From Runway to Landfill: The Impact of Fast Fashion
Updated: Dec 1
Fast fashion has taken the world by storm, revolutionizing the way we consume clothing. With its promise of trendy and affordable garments available at lightning speed, fast fashion has become a global phenomenon. The term "fast fashion" refers to the rapid production and delivery of clothing collections inspired by the latest fashion trends. It involves the constant rotation of new styles, often produced at low cost, with a focus on maximizing profits and minimizing production time. Fast fashion has become a dominant force in the fashion industry, influencing the way people dress and shop. However, the rise of fast fashion has not been without controversy, as it has been linked to environmental and ethical concerns. Despite this, fast fashion continues to shape the industry and our wardrobes, making it an important topic to explore.
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What is fast fashion?
According to Merriam-Webster, the term fast fashion was first used in 1977 and can be defined as “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers”. The definition shows that historically, the “fast” part was supposed to refer to the amount of time it takes for a trend to get from the catwalk into your closet. And that isn’t a problem per se. Nowadays, however, the “fast” part can be applied to every part of the items’ lifecycle. The clothes are designed fast, made fast, shipped fast, bought fast, and in the best cases, worn fast. But they also go out of fashion, get forgotten, and end up in landfills just as fast.
Besides, fast fashion is nothing without cheap fashion. The only way to persuade you that you need that trendy new handbag that has just premiered on a fashion show is by making similar handbags in the stores very affordable, if not unbelievably cheap. This way, you don’t have to spend much time thinking about whether you need it or not. Even if I end up wearing it just once or twice, it costs as much as a pizza, so that’s not a big deal. Or is it?
To put it straight, if you’re not worried about fast fashion, then you probably haven’t been paying attention. And it is quite easy not to pay attention. Thirty years ago almost everyone knew someone who worked in the textile industry. People were aware of the way clothes are made and the amount of work it takes. Now that all the work is outsourced overseas, young people have no idea where their clothes come from. Most of us are used to seeing India, Bangladesh, or China on our labels. The clothes we wear became something that’s just always there. Something without a backstory, without a face, without a voice.
What are examples of fast fashion?
Fast fashion refers to the practice of quickly producing and delivering trendy clothing items at affordable prices. Examples of fast fashion brands include H&M, Zara, Forever 21, and Fashion Nova. These companies are known for their rapid production cycles, often releasing new collections every few weeks to keep up with the latest trends. Fast fashion brands typically prioritize quantity over quality, using cheap materials and labor to keep costs low. While fast fashion has made trendy clothing accessible to many people, it has also been criticized for its negative impact on the environment and the workers who produce the clothing.
How fast fashion affects the environment
One of the most significant environmental impacts of fast fashion is the excessive amount of waste it generates. Due to the low cost and poor quality of fast fashion, many people buy clothes they do not need, wear them once or twice, and then throw them in the trash. This leads to an enormous amount of textile waste, which ends up in landfills or oceans and takes decades to decompose. Furthermore, the production of these cheap clothes requires vast amounts of resources, including water and energy, which further contribute to environmental degradation. Overall, the impacts of the fashion industry include over 92 million tonnes of waste produced per year.
Another negative effect of fast fashion is the use of harmful chemicals in the production process. The textile industry is notorious for using lots of chemicals such as pesticides for cotton production and dyes to color clothing, which is harmful to the environment and the people working with these garments. But not only the use of these chemicals causes lots of pollution, but also the production of these chemicals contributes to air and water pollution, which can have severe health consequences for people living in the surrounding areas of these factories
Cheap almost always equals unsustainable, which can be proved by the amount of environmental damage that has been done by the fast fashion industry. For example, considering the demand for fast fashion, it’s not surprising that the fashion industry is the second largest polluter of clean water worldwide.
The average textile facility produces 8000 kg of textiles daily but requires 1.6 million liters of fresh water daily. Approximately 25% of the total water consumption is utilized for dyeing and printing processes. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, dyeing 1 kg of cloth requires a minimum of 40 liters of clean water on average, but this may vary depending on the textile material and dyeing process used. Additionally, water is needed for other processes such as cleaning, laundry, and washing of dyed textiles. The wastewater generated from these processes contains organic surfactants (carboxylates, sulphonates, and alkyl ether phosphates), alkalis (NaOH, Na2CO3), solvents (l-chlorinated hydrocarbons, Dichloromethane, 1, 1, 1-trichloroethane), salts (NaCl, KCl), as well as toxic and persistent dyes that harm the environment. Directly discharging such wastewater without treatment can lead to significant problems that affect the environment. Discharging industrial wastewater containing large quantities of dyes and other chemicals is harmful to aquatic life and land used for agricultural purposes.
The rivers in China, India, and Bangladesh are risking becoming biologically dead zones due to the toxic chemicals that have been released into the rivers by the local textile suppliers. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, the situation isn’t optimistic either: worldwide, the global apparel and footwear industries are responsible for 8% of them, which is the equivalent of the climate impact of the entire European Union.
Additionally, the production of synthetic fabrics such as polyester requires significant amounts of oil, which is a non-renewable resource. The production process for polyester releases large amounts of greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. Additionally, polyester clothing does not biodegrade, which means that it can take hundreds of years to decompose in landfills where it breaks down into microplastics that leach into our soils. When polyester clothing is washed, tiny microfibers are released into the water, which can end up in our oceans and harm marine life. The impact of polyester clothing on the environment is undeniable, and it is essential for us to be more mindful of our fashion choices to reduce our impact on the planet.
Alternatives to polyester
If you are trying to live an eco-friendly lifestyle, stay away from synthetic fabrics such as polyester. Although they account for more than 60 percent of fabric fibers, they are also one of the most harmful ones. Since they are derived from fossil fuels, they directly contribute to climate change, not to mention the fact that they will not decay once they are in a landfill. Besides, during the washing, synthetic fabrics release microfibres that contribute to the amount of plastic that ends up in the oceans, the bodies of animals, and, consequently, human bodies. Washing synthetic clothes accounts for 35% of primary microplastics released into the environment. A single load of laundry with polyester clothes can discharge 700,000 microplastic fibers that can end up in the food chain.
Cotton, especially organic cotton, is an all-around better option. But it’s important that we shop mindfully even when it comes to cotton items: cotton requires great amounts of water, so its production often leads to water crises in developing countries.
How ethical is fast fashion
But what do these factories in Asia look like? The answer shocked the entire world when the hidden became visible after the collapse of Rana Plaza, an apparel factory in Bangladesh. The collapse killed over a thousand people, most of them women. The accident is known as the deadliest structural failure accident in modern human history. When the cracks started appearing in the building, some companies evacuated their workers. The clothing factory, however, didn’t consider the warnings and told the workers to keep coming to work. The price that was paid for that mistake was so high that the industry couldn’t afford to let anything like that happen again.
Since the accident happened in 2013, the factories in Bangladesh and the companies that make their products there have introduced some new safety measures. However, the industry as a whole remains on the brink of disaster. Reportedly, 80 percent of garment workers in Bangladesh have witnessed or experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. More than three-quarters of them are women and only one out of 50 people earn a living wage. That makes fast fashion not just a fashion issue, but a feminist, humanitarian, and social issue. As Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, said in her interview for The New York Times, “Cheap clothes are not cheap. Someone always has to pay for them. And that someone is a worker. ”
Sadly, animals have been the victims of fashion trends for a long time now. Real fur and real leather are still considered luxuries, but more and more people are starting to pay attention to what matters, which is unnecessary suffering caused by our impulsive decisions. But there are other ways in which these trends affect the environment. Many fast fashion companies use faux fur and faux leather, which don’t cause animal suffering, but synthetic fibers, dyes, and chemicals used for their production are very harmful to the environment too.
Solutions to fast fashion
There are several solutions to fast fashion that can help to reduce its negative impact on the environment and society without spending money. Some of these solutions include:
Use what you have: Don’t purchase new clothing if you don’t need it. By using what you have to the fullest you not only save lots of money but also lower your carbon footprint.
Repair what is broken: We often purchase new clothing because our clothes break. Instead of purchasing new clothing, repair what is broken to extend the lifespan of your clothes.
Upcycling and DIY: Upcycling and DIY projects can help extend the life of clothing and reduce waste. By repurposing old clothing or customizing it to your taste, you can create unique and sustainable pieces while reducing your environmental impact.
Borrowing or Clothes swapping: Shopping in someone elseses closet is a great way to find new pieces of clothing without buying. It also gives clothing items you no longer love an new life.
Overall, the key to reducing the negative impact of fast fashion is to be more mindful of our consumption habits and support sustainable fashion practices. By making more conscious fashion choices, we can all play a role in promoting a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry.
Alternatives to fast fashion
If you are in the market for something new and you want to spend some money these are some amazing alternatives to fast fashion. They prioritize sustainability, ethical production, and quality over quantity. These alternatives include:
Secondhand clothing: Buying secondhand clothing is a great alternative to fast fashion, as it reduces the demand for new clothing production and extends the life of existing clothing. You can find secondhand clothes in thrift stores, vintage stores but also online marketplaces. Flea markets or garage sales can also have clothing.
Slow fashion: Slow fashion is a movement that promotes a more conscious approach to fashion, emphasizing quality over quantity and encouraging consumers to invest in timeless, high-quality pieces that are made to last.
Sustainable fashion brands: Many sustainable fashion brands prioritize environmentally friendly materials, ethical production methods, and fair labor practices. These brands often use organic or recycled fabrics and minimize waste in production.
Clothing rental: Clothing rental services are becoming increasingly popular, allowing consumers to rent clothing for special events without having to purchase new items that are only worn once or twice.
Overall, many alternatives to fast fashion promote a more sustainable and ethical approach to fashion. By supporting sustainable fashion brands, buying secondhand clothing, and engaging in DIY and upcycling projects, consumers can help reduce the negative impact of fast fashion on the environment and society.
Can fast fashion be sustainable?
Yes, but it doesn’t mean you should purchase fast fashion. It means that if you already own some fast fashion items you should use them to the fullest, and take good care of them to ensure they last as long as possible.
Despite many challenges, some fast fashion companies are making efforts to become more sustainable. For example, H&M has launched a clothing recycling program where customers can bring in old clothes to be repurposed or recycled. Other companies are using sustainable materials like organic cotton or recycled polyester in their clothing.
However, there is still a long way to go before fast fashion can truly be considered sustainable. Many of these efforts are small steps and do not address the larger issues of overproduction and waste that are inherent to the fast fashion model. In addition, the pressure to produce new styles quickly and inexpensively often comes at the expense of workers' rights and fair labor practices.
So, can fast fashion ever truly be sustainable? The answer is complex. While some companies are making strides toward sustainability, the fundamental model of fast fashion remains problematic. As consumers, we can play a role in promoting sustainability by choosing to buy from companies that prioritize sustainability and by reducing our overall consumption of clothing.
So is the future really that grim? Not necessarily. Considering the amount of research done regarding climate change and fast fashion, there are ways to stop fast fashion and the environmental damage it causes. The famous “reduce, reuse, recycle” is now more important than ever. We need to think more carefully about the clothes we buy, where they come from, and what they are made of. We should remember that refraining from the purchase is always the most sustainable option. And also, we should rethink the amount of money we are willing to pay for our clothes. The low prices of fast fashion brands aren’t normal. The price of these clothes is, in fact, much higher, and if we don’t pay it, it is paid by the workers, the animals, and the environment.