In this day and age, it’s hard to overlook the constant outpouring of new fashion trends, with brands competing for the lowest prices and the most styles. But our clothes come at a cost beyond the price tags. The fast fashion that makes up so much of our wardrobe has a major impact on the environment.
With the enormous amounts of waste, pollution, and the impacts on human health, our styles may be more trouble than they’re worth. This article will walk you through what fast fashion is, and why sustainable consumers should steer clear.
What Is “Fast Fashion”?
Fast fashion refers to clothes that are mass-produced and sold at low cost. More often than not, these are the clothes that we see hanging on the shelves of our favorite retailers. While fast fashion makes new styles readily available to us, inexpensive clothes are rarely as advantageous as they seem.
The reality of fast fashion is that the factories pouring out new styles are typically located in developing nations, including:
These countries have limited regulations regarding environmental and human rights protections, leading to factories being overcrowded, overworked, and extremely unsafe. Many workers in the global fashion industry earn as little as $0.18 for every $30 t-shirt produced, and many suffer severe health concerns from poor working conditions.
Not only does the production of fast fashion exploit workers, but the effects on the environment are devastating. Around the world, the fashion industry is a significant contributor to global pollution.
The Lifecycle Of A Shirt
Have you ever wondered exactly what goes into your clothing? Our fast fashion is made up of dyes and synthetic chemicals that cause environmental degradation throughout the product’s life.
The dyes that give our clothes color often pollute the waterways of the places that manufacture them. Due to a lack of water treatment plants in many of the countries that produce fast fashion, factories will dump excess dyes into waterways or let unfiltered wastewater seep into soils and rivers. This leads to waters contaminated with chemicals as severe as arsenic and mercury.
Even after our clothes have been produced, shipped, and hung in our closets, they still have substantial environmental effects. Most of the countries that produce ready-made fashion lack substantial fabric quality control measures such as testing or regulations. This leads to clothes made of synthetic material that break down over time into microfibers and microplastics that eventually end up in our waterways. This is a major contributor to the plastic pollution that’s devastating our oceans—so much so that microfibers from synthetic clothing make up 35% of the microplastics in the ocean.
At the end of the fashion lifecycle, clothes can be donated, recycled, or thrown into the trash. Clothes make up a significant portion of landfill and incinerator waste, with over 92 million tonnes of waste produced by the fashion industry every year. This clogs up landfills and leads to major carbon and methane emissions from incinerators.
Finding Sustainable Fashion
Our clothes are one of the biggest contributors to our individual environmental impacts, but we don’t have to sacrifice style for sustainability. One of the best things we can do when shopping sustainably is not shop at all. The most sustainable outfit is the one already in your wardrobe.
When buying new clothes is a necessity, shop secondhand and avoid fast fashion, no matter how good the sales are.
Sustainable clothes can be expensive, but high-quality clothes will last longer than fast fashion. For example, invest in sustainable, genuine leather to avoid low-quality plastic pleather that will break down and pollute waters, or look for materials made of sustainable, natural materials. Even when prices may be a bit more than we like, support sustainable brands and ethically-made styles whenever you can.
Be aware of your impacts and always be on the lookout for improvements. Use tools like the Fashion Footprint Calculator to see your individual contributions and learn new ways of reducing your footprint.