As people who have dedicated their lives to making the planet a better place, the environmental effects of fast fashion is somewhat of a touchy subject amongst the ( r e ) ˣ team.
Okay, that’s a lie, it’s a full-on trigger silently waiting for a sweet release.
Fast fashion is causing serious harm to the planet with its production methods, waste, and social unfairness.
The fast fashion industry paired with our consumerism culture encourages a throw-away mentality, feeding into the notion that we need so much stuff. We also can’t forget the sketchy labor practices and unfair treatment of its workers that continuously uphold systemic inequalities that seem to be woven into the industry's makeup.
But we’re not here to tell you to NEVER PURCHASE FAST FASHION AGAIN. Baby steps. I’m wearing a Primark cardigan as I write this (even if it is 10 years old).
Instead, we hope this piece helps you pay more attention.
- To your purchasing behavior
- To the ease with which you throw clothes (and other things) away
- To the companies working to do better
- And to support legislation that helps the industry (like the FABRIC act)
Let’s talk about it.
what is fast fashion & how did we get here
Fast fashion refers to garments that move quickly through production, from design to shelf. They are made in staggeringly high volumes and sold at extremely low price points with the goal to get people to purchase as much as possible as fast as possible.
Clothes have always represented something — ownership, financial success, social status — while also reflecting society itself.
But keeping the price low on these garments means people and the planet pay the price.
how did we get here?
Up until very recently, clothes worn by Americans were made in the USA.
Around the 1960s, companies began to shift production abroad — where labor was cheaper and labor unions were nonexistent.
We also saw a shift in society.
The 1980s was a decade of abundance. Baby boomers were getting older and richer while clothes became more affordable and more accessible. Fashion quickly became an accessible way to express yourself.
Companies met the demand for clothes with increasingly more styles and more materials.
The cycle continued until another shift in the mid-2000s, the dawn of fast fashion as we know it today and a period when 97% of clothes are produced outside of the U.S.
the rise of fast fashion
Locations in every major city in every major shopping district. And arguably, the brand that propelled fast fashion forward.
Zara was one of the first companies to respond in real-time to meet consumer demands and by the early 2000s, they had created the model of fast fashion that we see today.
New styles, new inventory, every two weeks. All while creating scarcity and FOMO to encourage constant buying. Shein has taken this model and run with it. They are now the largest fashion retailer in the world averaging 1.3 million items in a 12-month period.
(For reference, Zara sells 450 million in ~12 months)
But all these items need to end up somewhere and hint: it’s not good for the planet.
environmental effects of fast fashion
Fast fashion contributes to the harm and degradation of the environment in multiple ways. It’s an enormous industry with the completion of a single garment or line encompassing dozens of others.
Below we touch on the environmental effects of fast fashion in agriculture, water, and carbon emissions.
Fashion begins in the ground.
- With plants like cotton, linen, and wool.
- With animal parts like leather.
- With fossil fuels used to make synthetic fibers and most vegan leathers.
The production of fabric is land, water, and chemical-intensive. The crops also need a lot of water just to grow and often the runoff from pesticides enters into the water streams, polluting the water supply.
It should come as no surprise that wastewater from the apparel industry contains contaminants that when not managed properly enter into water streams that local residents live, wash, drink, and farm with.
This wastewater from the textile industry can come from many places.
- Growing plants, feeding animals (agriculture)
- Keeping machines clean
- Textile pre-treatment
- Textile laundering
- Textile dying and coloring
- And straight up dumping wastewater into water
It takes a lot of water and a lot of resources to make our clothes. From inception to the end of life, each garment we wear has its own carbon footprint.
We can fairly confidently say the fashion industry accounts for 4.8% of global carbon emissions (we get 4.8% from this article). But because the industry encompasses so many others, it’s hard to get an accurate calculation.
We do know the majority of emissions come from the supply chain. Thanks to Good on You, we know what that cycle generally includes.
- The Design Stage
- The determination of fabrics, silhouettes, & trends.
- Raw material production and cultivation
- Includes growing or creating the raw textile material, making it into a fiber, weaving it into a fabric, dyeing, and finishing it.
- Clothing production
- Cutting, sewing, and finishing a garment.
- Global transportation to retailers and consumers.
- How you use the product once it’s yours including washing, wearing, and disposing.
There are of course many other factors that go into creating a garment, but these stages are the most resource and energy intensive.
fast fashion contributes to a disposable culture
In some ways, fast fashion has leveled the playing field.
More people than ever before have access to vast amounts of clothing. But as accessibility increases, the quality decreases, and the amount we throw away increases.
85% of clothes in the U.S. end up in the landfill while tens of thousands of pounds of additional clothes find themselves discarded in the Atacama desert in Chile and 100 tonnes of “donated” clothes are thrown away in Accra, Ghana every day.
How would you like it if the neighboring town dumped all their trash in your town, then expected you and your tax dollars to clean it up and find somewhere to put it? That’s essentially what’s happening with discarded and donated clothes.
Today you could purchase a pair of Levis for $98 that were manufactured in Bangladesh, China, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka. Or you could go to another store and get a pair for $10 that was manufactured in the same place.
Consumerism tells you that since you can just go buy another pair for $10, does the quality or the number of uses you’re going to get out of it really matter? Clothes are so replaceable it doesn’t actually matter. So just throw that shitty garment away and buy something new.
Additionally, due to the increased amount of low-quality clothing circulating in resale stores, it’s become increasingly difficult to thrift something nicer.
We have become obsessed with convenience and disposability. The idea that we can throw a garment away or wear it only once has only escalated our culture's obsession with convenience.
- We want two-day shipping no matter where it’s coming from
- Single-use plastic bags (forget bag bans)
- Single-use raincoats
- Single-use face masks
- Single-use coffee pods
- Single-use credit cards (AKA gift cards)
Every aspect of our lives is influenced by convenience and disposability.
We crave newer, better, faster, and because clothes are so cheap, it's easy to continue this cycle of treatment.
- Every event
- Every meetup
- Every date night
- Every party
- Every. photo.
Becomes an opportunity to prove you’re up to date with the newest and the best. To prove how convenient your life is.
All this to say, the cheaper the clothes, the more we can obsess about how much variety we own, the more we can feel less guilty about throwing clothes away, the easier it becomes to ignore the profits from fashion executives, and the faster we forget about the people who actually made the clothes who are barely surviving.
fast fashion perpetuates systemic inequalities
By 2003, the last Levi’s factory in the U.S. shut down.
But it wasn’t until a disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh in April 2013, known as Rana Plaza, that the public became concerned with the conditions garment workers are subjected to on a regular basis.
What makes fast fashion possible, is the exploitation of people.
The industry is rife with unpaid labor or wage theft, unsafe working conditions, child labor, physical and verbal abuse, forced labor, and union restrictions.
- Paying a minimum wage is not the same as paying a livable wage.
- The average workday in manufacturing countries is 14-16 hours per day. 7 days a week.
- Buildings are not subject to ‘a safety code’. People are cramped into buildings exceeding maximum capacity with little ventilation, no protection from airborne toxins, no escape plan or route for fires or earthquakes, and little structural integrity.
- Employees are barred from forming labor unions.
- Women employees make up the majority of garment workers while males hold managerial positions which leads to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse in addition to a gender pay gap.
- Child labor laws are nonexistent or negligent at best forcing millions of children into labor which is often further exploited.
On the other hand, it can be argued that fast fashion gives women and low-income families an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise had. Although it is a low wage, it is still a wage.
While that may be true to some extent, at ( r e ) ˣ we believe people deserve to be treated like people. Why should you get labor unions and building safety codes and paid time off yet the people making the things you buy should settle for less?
what can we do about fast fashion and its environmental, social, and economic impacts?
Just as with climate change, or any answer to a complex problem, there is no ONE solution. Neither does the responsibility fall entirely on your shoulders.
But the worst thing you can do is to do nothing.
One of the most impactful things you can do is to stop buying new things (and stop buying them so often).
- Challenge yourself for a month, three months, or a year, to wear what you have, wear it often, repair it, and trade with friends if you need to refresh.
- Talk about it with other people.
- Prioritize what you already have - try to buy new as infrequently as possible. Wear what you have often, repair it, trade it, repeat.
YOU control your money.
YOUR money has power.
Make your voice heard, let it be known you demand change, sign petitions (like this one demanding Levis join the Pakistan accord), and follow ReMake to learn how (and when) you can take action.
You don’t need to be an activist but your actions matter! The first step in doing anything is recognizing the power we hold as consumers. It’s extremely important that we understand the effects fast fashion has on the environment, on people, and on culture so we can stop it from getting out of control.
Individual actions matter but the solution requires collective action from individuals, brands, policymakers, and communities.
By making conscious choices, such as supporting sustainable and ethical brands (like ( r e ) ˣ), embracing secondhand shopping, and advocating for transparency and fair labor practices, we can contribute to a shift toward a more responsible and equitable fashion system.
Want to Learn More? Check out Some Literature Around Fast Fashion
Educating yourself about the history of fast fashion and how we can move forward is a great place to begin your journey. Below are 8 books we recommend looking into to begin the journey.
Baby Steps: Fill Up Your Feed
- Learn about the intersection of sustainability, fashion, and textiles with Aja Barber on Instagram.
- Shop smarter with information on non-toxic and sustainable fashion with EcoCult on Instagram.
- Learn about the relationship between social justice and environmentalism with Leah Thomas (Green Girl Leah) on Instagram.
- Follow one of the most influential women in the UK climate movement as she focuses on making the climate movement a more accessible space. Follow Mikaela Loach on Instagram.
- Learn from the experts about ethical and sustainable fashion and greenwashing with Good On You via their email list and/or their app.
- Shop small sustainable businesses with Goodbuy. Go directly to their website or by installing their Chrome extension.
Go A Little Deeper: Fill Up Your Shelf
- Consumed: The Need for Collective Change; Colonialism, Climate Change and Consumerism by Aja Barber
- To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick–And How We Can Fight Back by Alden Wicker
- Wardrobe Crisis: How We Went From Sunday Best to Fast Fashion by Clare Press
- Fashionopolis, Why What We Wear Matters by Dana Thomas
- The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet by Leah Thomas
- It’s Not That Radical by Mikaela Loach
- Loved Clothes Last by Orsola de Castro
- Slave to Fashion by Safia Minney