The term “fast fashion” has recently become a popular turn of phrase used to represent cheap, trendy clothing from retailers such as H&M and Zara. On the surface, fast fashion may seem like a technological innovation - the constant designing and manufacturing of new styles for such low prices seems almost revolutionary. Hidden behind these low prices, however, are high environmental and ethical costs that may make you rethink your next clothing purchase.
The havoc fast fashion has wreaked on the environment has been extensive.
In terms of clothing production, fast fashion retailers generally use cheap, synthetic textiles such as polyester or nylon. Both polyester and nylon are derived from fossil fuels such as crude oil; these carbon based compounds are placed in heated, high pressure environments and melted before being made into fibres that are woven into fabrics.
The production of synthetic fibres further produces greenhouses gases such as nitrous oxide; not only do these gases pollute the air we breathe, but their role in trapping heat from the sun’s rays has led to rising temperatures and climate change. Manufacturing these fabrics also uses large amounts of water; water is required for the cooling of fibres as well as dyeing and treatment processes.
Natural fibres, though in many ways better than synthetic fibres, can also be a problem. Cotton farming, for example, uses incredibly large amounts of water; in fact, this has caused many key cotton-producing countries to be under high water stress. This increases the risk of drought and can have an immeasurable impact on the biodiversity and soil quality of ecosystems around the world.
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Fast fashion has further increased the amount of waste individuals produce. Due to the cheap, low quality nature of the materials used, fast fashion garments tend to degrade and be discarded after only a few wears. Furthermore, these clothing items, often full of lead, pesticides, and other such noxious chemicals, will almost never fully break down and instead release harmful chemicals into the air. Even before being thrown out, these clothing items can create waste - cheaply made garments tend to shed plastic microfibres as they are washed, adding to the pollution in our water systems.
There are also ethical impacts to fast fashion that must be considered.
In the pursuit of cheap production, many fast fashion retailers have relocated their production overseas. In these parts of the world, there are generally fewer regulations on employment and wages; this has led to high rates of child labour and wages that have kept populations below the poverty line.
Health and safety concerns have also arisen from this lack of regulations. Cotton farmers and sweatshop workers often endure long-term exposure to pesticides, lead-based dyes, and poisoning from chemicals, which have increased incidences of impaired memory, respiratory diseases, and extreme depression. Buildings and factories are also generally poorly built; there have been countless news stories and egregiously high death rates from these collapsed factories.
In order to lessen our contributions to the fast fashion industry, there are a number of steps that can be taken.
Buying used items - for example, from thrift stores or consignment stores - is beneficial in two ways: first, it prevents old clothing from going into landfills and second, it does not require new clothing to be made. It can also have the added benefit of being less expensive than buying new!
Buying higher quality, long lasting items reduces the amount of waste going to landfills - well made items are generally kept for longer periods of time and can even be passed down generations. This means that new clothing items are not continually being made and bought to replace older garments. It is important to note, however, that being able to buy high quality items is a privilege that not everyone can afford.
Buying from ethical and sustainable brands prevents or at least mitigates the effects of environmental damage and generally avoids ethical uncertainties; transparency about modes of production generally indicates an ethical or sustainable brand. Like with buying higher quality, long-lasting items, this can be expensive and is not possible for everyone.
Not buying at all is the best option - and the least expensive! Not buying new clothes encourages fast fashion brands to produce less, preventing additional waste. Repairing or repurposing old clothing items and organizing clothing exchanges with friends are great ways to maintain the practice of buying less.
Fast fashion has caused abominable effects on both the environment and human rights, yet it is a sector that has continued to grow and expand. It is up to us as consumers to limit our contribution to these retailers and stay informed on how fast fashion is hurting our planet and our people.