What even is fast fashion and how is it destroying the planet?

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

I mention fast fashion in several of my videos and posts, but I’ve never actually talked about what it is. In summary, it is the least eco-friendly way to shop. By definition, it is a term used by big fashion retailers for designs that flow from catwalk very quickly to capture current fashion trends as quickly and cheaply as possible. It is mass-produced cheap, disposable clothing.

If you'd rather watch a video version, you can watch it here:

To explain further, fashion retailers only care about profit. They don’t care where they source their materials, they don’t care who makes their clothing or how long it takes them, they don’t care if their “employees” are paid and treated fairly either. Their clothes are oftentimes made out of polyester, which, if you didn’t know, is synthetic plastic-based material. That’s right, turning our precious oil into clothing that is only designed to be worn a few times and then thrown into the garbage. It takes about 70 million barrels of oil to produce polyester every year.

Here are some quick numbers:

  • 80 billion pieces of clothing are made every year

  • Brands release 52 micro-seasons every year, making customers think they are “out of style” in just one week

  • We use 400% more clothing than we did 20 years ago

  • The average consumer wears an article just 7 times before getting rid of it

  • An average of 82 lbs of textile waste is produced per year per US citizen

  • Most women only wear 20-30% of the clothing they own

  • The average garment is designed to last only 3 years as opposed to lasting a lifetime like you might have seen several decades ago

  • (for more stats, visit Sustain Your Style)

Have you ever wondered why that shirt you bought at H&M or Zara was only a few dollars? This is why. They chose the cheapest materials made in the cheapest working conditions. They make them as quickly as possible, too. They don’t care about how long your clothes last, they care about making another million.

The bottom line, you should not support fast fashion if you care about the planet due to how much pollution it creates. It comes in second in pollution right behind oil. You shouldn’t support it if you care about other people as it has been proven that workers are underpaid, underfed, and just generally treated poorly. You shouldn’t support fast fashion if you care about your health as toxins are used in production and can have a negative effect on you.

Let’s dive in further as to why you shouldn’t support fast fashion and why it is not environmentally friendly.

First, polyester. As I said, it’s made from oil that is turned into plastic that it turned into fabric. When being washed, polyester breaks down bit by bit into microplastics that end up in our water, even the water we drink. Not only is this, but the chances of recycling polyester very slim. It’s similar to the life of a plastic bottle. It is too much work and costs too much to recycle when they could just make new material.

Second, where do you think your clothes are made? Chances are your tag says something like China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and more Asian nations. Ever wonder why? If you didn’t know until now, I hope this gives you a change of heart because the US has publicly made this known for decades. Labor is the cheapest there. It blows my mind that shipping something thousands of miles costs less than something made in my home state. So, environmentally speaking, the shipping cost is very high and contributes greatly to the carbon footprint of your clothing.

Labor costs are so low because of the number of people living in poverty in these nations. They need work of some sort, no matter how long, no matter how demanding, and no matter how cheap. And the US and other wealthy nations exploit those people and their situations. Instead of paying them fairly, they pay them the bare minimum simply because they can. Again, they don’t care about people.

Fast fashion isn’t free, it costs someone something. The documentary “The True Cost” really puts into perspective how much your fast-fashion clothing costs.

Not only this but their working and living conditions in general at threatened. Their worker’s rights are limited or don’t exist at all. They are clearly exploiting and taking advantage of the poor populations who have no other means of work. They are desperate for a job of any kind and wealthy nations take full advantage of it and show no shame of their actions either. Most workers receive a living wage: a bare minimum per family to allow them to get food, sometimes rent, occasionally healthcare, and education. Here’s a great chart by the Clean Clothes Campaign that illustrates the living vs minimum wage in the countries where we normally get our clothes. Keep in mind garment workers mostly likely receive the living wage.

Not to mention, garment workers typically work 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week. I mean, how else are these brands going to get a new style out in one week. They are forced to meet unrealistic deadlines set by fashion retailers so you can wear it five times and then throw it away. If anything, respect your clothing like humans make your clothes. I think that’s something we often think of too. It’s all machine work, no human labor goes into it so who cares. Well, here is some evidence for you. Garment workers tend to work 96 hours a week.

Garment workers also face low ventilation of their “workspace” which leads to toxin inhalation as well as dust. The risk for accidents, fires, injuries, and disease is high in these unsafe facilities too. Not to mention verbal and physical abuse, too. And if you think your garments are free from child labor, think again. It is estimated that 168 million children work in the fashion industry as cheap low-skilled labor. This includes forced labor in many countries for harvesting cotton or making the garments that are mandated by some governments.

Third, pollution of all kinds: water, air, and physical. Yes, China has environmental protection measures, but they don’t have to be followed at the local level. Companies don’t typically follow them, so they dump byproducts of the fashion industry into the air or into the waterways. These companies are almost certainly not run on green energy, putting clothing very close to other wasteful habits like air travel a “run for their money.” So, not only are the workers directly affected at work but if they live near the factory, they have to deal with the pollution as well. Same with anyone else who lives in the area.

Fourth, wasted clothing. There used to be four, maybe a few more fashion seasons every year. Now, fast fashion giants strive for 52 seasons a year. Yup, new fashion season every week. New products on the market every week. This means, to the consumer, that whatever you wore last week is now out of style which means you better go shopping again because God-forbid you’re out of style. Places like H&M and Forever21 get daily shipments in and Topshop sees 400 new pieces per week on their website.

Consumers then throw away these items as they “go out of style.” Sure, you can donate your old fast fashion, but what good is it if you are still paying these companies money to create more. Giving them your money is giving them your support and by supporting them, you are in turn supporting pollution and unethical labor.

Clothing waste every year on average is about 82 pounds per US citizen. That’s 11 million tons per year in the US only. That is the equivalent of 1 garbage truck of textiles per second. It equates to 5.2% of waste in our landfills.

Fifth, toxic material is used in production. Things like dyeing and treating the fabric and pesticides from growing cheap materials leech into our water when washed, our bodies when being worn, and our ground when thrown away. Some of these chemicals almost never break down (and neither does polyester) and it spends its entire life releasing toxins. Some garments even have toxic amounts of lead in them which can lead to infertility, heart attacks, and so forth.

So, what can we do as consumers? First, quit supporting these companies with your money. Take it a step further and contact them. Email, write, call, whatever you prefer. Demand they pay their employees fairly. Tell them how you will no longer be supporting them.

Shop slow fashion. It’s quite the opposite. This support brands that ensure you get a quality product using mindful manufacturing, fair wages, and fair labor rights, natural materials without harmful chemicals, and fight for our earth as well. Look into the brands you buy from to make sure they meet these criteria.

If you don’t want to make that leap yet, just buy clothing produced in countries with tighter environmental standards as well as ethical standards like a reasonable minimum wage.

Purchase natural materials with minimal dyes and less water for growing. Chose linen, organic cotton, or recycled fibers. Along those lines, don’t wash your clothes as often so they last longer. Chose brands with certifications such as GOTS or BLUESIGN. Nearly ¼ of all chemicals produced worldwide are used in the fashion industry.

When is comes to disposal, try to think of something besides the trash can. Donate to thrift shops, donate to charities, sell them, save them for a friend, a child, a sibling, or whoever may need clothing. Try to repair them, organize a clothing swap, or try to get them recycled. As we have been exploring with other materials, recycling rates aren’t great and textiles are no exception, so this is still not a great option as well.

Lastly, just simply buy less. Don’t impulse buy. Don’t buy things because of your emotions whether it be happy or sad. When you do purchase something, buy better quality items that will last years and not months. Sure, it might be a bit more expensive upfront, but if you buy a $50 shirt, wear it once a week, for five years, the cost per wear is only 19 cents per wear. And think that our grandmothers bought 2 items for every 10 items we tend to buy. After all, the most sustainable and ethical piece of clothing is the one you already own.

Please just research the brands you buy from. This is isn’t just “fashion” retailers but places like Kohl’s, Walmart, and more.

If you'd like to learn more about fast-fashion and it's impact on the people, here is another video and another post about anti-racism and anti-fast-fashion.

Thank you so much for reading and until next time remember that the small changes you make have a big impact in the long run.

Emma :)

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