Fast fashion has been a topic of discussion for some time now. Some of you might already know why fast fashion is bad for the environment however, some of you might not be entirely familiar with it.
But before going into the environmental and social impacts of the fast fashion industry, let first understand what it is.
What is fast fashion?
“Fast Fashion is an inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.” – Oxford
Up until the mid-twentieth century, the fashion industry used to make a new collection every season, which means that the designers would work for months to try to predict what customers would expect for the next season.
Fast Fashion initially started in small stores in Europe around the late 1990s, but shortly was able to gain prominence in the US market by replicating the looks and designs from the runway shows and individual designers and then reproducing and selling at very low cost.
With this new type of fashion, brands no longer produced 4 collections a year but now produce about 52 “micro-seasons” a year or in other words a collection a week.
This type of fashion focuses on trends, cheap prices, and low-quality garments that can be easily thrown away when the new hip thing is coming on the market.
Stylish collections and extremely affordable make it very appealing to customers to buy more than ever before. The average customer now buys 60% more than they did 15 years ago.
You might assume that the reason why fast fashion is horrible for the environment is because of the waste that this creates… but that’s not all.
So let’s dig in and see why fast fashion is so bad for the environment!
1. Creates Waste
Fast fashion creates enormous amounts of waste, on average each of us throws away 37 kg of clothes a year.
In 2017, only in the US alone, 13 million tonnes of waste garments were sent to landfills.
Fashion creates two types of garments waste: the supply chain waste (which we as consumers don’t have much control over) and the consumer waste.
What is Supply Chain Waste?
On average a 35% of materials in the supply chain end up wasted before the product reaches the buyer. This normally happens due to last minutes changes in the design, mistakes in the production, or spoilage in transportation.
Most of this waste is difficult to avoid because cutting the garment from the fabric will always generate waste. However, researchers estimated that with the right efforts the factories could lower to 10% of materials used.
What is Consumer Waste?
This on the other hand is a type of waste that we as consumers have more control over. Choosing quality over quantity and purchasing pieces that represent your style over trendy garments are 2 ways to reduce consumer waste.
Consumer waste increases, when we impulsively purchase items that we don’t need just because they are cheap or fashionable that season.
When the garment is no longer trendy, which now is most probably after only a couple of weeks we decide to get rid of it.
A total of 57% end up in landfill which will take decades to degrade while they are emitting greenhouse gases, 25% will be incinerated which releases 2,988 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, which is even more than burning coal (2,249 pounds per megawatt-hour) and natural gas (1,135 pounds per megawatt-hour).
Another big issue that landfills create that is often unspoken is deforestation and destruction of the natural habitats of animals.
2. Water pollution & Microfibers
Another fast fashion problem is the water pollution that normally comes hand in hand with water waste.
The Fashion industry is a big polluter of water, the dyeing process that factories use for the garments is very harmful to the environment.
With the development in technology, some factories have implemented more sustainable dyeing processes.
Unfortunately, the majority of fast fashion brands don’t use factories that are focusing on sustainable production, as it would increase their manufacturing costs.
Even though jeans are one of the fashionable pieces that require the most water only in the US market alone, approximately 450 million pairs of jeans are sold yearly.
The problem with that is:
That, from growing the cotton to the dyeing process, it can take about 20.000 liters of water to make a single pair of jeans!
Textile dyeing produces 20% of global wastewater, what is even worse is that in most cases this polluted water is directly released into the rivers and streams, without any kind of filtering to reduce the heavy metals.
This of course negatively affects the animals of the surroundings and the people living in that area.
Wait! There is more!
The water pollution doesn’t end there…
With every wash, the garment releases thousands of tiny fibers, called Microfibres.
Research shows that a part of this type of pollution is made from synthetic clothing (polyester, polyethylene, acrylic, elastane). It is estimated that washing synthetic textiles release almost 35% of the microplastics.
You might think that something so tiny will not be a big problem to the environment but it causes more problems than one might think.
These so-called microfibers can pass the washing machine filters and end up in oceans, where they are eaten by microorganisms, which then are eaten by fishes and lastly eaten by us.
Research done by Patagonia estimated that for every 100.000 people, an average of 110kg of microfibers would be released into local waterways daily. These 110kg are equivalent to approximately 15.000 plastic bags.
3. Human Rights
Now it’s time to address the negative effects of fast fashion on workers.
Workers’ conditions are not ideal when it comes to this industry.
Even though most of us might directly think about the factory workers, they are not the only ones negatively affected by the fast fashion industry.
So, who exactly is deprived of human rights? And how is the fast fashion industry doing that?
Farmers are the first ones that are negatively affected by this overproduction.
As we all know, crops take time to grow, but in a society where we need to produce approximately 80 billion to 150 billion garments a year, crops have to grow EXTREMELY fast!
To grow it fast, field workers have to use all kinds of insecticides and pesticides which leads to many issues.
Cotton production uses 24% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides used globally. This is the reason why an average of 20.000 people dies yearly of skin cancer. These toxic substances not only result in danger for the farmer but also for the habitats of those areas. It has caused an increase in miscarriages, malformations and cancer.
Most of your trendy budget clothes are produced where human rights are taken away from the workers!
The garments that are supplied by the big fast fashion companies are produced by children and women, who are paid wages lower than the living costs of those countries and working in sweatshops with unacceptable or illegal working conditions.
According to UNICEF, 170 million children are employed in the garment industry, this makes for 11% of children in the world. Kids that are supposed to be at school and playing with their friends are working in horrible conditions even 12 hours a day.
In the dyeing factories, workers are constantly in contact with all the different types of chemicals, solvents, optical brighteners and finishing agents that are creating all kinds of skin disease, cancer and other health problems.
Factory workers are not only working in dangerous conditions with unfair wages but also very long hours, with no rights of sick leaves and sometimes even physical abuse.
4. Carbon emission
One of the big environmental impacts of fast fashion is the release of carbon emission. It has not only to do with the production of the garments but also with the transportation of those.
Producing the items in China or any other Asia country and transporting them all the way to the US or Europe every time there is a new collection, which in today’s time is once a week creates a massive negative impact, contributing to climate change.
According to Vogue Business, the ‘global apparel and footwear industry produces more greenhouse gases than France, Germany, and the UK combined in 2018, totaling 2.1 billion tonnes of carbon emission’.
Experts estimate that the fast fashion industry is responsible for nearly 10% of total annual emissions.
Levis Strauss & Co. said that to produce a pair of jeans, the factory emits as much carbon as driving a car 128,7km.
Reducing the mass production of clothes will help reduce carbon emission but it’s equally important to produce them locally or using more sustainable transport.
5. Bad management of energy and resources
Companies use energy and resources to over-produce even though they already know they will not be able to sell everything.
As consumers, we buy everything that marketing campaigns make us believe is trendy and use it until the next trendy thing pops up.
The irony in this, is that companies use resources and energy to overproduce and then throw it or burn what was not sold, which is a waste of our resources.
Most of those clothes end up being burned, which creates a lot of carbon emissions, or are sent to Africa markets because they were not able to be sold, which again requires more resources or the garments are directly thrown away on the landfills, which is another waste of resources and pollution.
6. Damages consumer health
As customers, we are not exempt from health consequences…
Azo is another chemical that even though is banned in the EU due to the toxicity, it’s still used in fast fashion brands as they are produced in countries that, this chemical is not illegal.
Make sure you wash your clothes before using them, to prevent your skin from absorbing them and then causing skin and eye irritation.
Wearing those poorly made clothes that are made without any kind of ethics is not just affecting the third world countries but can also be dangerous for our health.
What can we do differently
Most of us believe that fast fashion only affects the third world, that is an issue that if we cover our ears and eyes we won’t know about it, but that means that we are just fooling ourselves.
The environmental impacts of fast fashion are not only affecting countries in Asia but are affecting the world by contributing to climate change.
These cheaply made collections that are trendy one day and irrelevant the next made a huge movement towards consumption. The constant need to buy more and more just for the sake of buying is simply one of the social impacts of fast fashion…
It’s not good for our budget, as we can spend that money on something way more meaningful, it’s not good for our planet, and it’s not helping the people in countries that have no choice but to work in those conditions.
Next time you buy new clothes, please ask yourself if:
- Do I really need this?
- Can I combine this with other things that I own already?
- Is this something I see myself wearing for a long time, or is it just a trend?
- How long will this last for me? (if the answer is one year or two, you probably don’t want that in your closet)