When you’re paying something like $20 or $50 for a fast-fashion name-brand hoodie, you rarely think twice about the expense. It’s affordable. You like how it looks, fits, and feels, so making the purchase barely registers as an afterthought. You do it. Easy access to new clothes is incredibly appealing, and we are all tempted to make new purchases with every new trend. Why wouldn’t we want to keep up with trends?
But that’s where the fashion industry is mistaken. While not technically suffering as a whole, the industry has a harmful impact on our lives, and we shouldn’t let it do that anymore. Yes, it is convenient to buy a new clothing article every other week, and it makes us feel good to own something new, to pamper ourselves but are we even aware of the real cost of the fashion industry?
If we could travel back in time and look at our grandparent’s closets, we might be surprised to see that we own five times more clothes than they did. Now, it’s all fun and games until you see the other side of the coin. Fast fashion might be accessible, but it’s not sustainable from any standpoint. The more affordable fashion is, the more profound its consequences are.
What is Fast Fashion?
When you look at today’s fashion industry, it’s easy to be blinded by the shiny materials and bright colors at relatively low prices. Now, before we get into more details, think about how challenging it is to maintain the vibrant color of a new pair of pants? You wash it three or five times, and the colors fade.
This is the downside of affordable fast fashion. It doesn’t last. A cheap product isn’t on sale, but it is cheap to manufacture. This decreases material quality, resulting in clothes that look old, worn out, shapeless, fraying, and faded after only a few washes. We have to take extra care when we wash or dry them, and even the sunlight can affect the colors. How many black clothing articles turn grey or reddish after a few wears?
Besides the low quality and life expectancy of these clothes, trends are changing every day, it seems. It’s almost impossible to keep up, and continuous purchases are necessary. While we might also require these purchases because of the low quality of the clothes, it may also lead to a bigger need for storage space in our homes and un-recyclable landfill waste. We can not recycle most of these clothes because the materials are so bad or toxic that recycling them could negatively impact the environment.
Not to mention all the money you spend on it. Let’s do some basic math. If one hoodie is $40 and you buy one every other season, let’s say twice a year, in ten years, you’ll have spent $3,200 on hoodies alone. I’m a big hoodie wearer, so you can trust me on this. That’s money you don’t get back only for hoodies. However, if you buy slow fashion and have an environmentally conscious way of life, you could buy a $150 hoodie that will last you for ten years. Even if you need more than one over that period, you’ll still spend way less and have a smaller impact on the environment than the norm created by fast fashion.
Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion
Fast fashion is the mass-production of cheap and completely disposable garments that provide countless new collections every year and encourage us to purchase more clothing out of need and desire to keep up with trends. It is the second-largest polluter worldwide, behind the oil industry, and our lifestyle’s negative impact grows further every year.
Around 80 billion new garments are manufactured every year, and, on average, each garment is worn seven times before it’s thrown away. Every person in the US generates, on average, around 77 lbs of textile waste from their wardrobe alone. And with all the clothes we have in our wardrobes, most women only use 20% to 30% of their clothes.
Looking further into the negative impact the fast fashion industry has on our environment, we can look towards alternative practices that should become mainstream. The same goes for this article in trying to build awareness on issues that have a negative impact on our lives and how we can positively influence that.
Water Consumption and Pollution
Seeing as the first issue we’ll approach relates to one of the planet’s most precious and scarce resources, you might get an idea of where this article will go. Still, it needs to be said. Most countries that are massive producers of fast fashion don’t have harsh legislation to protect the environment. Look at China, Bangladesh, and India for more details, but untreated toxic wastewaters used to manufacture clothes are dumped straight into rivers in many countries. These toxic wastewaters are harmful to water ecosystems and humans but wind up contaminating by extension seas and oceans.
The use of fertilizers, dyes, and other harmful chemicals pollutes every drop of water used in production, and it’s a lot. For every ton of dyed fabric, up to 200 tons of water is used. For growing one pound of cotton, around 2,000 gallons of water are used. This led to the desertification of the Aral Sea, for example. Human lives are also affected, seeing as in India, 85% of the population’s water use is equivalent to the amount of water used to grow cotton in the country. Considering that 100 million people in the country don’t have access to drinking water, this is bad.
What can we do?
- Choose US, EU, Canada produced clothes;
- Choose chemical-free fibers (organic cotton, hemp, linen, natural rubber, ramie);
- Choose fibers with low water consumption.
Waste Generation and Microfibers Pollution
When the clothes that we wear are easily attainable, cheap, and of low quality, we use them less and generate more waste. An average family in the western world generates around 66 pounds of textile waste every year. Around 85% goes to the landfill or is incinerated from all that waste, while only 15% gets recycled. The shocking thing is that around 72% of our clothes are made out of some type of synthetic fibers. If these are made out of synthetic fibers, they are non-biodegradable as they take up to 200 years to decompose. Only a tiny percentage of these fibers can be recycled, and the recycling process also has a negative impact on the environment.
These fibers negatively impact our environment when they are manufactured and disposed of and when we wash or wear them. When a synthetic fiber garment is washed, around 700,000 particles of microfibers are discharged into the water. This leads to 300 million microfibers of polyester being released into the water and 900 million into the air per year per person. These microfibers are eaten by small aquatic organisms that are later eaten by fish and wind up in our food chain.
What can we do?
- Wash clothes when needed at lower temperatures (86°F);
- Choose natural fibers;
- Buy less but better quality clothes and recycle.
Chemical and Greenhouse Gases Impact
The production, manufacturing, dyeing, bleaching, wet processing, and transportation of our garments increase the chemical pollution and carbon footprint across the planet. The more processed each fiber is, the more chemicals are used in the process. Cotton is the most polluting and chemically packed natural material used in clothing, followed by bamboo, as it’s not easy to turn it from stick to fiber. Chemicals used in cotton farming cause diseases and premature deaths in farmers and cause massive freshwater ocean and soil pollution.
Any synthetic fiber has fossil fuel as its raw material. Manufacturing materials out of fossil fuel uses large amounts of energy in primarily coal-powered countries. This results in high carbon emissions from the leading clothing manufacturers (China, India, Bangladesh).
What can we do?
- Choose organic and natural fibers;
- Purchase from sustainable brands (8000 Kicks, 1 People, The Classic T-Shirt);
- Wash before first use;
- Buy less, better quality and fix clothes;
- Buy locally and green energy-resourced clothes.
While we can’t say that the t-shirt you’re currently wearing is responsible for the planet’s pollution, fast fashion created a harmful cycle that we’re all trapped in. We need clothes, so we buy clothes that we throw away after a few uses, and we end up needing a new garment in a few weeks. An individual can not be held responsible for this, but they can make better decisions with their money.
The fast fashion industry will continue on this path, and brands like H&M, Zara, Urban Outfitters, and most others will not change their practices as long as we continue to buy their products. Be more environmentally conscious about how you spend your money, add an eco-friendly flair to your wardrobe, and they will have no choice but to change. Financial gain is the sole language spoken by this industry, and financial loss will be their only motivator. Our money can speak much louder than our voices or pens.