Fast fashion — have you heard of it? Put simply, fast fashion is when retailers accelerate the production of their fashion lines to meet ever-changing trends. You might not be familiar with the term, but fast fashion impacts your daily life.
In the past, clothing retailers would launch new clothes based on the season: winter, spring, summer, and fall. But now, as styles constantly evolve, retailers stock new clothes all the time. Why is that a bad thing? While increased production means more style choices for consumers, fast fashion is incredibly harmful to the environment.
From causing microfiber pollution to increasing the amount of waste in landfills, fast fashion has more harmful impacts than you probably realize. Here are three of them:
1. Water and Air Pollution
You might not realize it, but most of your clothes are made up of plastic. Yes, really. Take polyester, acrylic, and nylon, for example. Chances are, you own clothes made from these materials, as approximately 60% of clothing is made from synthetic fibers (i.e., forms of plastic). These materials are usually sturdy and stretchy, which is why they’re used to create popular activewear.
Unfortunately, these materials contribute to pollution every time you wash your clothes. Each rinse, regardless of how short, releases plastic fibers into wash water. From there, the plastic makes its way into the rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water where it’s then consumed by fish and other wildlife.
But pollution doesn’t just impact aquatic wildlife; it impacts everyone and everything. Plastic microfibers shed from clothing and home furnishings are released into the air, and people inhale them. Microfiber and other air pollution can damage the human immune system and make you vulnerable to illness. It can cause headaches, nausea, and long-term effects like lung cancer and respiratory disease.
Instead of buying clothes made from cheap material, opt for higher-quality natural fibers like cotton or silk. Whether you buy cotton button-downs or silk pajamas, you’ll feel as good as you look. While these items might cost more, they’re better for your health and the environment at large.
2. Increased Waste
The more clothes that are turned out, the more product that’s available for consumers to purchase. The reality is, fast fashion keeps consumers from having to hold on to their clothes over the long term. Since something new is always coming out, buyers don’t have to stay loyal to anything — and they don’t.
Think about it. How many pairs of jeans do you have in your closet? Two? Five? Nine? Chances are, you own several pairs of jeans, and that’s not to mention all the shoes, tops, dresses, etc. If you don’t currently own multiple versions of each item, it’s probably because you’ve given them away.
The mass production of clothing leads to an endless cycle of clothing churn. To make room in their dressers and closets for new styles, consumers donate used items to … somewhere … or simply throw them away. After all, to stay on trend, buyers have to keep buying. It’s this never-ending process that causes excessive inventory and, in turn, excessive waste.
Clothing waste, or textile waste, makes up almost 5% of all landfill space, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, the United States produces approximately 25 billion pounds of textiles per year. To put that in perspective, that’s about 80 pounds per U.S. resident.
When those textiles are no longer wanted, the EPA estimates that 15% of them get donated to charity. The remaining 85% go directly into landfills. Sadly, that’s not the only sort of waste fast fashion generates. Some textile factories that produce fast fashion also create toxic wastewater as a byproduct of the manufacturing process. When this wastewater gets dumped into waterways, it harms animals and causes water scarcity for humans.
3. Labor Practices That Harm Women
Fast fashion doesn’t just impact the environment, it also impacts the workforce. Forbes reports that 80% of those who make clothes are women between the ages of 18-24. And the conditions in which these women work are typically less than ideal.
According to the article, the majority of these garment workers earn less than $3 and are often victims of sexual harassment. Forbes concludes that fast fashion traps “a generation of young women into poverty.”
One company in particular has been criticized for the way it treats employees. H&M reportedly fails to pay its laborers a living wage, with some employees struggling to afford basic necessities although they work long hours. Sweatshop conditions are never a good look.
Fighting Back Against Fast Fashion
The good news is, we have the opportunity to change the impact fast fashion is having on our lives and our planet. From avoiding certain fabrics to only buying from companies that treat their employees with respect, consumers can change where the world is going. Here are a few sustainable options:
Shop the Company
You can learn a lot about a company by doing some simple research. If companies have a reputation for treating their garment employees poorly, they won’t have a GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards) certification. Earning a GOTS certificate requires companies to adhere to certain environmental criteria and fair labor standards. Companies that are certified ensure that employees are working in humane conditions and being paid a living wage.
To avoid fast fashion, shop for quality pieces you’ll be able to wear long-term. Instead of buying items made from plastic-based materials, opt for better-quality natural fibers. You’ll have stylish threads that won’t need to be replaced in a few months’ time.
Buy for the Season, Not the Week
As noted above, fashion retailers used to release clothing lines by the season. Now they churn out new items by the week — if not the day. Well, you don’t have to follow their lead.
At the turn of each season, evaluate your existing wardrobe. You doubtless have many items that will continue to serve you well. If you identify gaps, purchase high-quality pieces you can wear all season long. Then stay off Zara’s website.
Fast fashion is incredibly harmful to the environment. Not only does it create waste in landfills, but it causes water and air pollution and exploits workers. But there’s good news: Fast fashion doesn’t have to prevail. By changing the way you shop, and paying more attention to the companies you buy from, you can become a more sustainability-minded consumer.