Fast fashion emits 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year, more than air travel and shipping combined.
- Fast fashion produces 20% of global wastewater, contaminating rivers, oceans, drinking water and soil.
- 60% of clothes are made of synthetic materials derived from petrochemicals. These do not decompose, but rather break down into smaller and smaller fragments called microfibers.
- IUCN estimates between 0.6-1.7 million tons of microplastic fibers end up in the ocean every year.
- One garbage truck of clothes is burned every second (2,625 kilograms).
- Discarded clothing made of synthetic polymers can sit in landfills for 200 years.
Pictured: two appalling examples of widespread pollution of waterways. The image on the right is a river in China polluted by clothing dyes from a fast fashion factory, among other heaps of garbage.
What is Fast Fashion's Social Impact?
- 97% of fast fashion is produced overseas in developing countries with poor labor laws and human rights protections.
- Evidence of forced and child labor employed by the fashion industry in countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam (US Department of Labor).
- Dangerous working conditions: factory fires, accidents and collapses are incredibly dangerous to garment workers. 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh killed over 1100 workers.
- The clothing industry employs 40-75 million people. 80% is made by young women, who frequently face terrible conditions and abuse.
- Garment workers in third world countries such as Bangladesh make unlivable wages.
Pictured left: crowded and unpleasant working conditions in a fast fashion factory, employing mostly young women and girls. Many companies face problems with unsafe conditions, unlivable wages and abuses.
Pictured right: the collapsed Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, 2013. This was the worst industrial disaster since 1984, however fires in textile factories are far more frequent and have killed hundreds of clothing workers in third world countries.
But, Can Fast Fashion Be Recycled?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Current technologies are still unable to effectively recycle textile fabric, especially because most fast fashion is made of a mix of synthetic, petrochemical-derived fibers such as polyester. Textile recycling implies breaking down a garment into its base fibers, but in reality the process is unfeasible. Only one percent of textile waste is actually recycled. Some fashion waste is repurposed into rags or building insulation. The vast majority, however, is either burned, releasing carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane gas into the atmosphere, or thrown in landfills. Whatever is not recycled (<1%), burned or thrown in landfills (73%), or leaked into waterways (0.5 million tonnes), is pushed upon third world countries; Kenya, for example, buys $20 million of used clothes from Western countries annually, reinforcing their predominantly informal economy and killing domestic industry. Most clothes sent to third world countries end up in third world landfills, which lack the resources and technical knowledge to effectively manage and contain waste, increasing environmental and health hazards in those countries.
What Can We Do To Stop Fast Fashion?
Since fast fashion exploded in the early 2000s, irreparable damage has been done to our environment and there is no taking back the suffering felt by those directly impacted by the consequences. If current global economic trends continue, the fast fashion industry will continue to grow with greater potential hazards. The only way to effectively fight back is to undermine the original source of fast fashion: the demand.
Fast fashion only exists because companies artificially created consumer demand. By reducing the quality of their clothes and instead focusing their enormous budgets on advertising and marketing, fast fashion companies constantly target consumers in new, innovative ways to convince them to keep consuming their products. In order to curb this demand, consumers should make the conscious choice by buying less new clothing and using their existing items for longer periods of time. This will also help slow landfilled waste and the rate at which our oceans and waterways are contaminated. However, our desire for "new" fashion will always exist, and we need a new, circular and sustainable model to fulfill our cravings yet spare the consequences:
Buying preowned, higher quality designer items is a great alternative to new, low quality fast fashion. Similarly, choosing to refashion your existing clothing is a fun and eco-friendly way of creating "new" fashion without wasting extra resources. Another growing trend is the vintage look, which uses preexisting handbags, accessories and garments and can make just as much, if not more of a statement than flashy polyester fast fashion outfits. So, why not make one of your 2021 fashion goals to be more sustainable? Consider buying something of higher quality pre-owned instead of new fast fashion - it’s better for your wallet and better for the environment.