Fast fashion has created a rise in internet brands and affordable clothing. It’s easier for everyone to stay in style, from suburban moms to hipsters on a budget. But the industry that keeps us trendy is also causing pollution to skyrocket at an alarming rate. While it may be cool to get the latest styles at the mall or online for low prices, it’s not cool to fill our oceans with your old crop tops and sweaters.
Merriam-Webster defines fast fashion as “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.” Retailers such as Forever 21, H&M, Fashion Nova, and Shein are all major retailers in the industry. Westfarms, a shopping mall in West Hartford, Connecticut, is filled with fast fashion. Shelves are stuffed with cheaply produced tee shirts, jeans, and more, all meant to be flushed out during the holiday season. Come January, these stores will hold a completely new inventory as the vicious cycle repeats itself, resulting in a plethora of environmental detriments. This happens because once these stores cease sales of the cheaply made clothing, the unsold product is disposed of through incineration, left to sit in landfills, or dropped to the bottom of the ocean.
The manufacturing process is also quick and dirty. According to Ngan Le, a contributor for the Princeton Student Climate Initiative (PSCI), fast fashion contributes to twenty percent of global water pollution due to the poor quality of the factories producing the clothing. When producing this clothing, large quantities of microplastics and toxic chemicals leach into the water used in washing. The wastewater is discarded back into the environment, unable to be cleaned due to the amount of hazardous material in it. Earth.Org states that washed clothes release five hundred thousand tons of microplastics into the ocean each year. For perspective, according to The Conscious Club, an organization that highlights a more environmentally conscious future, twenty-seven hundred liters of water are required to wash one shirt in production; this is equal to about nine hundred days of drinking water. With an industry that is constantly in production, these numbers add up to create one of the greatest global killers of our time.
Many industries contribute to the pollution of our environment, but what makes the fast fashion industry different is the frequent change of production due to market fluctuation. You don’t have to study fast fashion to know that trends come and go with clothing. While your personal style may not have changed recently, the growth of social media has caused trends to change rapidly. Fast fashion brands have capitalized on changing fads by cornering the market on affordability. Price rules on the clothing rack. With such affordable options, like the $6.00 tee shirt on Shein’s website, most consumers wouldn’t consider choosing sustainability over their beloved, cheaply made wardrobes.
“What got me into sustainability in fashion is that I used to work in Hong Kong a lot,” said Andrea Kennedy, associate chair of Fashion Merchandising at LIM College. Professor Kennedy was examining a lab dip (a swatch you get from a factory to match a color standard) when she recognized the color was off by about 10 percent, so she dismissed it. “What I didn’t know was that the bulk yardage was already dyed. And when I learned [this] and tried to use it only two days later, it was no longer there. [W]hen I went to do an exclusive with this yardage for a big department store, I learned that the fabric had been sent to an incinerator.” When making decisions as designers and merchandisers, there is a responsibility to learn about the carbon footprint of materials, and unfortunately, not every designer or merchandiser takes this into account. Professor Kennedy is now in charge of all sustainability courses at LIM. “I learned that this was a common practice and that if it can sink, like a big box of leftover buttons, it gets dumped in the water. And if it’s something that can’t sink, like one thousand, two thousand, or three thousand yards of fabric or apparel, it gets burned. So it goes up or down.”
While fast fashion may currently dominate the market, there have been sustainable clothing and accessory options available to us from the jump. Etsy shops like Bloodlight and Bambi make responsible shopping easy by providing a wide range of vintage clothing and handmade items such as face masks and headpieces. Another shop run out of Instagram, Immoral London (@immorallondon), creates custom pieces so a customer is able to purchase something handmade and ethically sourced. Stores such as these play a vital role in slowing down the massive pollutants in the fast fashion industry. With shops like Bloodlight and Bambi and Immoral London, the battle against fast fashion is slowly fought. Sales from these brands are nowhere near the rate that brands like Fashion Nova or Shein are reaching, but the difference pertains to how these small companies produce their clothing. The product is made with care and in ways that allow the consumer to wear them for years to come. With the rise of the socially-conscious social media user, brands like these are on the rise while brands that cater to fast fashion meet their demise.
Traditionally, staying trendy has not been affordable. For example, Levi’s jeans were a popular choice in the ‘80s but were not always an affordable option for those wanting in on the trends. In the ‘80s, the fast fashion fad hadn’t yet become the easily obtainable, profitable machine that it is today. Fast fashion allows customers on almost any budget to stay in style because of how affordable the brands are. Quality, long-lasting sweatshirts from a sustainable brand like Roots costs $98.00. On the fast fashion website, Fashion Nova, a similar style sweatshirt costs $11.99. The choice is clear as to which brand impressionable younger people on a budget are going to purchase.
The responsibility falls back onto the consumer to make more ethically-responsible decisions when it comes to what they wear. It’s the difference between preserving the earth we need to survive, and looking posh while the world burns. Kennedy believes, “[T]he most important thing a customer can do is use your voice, tell your favorite brands that you’re not going to continue shopping with them if they don’t change to be more environmentally and socially responsible.” We have the resources and options in front of us to make better decisions at the mall and online. The change agent needed to solve the climate crisis fueled by fast fashion is us.
Will Keller is a Staff Writer for the Blue Muse Magazine
Header Photo Credit: Rachel Claire, Pexels