Currently, the global textile and clothing industry is worth $2,560 trillion. Fast fashion has long been a standard of American consumer culture; however, in recent decades awareness has sprung up regarding the environmental impact of this industry.
With over 80% of textiles finding their way into landfills each year and the production of fashion constituting 10% of carbon emissions, it’s no wonder why many are now seeking alternatives. To help better understand the dangers of fast fashion, and some alternatives, let’s break this subject down to its base components.
The Environmental Damages of Fashion Production and Shipping
In previous decades, people would buy clothing with the intention of wearing items for years. Today, this has shifted with shoppers in 2014 keeping clothes only half as long as they did in 2000. This behavior has, in turn, helped fuel a wasteful cycle of fast fashion and consumer desire. Clothes are now mass-produced for quantity instead of quality. This means clothes are less likely to last, making frequent buying a must. A by-product of this cycle is the increased environmental damage that has been created due to the demand for cheaper, mass-produced items.
To understand the extent of this environmental impact let’s look at the specific surrounding how fast fashion items are created.
- To create one cotton shirt it takes 2,700 liters of water. To put this in perspective, this is enough water to sustain a person for two and a half years.
- Creating a single pair of jeans likewise creates the same amount of greenhouse gas as a car driving 80 miles. Furthermore, polyester fiber, used in 60% of garments, produces two to three times more greenhouse gases than this.
- The U.S. is one of the largest producers of chemical products globally, and chemically altered non-degradable clothing is capable of sitting in landfills for over 200 years. Overall, 23% of all chemicals produced are used for the production of textiles.
- Washing these clothes is also responsible for 500,000 tons of microfibers being introduced to the ocean every year. For perspective, this is equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles.
The water waste, emissions, and pollution involved in fast fashion production are some of the worst in the world. Coupled with the emissions created from international and cross country shipping and you’ve got a problem of enormous proportions.
A semi-truck can be around 25 times larger than a standard passenger vehicle, and while they are essential for shipping, trucks like this produce 34% of global emissions related to transport. Most major stores receive shipments at least once a week with some even receiving new merchandise everyday. This back and forth shipping helps keep shelves stocked with the latest fashions, at the cost of producing excess emissions that otherwise could be avoided.
While raising awareness of these problems has caused many activists to begin to speak out against fast fashion, so long as consumers keep buying, manufacturers will keep producing in staggering amounts.
The Ethical Issues Facing Fast Fashion
Mass production of fashion has many components that need to be cared for by often underpaid staff. Calibrations of instruments require comparing measurements between an instrument with a known magnitude against which you measure the unit. Tasks like this take human hands and a majority of garment workers are women between the ages of 18 and 24. These workers are often paid less than workers in other fields, especially if they are hired outside of the United States. Textile workers in Bangladesh, for instance, make an average of $96 every month. This is $20 less than what a minimum wage worker makes in two days in the U.S., even when using the national minimum wage of $7.25.
To add to this, the U.S. Department of Labor has even found evidence of forced labor and child labor in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, and other countries, tied to production in the fashion industry. Brands often seek countries with lax laws where they can hire anyone able to work. Due to both unawareness and poverty in parts of these countries, corporations are often able to get away with these unethical practices, and this unawareness abounds even in America.
While people may have a vague idea of the human rights violations that the fast fashion industry helps fuel, many Americas are disconnected from the effects which often impact countries far removed from them. This too has helped allow corporations to exploit human beings for their own gains while perpetuating a cycle of cheap fashion and consumerism.
Furthermore, because corporations put profit before safety and wellness, corners are often cut to make production faster. Cotton farmers and those working in sweatshop conditions are often exposed to large amounts of chemicals, pesticides, and lead-based dyes. All of which can contribute to workers suffering from a myriad of side effects including:
- Loss of consciousness
- Respiratory illnesses
- Heart conditions
Because of treatment like this, in Bangladesh over 400 workers have died and several thousand have been wounded due to major fires and accidents since 1990. While the National Garment Workers Federation has been fighting to protect workers in this region, it’s been an uphill battle with many rights still being denied by factory managers.
Alternatives to Fast Fashion
Now that we’ve uncovered the major problems prevailing within the fashion industry, it’s time to learn about some alternatives. Alternative options can help break the cycle and show major fashion producers that violations, such as those mentioned above, won’t be tolerated any longer.
- Thrifting: When many people think of thrift shops they usually mistaking think that only poor people shop their. However, thrift shops are beneficial for finding low priced clothing for all walks of life. Buying thrift clothes not only helps you move away from fast fashion but it also helps keep clothes out of landfills. You’ll be surprised by the quality items you can find at your local shops, sometimes with the original price tags still in place, marked down for a fraction of their original costs. Furthermore, there are also apps such as Poshmark that are starting to spring up. Apps like this are designed solely for the purpose of upcycling and reselling gently used clothes.
- Donating Your Old Clothes: Speaking of thrifting, you should also consider donating your own gently used clothing to prevent them from ending up in a landfill. Some second-hand stores will also offer coupons or percentages off on purchases when you donate, so overall it’s a win-win.
- Find Ethical Brands: brands like this are possible to find with a quick online search, though items will be more expensive than fast fashion or second-hand items. However, it is important to remember that the higher price tag is helping support the labor that goes into making the clothes. In this case, the cost is well worth it.
- The 30 Wear Question: If giving up fast fashion isn’t something you can do, or if you see a shirt that you just have to have, consider the 30 wear question. What this means is, ask yourself if you will wear this piece at least 30 times before retiring it. If you think it is something you will wear often than go ahead with the purchase; however if you know that you’ll only wear it once or a couple of times, it’s probably best to look for an alternative.
Making a Change
The dangers and detriments of fast fashion are quickly becoming known to the general public. While it’s unlikely we’ll see a complete overhaul of the fashion industry anytime soon, by taking steps to break the cycle of consumption in our own lives, we can help improve conditions for workers and bring about change.
If you want to step away from buying into fast fashion, consider the alternative ethical brands and second-hand options, both of which help stem environmental impact, reduce waste, and prevent the mistreatment of workers in counties across the world. Before large scale change can occur, small steps need to be taken to help set the ball in motion.