What are you willing to pay?

Fast fashion damages society, environment

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man standing with clothes being thrown around him

Imagine this, you’re standing in your local H&M and it’s Black Friday. The prices within the store are unbelievable. There’s a shelf of long sleeve buttons ups to your right priced at $9.99. To your left is a round table of tank tops priced at $3.99. Both items are going fast. As you’re standing there, you’re faced with an ethical dilemma most are often unaware of: Which do you buy? Do you buy the long sleeve originally stitched together by underpaid workers who are continuously denied human rights, or do you buy the tank top that ends up in landfills too often? What ethical choice do you make for the sake of fast fashion and cheap prices?

According to merriam-webster.com, fast fashion is “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.”

To make things simple, “fast fashion” is a form of fashion brands can create fast and consumers can buy faster at lower prices. Though fast fashion provides consumers with cheap clothing they can obtain quickly, the fast fashion industry causes negative impacts on society as well as the environment. By recognizing the issue and purchasing with thought, consumers may be able to contribute to change within the industry.

Image courtesy of theguardian.com

• • • Societal Impacts • • •

Fashion companies, such as H&M, Urban Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret and many more, need to create products quickly to keep up with demand. But making high-quality products often cuts into profits massively. To keep up with the ever-present demand and to keep prices down, many companies have scavenged for the cheapest alternative to ensure they make big bucks. In an article by International Law and Policy Brief, “In order to sustain this level of production at a cost that allows the consumer to purchase clothing in large quantities, many fast fashion companies sought a way to cut costs in the supply chain. In order to achieve this, companies began taking their production to developing countries to take advantage of cheaper labor costs and less regulations.” 

With fast fashion companies doing so, it  becomes easier for workers to be mistreated. According to an article by The Guardian specifically sponsored by United Nations Children’s Fund, “children work at all stages of the supply chain in the fashion industry: from the production of cotton seeds in Benin, harvesting in Uzbekistan, yarn spinning in India, right through to the different phases of putting garments together in factories across Bangladesh.” 

Since most of the countries sought out by these companies are often still developing and have far less human rights and labor laws, abuse and exploitation is often swept under the rug, leading to fatalities and long-term illnesses. A prime example of this is the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza building in Savar located right out of Dhaka, Bangladesh. This collapse claimed the lives of more than 1,000 factory workers. 

“On April 23, cracks appeared in the building, shaking the structure enough that many workers fled. An engineer who had been called to inspect the structure warned that it was unsafe,” according to The New York Times. “Yet Mr. Rana and the factory bosses discounted any concerns and ordered their workers into the building the next morning.” 

Workers face much more than inadequate infrastructure; however, such as a multitude of health issues. The US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health states, “Organic dust exposure in the textile industry leads to an obstructive lung disease that has features of both asthma and COPD.” COPD is defined as Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD is a group of diseases that cause blockage of airflow and breathing issues. Furthermore, mental health issues also plague many who work within the fast fashion industry. These include stress and anxiety. The US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health states that many of these issues are caused by, “physically demanding work, time pressure and verbal abuse.”

Image courtesy of trustedclothes.com

• • •  Environmental Impacts • • •

The fast fashion industry plays a significant role in negative environmental impacts, such as CO2 admissions, extreme water use and textile waste. According to the World Resource Institute’s website, “making a pair of jeans produces as much greenhouse gases as driving a car more than 80 miles. Discarded clothing made of non-biodegradable fabrics can sit in landfills for up to 200 years. It takes 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt, enough to meet the average person’s drinking needs for two-and-a-half years.” All three aspects have a large impact on the environment, in their own way. 

• • • Water Use • • •

Production within the fast fashion industry uses a large amount of water. According to an article by Ethical Consumer, “every year the sector requires 93 billion cubic meters of water, which is enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people, and is responsible for around 20% of industrial water pollution as a result of textile treatment and dyeing.”

Each  item being rapidly produced in the fast fashion industry is a result of 2-3 thousand liters of water being used for each product. With water scarcity being a prevalent issue across the globe the excessive use of water is damaging to the drinkable water supply available. An article by National Geographic states, “By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth and climate change.”

• • • Textile Waste • • •

In 2018, the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimated landfills received 11.3 million tons of municipal solid waste textiles. “The main source of textiles in municipal solid waste is discarded clothing, although other smaller sources include furniture, carpets, tires, footwear, and other nondurable goods such as sheets and towels,” the EPA said in a report.

Due to large sums of textile waste being tossed out daily, they often end up in the landfill remaining there for years. As time progresses this issue will only heighten due to the expected jump in fast fashion. 

The North East Recycling Council discusses how the problem will remain. “The problem, however, is only getting worse, as the consumption of ‘fast fashion’ is projected to jump 63% by 2030. In New York State alone, residents dispose of 1.4 billion pounds of clothing and textiles each year, worth over $130 million. Reusing and recycling these products would create up to 1,000 new jobs,” the NERC said. 

• • • Carbon Emissions • • •

Textile waste and water waste isn’t the only issue with fast fashion. The fast fashion industry remains a significant factor in global greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the industry is responsible for around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to a press release by the United Nations Environment Programme, “part of these emissions come from pumping water to irrigate crops like cotton, oil-based pesticides, machinery for harvesting and emissions from transport.”

• • •  How To Help • • •

There are a variety of ways to help make a change. One of the most significant ways is to get informed. You can do this by reading articles, watching documentaries like, “The True Cost, ” or doing research. By reading this article you are also taking one positive step in the right direction.

Other ways include recycling old clothes. Instead of throwing that old tank top in the trash, donate it or recycle it by using it as a rag. If you have an old pair of jeans, upcycle them into shorts. If you don’t think you can find additional use in your clothing, donate it to individuals who might. According to an article written by Planetaid.org, “Recycling 100 million pounds of clothes has an effect on the environment equivalent to removing 26,000-35,000 cars from the road.”

Sandi Sturm, founder of Earth Focus Group and Author of “Family Survival Guide for our Changing Climate: 52 Empowering Actions You and Your Family Can Take Now!” discusses the importance of buying/upcycling second hand clothing.

“Everything we do and buy has a carbon footprint. If we look at cotton clothing, the journey begins in the field. Seeds are planted with diesel powered vehicles, fields are sprayed with insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers that contain petroleum-based products. Those chemicals also have a footprint through the entire process of exploration, extraction, transportation, manufacturing and marketing – all that use energy,” Sturm said. 

Sturm explained how once matured, the cotton is then picked by more diesel machines and eventually turned into thread that will be dyed which ultimately uses a lot of energy. “Buying less is always going to be the best option,” Sturm said.

A report made by the EPA states, the U.S. recycled a total of 4,180,000 tons of rubber, leather and textiles, which was only 6.05% of the total items recycled in 2018. Comparatively, Planetaid.org states, “Every year, 12 million tons of clothing ends up in landfills where they take up a massive amount of very expensive space.”

Another way to help reduce the amount of clothing in landfills is thrift shopping. By thrift shopping you are avoiding fast fashion brands as well as saving the items you buy from spending a lifetime in a landfill. 

One of the most important aspects of making a change is to buy with longevity in mind and avoid fast fashion brands. “The best thing to do is think more about the beginning of the process and buy less clothing, and make sure it is durable and will last a long time. The fast fashion industry (think Forever 21) sells clothing that is meant to last a month so you will keep buying it,” Sturm said.

Find lists of fast fashion brands to avoid, by visiting websites, such as sustainably-chic.com, thesustainablelivingguide.com, ethicalconsumer.org.