I‘ve never been an on-trend person when it comes to the fashion industry. In fact, I generally couldn’t give a rats ass about fashion on the best day. However, clothes are kind of a necessary evil and I have fallen in the trap of Cosmopolitan, Elle or Vogue magazine looking at “the top fashion trends for spring 2017.” It’s tempting to walk into clothing stores and stare in awe at the latest and greatest, fall in the trap of purchasing something you just couldn’t live without and end up chucking it to the curb next year.
What is Fast Fashion?
The term “fast fashion” refers to a phenomenon in the fashion industry whereby production processes are expedited in order to get new trends to the market as quickly and cheaply as possible.
– Fast Fashion Definition
Or to put that in English, when trends show up on the runway companies expedite the manufacturing process in order to sell products to consumers as quickly as possible. This generally happens in the Spring and Fall of every year. Once products are no longer trendy they are sold at discounted prices. It’s a never ending cycle of consumerism.
What’s Wrong with Fast Fashion?
Okay, so companies are constantly changing trends… that’s nothing new right? I mean they have to show something new every season? Yes and no.
Fast fashion has a deep underlying problem. In fact, it has a few problems. The first one starts with the consumer; companies are selling sub-par product in order to increase their financial gain (again nothing new.) However, with this sub-par product rarely lasts more than a year. Therefore plenty of articles of clothing are ending up in landfills, yes, even when you bag them up and leave them at a goodwill or salvation army.
The second problem directly correlates with the first: environmental impact. Fast fashion is one of the biggest pollution sources in the world. It starts at the manufacturing process and works it’s way all the way back to the consumer.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator.
Environmental Impact Fast Fashion Manufacturers produce
Most Fast Fashion clothing items are made overseas in China, Bangladesh and India. Each manufacturing plant barrels out toxic water into waterways that many people thrive and depend on. (The world is round and those effects will eventually come back to bite us.)
The Citarum River is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world due in great part to the hundreds of textile factories lining its shores ¹; from the chemical nonyphenol. Nonyphenol is a toxic by-product of the dyeing process and can even stay within freshly made clothes for more than a few washes. It has been banned in the European Union (manufacturing and exports) but is still permitted in the United States.
According to Yale Environment 360, China releases 40% of these chemicals into waterways.
– Yale Environment 360 (a great article!)
It Starts From the Beginning: Cotton
The environmental impact of Fast Fashion doesn’t just start at the manufacturing process though (nor does it end there.) It starts from the chemicals and products used to make clothing. Cotton is one of the worst offenders for pesticide-use, fertilizer and water consumption. Not only do pesticides contaminate water, but fertilizer has shown to cause drastic changes to aquatic ecosystems and algae growth.
The water consumption and contamination with cotton doesn’t end at farming. Cotton undergoes three processes to become a textile: bleaching, dying and printing. Combined, these manufacturing processes use 360 metric tons of water².
The real kicker is after all the manufacturing, Cotton is no longer easily biodegradable. In order to biodegrade it must be placed in a certain environment with the right conditions.
It Starts From the Beginning: Synthetic Fibers
Cotton isn’t the only culprit though; nylon, polyester, acrylic and other synthetic fibers are made from petroleum. They will take a lifetime (and then some) before they ever break down; so they’re not likely to disappear anytime soon. Although they do not use the same amount of water during the manufacturing process; they still use toxic chemicals during the dyeing process.
Most textiles are manufactured overseas, therefore they must travel a long distance to be sold in the Americas. This uses natural resources and adds to the carbon footprint of each textile.
They are not made to Last
As the title would assume, fast fashion is exactly that. How many times have you bought a shirt or a pair of pants and within a couple wears they already have holes or tears? They aren’t built to last more than a few months (next season!) Fast fashion industries do this on purpose. If they made something to last, they wouldn’t be raking in as much money as they do.
When you send your clothes to Salvation Army, Goodwill or Value Village more often than not, they are not going to be placed on racks to sell. Why? Because it’s crappy product. Instead second-hand retailers are left to deal with the clothing you no longer wanted. They have a couple options.
- Send them to the dump. The end of their life cycle.
- Send them to a recycling facility. A time and energy intensive process of chopping up old clothing and melting them down to be re-used.
- Send them overseas. They are often sent to developing nations.
Big Fashion companies are the worst offenders
Large fashion retailers like Zara and H&M are some of the worst. The fast fashion industry is ever-changing and at one point Zara had prided itself on releasing new clothing every couple weeks. In recent years they’ve felt the backlash and have begun to add more sustainable processes to their clothing line. H&M launched the “Concious” Collection with organically sourced-cotton and recycled materials, backed by the actress Olivia Wilde.
Unfortunately, browsing through the H&M Concious collection (and Zara’s equivalent) there really is not much choice. Even the Asos Eco-Edit seems to be lacking.
How can you be a Conscious Consumer?
Over the next month I’m going to be posting some tips on how to be a conscious consumer, limit your impact on the environment and help you source ethical and environmentally-friendly fashion brands. Every week I’ll have a post on another topic, so make sure that you stay tuned!
Did you know about Fast Fashion before reading?
To read more about the Fast Fashion industry:
²Chapagain, A., Hoekstra, A., Savenije, H., & Gautam, R. (2005). The Water Footprint of Cotton Consumption. Retrieved 27 March 2017, from http://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report18.pdf
Christian, S. (2016). Fast Fashion is Absolutely Destroying the Planet. Esquire. Retrieved 27 March 2017, from http://www.esquire.com/style/news/a50655/fast-fashion-environment/
Whitehead, S. (2014). 5 Truths the Fast Fashion Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know. The Huffington Post. Retrieved 27 March 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shannon-whitehead/5-truths-the-fast-fashion_b_5690575.html
¹Wicker, A. (2016). Fast Fashion is Creating an Environmental Crisis. Newsweek. Retrieved 27 March 2017, from http://www.newsweek.com/2016/09/09/old-clothes-fashion-waste-crisis-494824.html