Fast Fashion, A Silent Killer
In the early 1990s, fast fashion took the world by storm. Since then, the industry has grown exponentially. In fact, in the first six months of 2019, fast fashion accounted for 66% of all online fashion traffic . Companies’ ability to mass-produce clothing at remarkably low costs forever changed the fashion industry and the world. On the surface, fast fashion seems to be a positive development — both clothing companies and consumers economically benefit. Producers profit from cheap production costs and increased sales, and consumers benefit from lower prices and more options. To maintain low production costs, companies use synthetic fabrics, toxic chemicals, and harmful dyes that pollute the oceans and, when produced, emit greenhouse gasses. Fast fashion also prompts consumers to purchase more clothing faster. Thus, shortening the lifespan of each piece of clothing and increasing waste. A 2021 report by the World Economic Forum found that “fashion, and its supply chain, [are] the planet's third-largest polluter” . Clearly, the benefits of fast fashion are purely economic; it has significant, detrimental social and environmental impacts. Undeniably, fast fashion costs more than we think.
Environmental Impacts of Production:
Clothing production depletes many of the Earth’s resources and hugely contributes to water pollution. Producing a single cotton t-shirt requires roughly 713 gallons of water  and 12kWh of energy — enough energy to power a LED light bulb for 50 days . That’s the input of energy and water for one t-shirt. Now, in the world of fast fashion, hundreds of t-shirts and more intensive goods like jeans and sweaters are produced daily. The production of clothing uses billions of gallons of water and kilowatt-hours each day. On top of that, the fashion industry is responsible for about 20% of global industrial water pollution . The processes of dyeing textiles and making clothing release a variety of toxic chemicals into the environment. But, microplastics, microscopic pieces of non-biodegradable plastic, are the main culprit of water pollution. Synthetic materials account for 35% of microplastics released into the environment . Synthetic fabrics, used for cheap production, release microplastics into the Ocean every time they are washed. Each time you do laundry, your clothing releases microplastic fibers into the water. Once microplastics reach the Ocean, they are often consumed by marine animals. Microplastics contain toxic chemicals and other pollutants in the water tend to gather on the surface of these fibers. The absorption of microplastics into an animal’s digestive system causes serious, if not fatal, health issues.
The fashion industry also hugely contributes to the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. In 2021, the fashion industry released 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere . Carbon was likely the majority of these emissions —the fashion industry accounts for 8-10% of global carbon emissions . Throughout its lifespan, a pure cotton t-shirt releases roughly 15 kg of CO2 . From the supply chain, to its destruction, a piece of clothing releases immense amounts of greenhouse gasses. First, manufacturing the fibers and fabric that make up the item releases greenhouse gasses. Synthetic fibers, like polyester and nylon, are derived from fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels — to create polyester and nylon — releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Then, the process of sewing and compiling the item bears its own carbon footprint. The dye and finish applied to clothes during manufacturing are responsible for 3% of global CO2 emissions . After the item is made, producers ship their product on cargo planes or ships to their respective stores. Transportation releases more carbon into the air — every year, cargo ships spew 3% of all global greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere . By the time the item reaches the hands of consumers, it leaves a trail of greenhouse gasses across the globe. A few years later, this item will likely end up alongside 57% of all discarded clothing, in the landfill waiting for incineration . The destruction of this item will release immense amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the air — a final contribution to global warming.
Today producing fashionable, affordable clothing means depleting the world’s water and energy resources, polluting the Oceans, and emitting tons of greenhouse gasses. This process is not sustainable. As our climate rapidly changes, the implications of fast fashion on the environment become even more detrimental.
Across the world, the birth of fast fashion altered consumers’ perspectives on clothing. As the release of seasonal collections became micro-seasonal, consumers began to purchase clothing more often. Reduced prices also led many consumers to buy higher volumes of clothing on their micro-seasonal shopping trips. Quickly, the life span of clothing shortened dramatically. Clothes became disposable. This collective shift in perspective perpetuated the development of fast fashion companies, and a tragic cycle formed. Producers rush to feed consumers’ growing appetite for cheap clothing, polluting the earth along the way. And, consumers fervently devour the producers’ creations. According to “The True Cost,” a documentary that explores the social and environmental impacts of fast fashion, the world consumes 400% more clothing than twenty years ago . This growing demand for clothing means more production, which only intensifies the environmental impacts of the fashion industry.
Significantly more clothing is wasted now than ever before. In fact, the average American now generates roughly 82 pounds of textile waste each year . Some of these clothes can be recycled and turned into other items. But clothes made of synthetic fibers — nylon, polyester, rayon, etc., — are non-recyclable and take hundreds of years to biodegrade. So, they end up in landfills or burned — releasing greenhouse gasses and toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. Sadly, in the United States, about 85% of discarded textiles end up in landfills or incinerated .
Fighting for Our Planet:
To save our planet, we must end this tragic cycle. As a society, the transition from fast fashion to “slow fashion” — an alternate, sustainable fashion philosophy — would drastically benefit our environment. The concept of slow fashion encourages consumers to purchase fewer clothes of higher quality: quality over quantity. It also urges people to trade clothing with family and friends and mend old clothes. Swapping and restoring damaged clothes would significantly increase the lifespan of a piece of clothing. The philosophy of slow fashion also pushes consumers to research brands and ensure that the products they buy are ethically sourced. As consumers, taking these steps to shift our collective mentality could impact the environmental degradation caused by the growing fast fashion industry. It would hinder the ongoing harmful cycle of fast fashion.
To incentivize consumers to move towards slow fashion, governments should implement high taxes on unethically made clothing. Thus, raising the cost of consumption for consumers and slowing the cycle of fast fashion. Similarly, governments should enforce emission taxes on clothing producers. An emission tax will push producers to lower their greenhouse gas emissions and move to more sustainable methods of production. Finally, requiring producers to obtain tradable emissions permits would decrease overall emissions from the fashion industry. Producers who highly value their right to pollute, and struggle to decrease emissions, will purchase a tradable emissions permit from a producer who agrees to lower their greenhouse gas emissions. While this method would still allow some clothing manufacturers to promote fast fashion, it would decrease the number of fast fashion providers overall.
Fortunately, a few clothing brands have already acknowledged their impact on the environment and are shifting towards more eco-friendly production styles. For example, Levi Strauss & Co. declared that by 2025, their facilities plan to release 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, and their entire supply chain will emit 40% fewer greenhouse gasses . Similarly, H&M plans to operate on 100% renewable energy by 2040 . These companies set an example for the rest of the fashion industry. They promote the necessary widespread movement — facilitated by new environmental government policies — towards sustainable fashion.
Both cultural and industrial shifts are required to halt the destructive cycle of fast fashion. As consumers, we must alter our fashion appetites: less is more and quality matters. As inhabitants of Earth, we must call producers to enforce ethical, sustainable supply chains. It’s time for fast fashion to go out of style.
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