Fast Fashion: The Environmental Factors We Should be Considering with Each New Trend
By Allison Miller
How many pieces of clothing do you have in your closet right now? Of these pieces, how many are you still wearing, and how many did you buy simply because it was popular at the time? Once a certain piece is no longer on trend, where does it go after it leaves your closet?
All of these questions do not have one single fundamental explanation. The reality is, wanting to own the most recent trend is part of human nature. We want to be accepted by the public -- and often, when those around us enjoy a trend, we convince ourselves that we like it too. Over the past few decades, trend cycles in the fashion industry have become shorter and shorter. It is estimated that apparel production has doubled between 2000 and 2014 as the industry continues to rapidly grow. Shein, the well-known fast fashion retailer, adds an average of 1,000 new women’s clothing styles to their website per day. The large assortment of inexpensive options urges customers to indulge and purchase more clothing than needed. As consumers are willing to forgo well-made products for quality standards likewise continue to deteriorate.
How often do we stop to consider the environmental impact of keeping up with the latest fashions when new clothes are more easily accessible and affordable than ever? In recent years, the consumer model has become based on overconsumption which has forced the new fashion business model to be built on overproduction. This creates an issue of unsold inventory for retailers, meanwhile, consumers are getting rid of their clothes to make room to buy new ones. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, just 13% of the 13 million tons of textile and footwear trash produced in 2018 was recycled. While donating clothes to be reused is a popular option, many people are not aware that many of these items end up in landfills, particularly in other countries. Each week, around 15 million of these garments are shipped to Accra, the capital of Ghana for resale and reuse. However, about 40% are immediately dumped into a landfill upon arrival due to inadequate quality. The problem of clothing waste is not just a domestic issue, it has a devastating effect on the entire globe.
How is it that companies can continue producing their goods at such low rates? The simple answer is inhumane labor laws and horrendously cheap labor. Unsafe labor conditions are a true environmental concern, as it is a public health issue. Although we may not be able to witness much of this here in the United States, workers from our favorite brands like Nike, H&M, and Forever 21 are employed in foreign nations with inadequate labor practices. Unsafe working conditions have gained attention since the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013, killing more than 1,100 employees and injuring at least 2,000 more. However, more media attention does not mean the issue is solved, and it is only a matter of time before these labor laws continue to harm people. It is the responsibility of the company to subject itself to better ethical standards and the consumer’s job to hold their favorite brands accountable.
It is not just how our garments are created that must be addressed but also the materials that are used. Polyester is now more frequently utilized than cotton in the creation of apparel products. The production of synthetic fiber is mostly based in petroleum, a nonrenewable source of energy that is quickly running out. Many people do not think of the fashion industry as being a large contributor to fossil fuel use, however, it is estimated to account for 10% of global CO2 emissions. In addition, the industry accounts for one-fifth of plastics produced globally each year. Since plastic takes up to hundreds of years to completely decompose in landfills, it is particularly hazardous. The issue with polyester does not stop production; when synthetic fibers like polyester are produced, they release microplastics which are a serious threat to marine life. The estimated amount of microplastics that get released into the ocean each year is equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles. Textiles have been identified as the largest contributor to microplastic pollution in our planet’s oceans, contributing a third of the total amount. Although the effects are frightening, the prospect of change not occurring is far scarier. By being a mindful consumer and checking garment labels when purchasing clothes, we can work to reduce plastic pollution.
While many consumers are becoming more aware of their environmental impact when purchasing new clothing items, the short trend cycles are difficult to avoid. However, buying fast fashion is not the only way to keep up with current trends. Repurposing clothing you already own or buying items secondhand are both accessible options. Changing our habits is difficult, but if the industry was able to shift to a model of overconsumption, it must also be possible to shift into a model of underconsumption. It is crucial now more than ever to examine the environmental impacts our actions have when purchasing from our favorite brands. Change will not happen if we are not holding ourselves and companies accountable for working together to protect our planet Earth.