Why Fast Fashion is Killing the Planet and Your Ethics

© Sarah R. Bloom/Flickr
© Sarah R. Bloom/Flickr
Photo of Jill Di Donato
Fashion Editor9 March 2018

In 2017, clothing has become disposable rather than something to be cherished. Welcome to the world of fast fashion, where clothes and accessories are cheap, allowing you to stay de rigeur in a culture where mass manufacturers are marketing more than clothing. They’re marketing trends designed to whet your desire to shop. How can fast fashion be killing the planet, and your ethics, without you even realizing it? The irony in shopping fast fashion: the more you buy, the more you want. The more you want, the more you waste.

Does purchasing a new outfit make you an unethical global citizen? If you’re shopping fast fashion, the answer could very well be yes. Fast fashion is causing an environmental crisis. Ask yourself: how fast do you really want your fashion to be, and at what cost? The increasingly new demand for more clothing, made cheaply and with questionable ethics—both to humanitarian issues and to the environment—is cause for concern.

Manufactured trends and the greedy shopper

The fast-fashion industry pushes shoppers to buy more than they need | ©Freestocks.org/Unsplash

According to the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, the fashion industry brings in $1.2 trillion (£960bn) per year, with $250 billion (£200.4bn) from the U.S. alone. According to Fast Company, the fast-fashion industry produces 150 billion pieces of clothing per year. That’s a lot of jeggings. But what’s the real reason people are devouring clothes?

As Elizabeth Cline writes in her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, fast fashion is priced cheaper so consumers buy more items than they actually need. According to Cline, Zara, one of the leaders in fast fashion, gets deliveries of new merchandise twice per week. H&M and Forever 21 get daily shipments of new merchandise, and Topshop introduces 400 styles a week on its website. By flooding the market with choices, shoppers become overwhelmed with endless possibilities of opportunities to be chic. And so, a lust to stay on trend can turn people into greedy buyers without them even realizing it.

Fast-fashion retailers are setting you up to binge on clothing trends by putting out new looks. At the same time, these retailers are banking on people feeling “left out” or “uncool” if they don’t cop the latest look.

How fast fashion is polluting the planet

Fast-fashion retailers outsource manufacture to coal-dependent countries | © Viktor Kiryanov/Unsplash

According to the Institute of Sustainable Communication, the clothing industry is the second-highest polluter of clean water. Retailers of fast fashion dump toxic chemicals into clean water supplies because clothing production is a land- and water-intensive industry.

And that’s not all. A report published in MIT News stated that most fast-fashion retailers outsource their production to developing countries where resources and labor come cheap, and where they still depend on coal power for electricity. It takes a lot of coal power to produce the 150 billion pieces of clothing per year that are mass-produced on a global scale. Just a reminder, this is what’s known as a bad-carbon footprint. As a result, the apparel industry is, according to Forbes, responsible for 10% of all carbon emissions globally.

The disparity between product distribution and place of production also requires a lot of oil (a non-renewable energy source) to ship clothing worldwide. If you’re shopping a fast-fashion retailer, you’re not buying clothing locally. Another thing to consider.

What you need to know about hazardous textiles

Fast-fashion clothing often uses lead salts to create bright colors | © Nevil Zaveri/Flickr

According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, the global cotton industry uses more pesticides than any other crop in the world. But most fast-fashion clothing is made from something worse: oil-based polyester, which has now replaced cotton as the number-one fiber in our clothing, as noted in a recent Fast Company report.

The New York Times also notes some manufacturers of fast fashion use lead to create bright (red, green, yellow, and orange) hues. Why? Using lead salts is common practice to color inexpensive fabrics like vinyl and plastic. The Center for Environmental Health sets safety limits on levels of lead in clothing. However as David Rosner, co-director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University and author of the 2013 book Lead Wars states: “There is no good level for lead exposure.”

Why your clothing ends up in landfills

People treating fast fashion as disposable means it ends up in landfill | © raisetheroofkenya/Flickr

According to The Huffington Post, the world consumes 80 billion pieces of clothing each year. Here’s the deal with fast fashion: the quality of the clothing isn’t meant to last. According to the sustainability consulting group Eco-Age, the lifespan of fast fashion is nonexistent; people treat fast fashion like disposable clothing. This group points out that people wear fast-fashion clothing and accessories less than five times, and only keep for them for 35 days on average before tossing them.

Fast fashion doesn’t pay workers a living wage

Labor standards remain low | © Bo Kage Carlson/Flickr

In Colombian mines, Bangladeshi factories, or Vietnam textile mills, labor standards are so low that even though apparel is the largest employer of women globally, less than 2% of these women earn a living wage, according to The Huffington Post. These women can’t even afford to buy the cheap, fast fashion they’re producing to ship overseas.

What you can do about this fast-fashion nightmare

Do you really need an entire new wardrobe, or are you just letting big business brainwash you into lusting after looks? The next time you want to shop fast fashion, consider what’s really at stake. And in the meanwhile, get educated on the sustainability and ethical movements in the fashion industry.

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