Fast Fashion & Its Environmental Impact

image of woman shopping. Concept of fast fashion and it's impact on the environment
When we think of fashion, the environment is usually not something we think of. Fashion is more often thought of as the popular practice of wearing clothing, shoes, and accessories along with hair and makeup. Fashion is a business, a tradition, a lifestyle - not an environmental issue. Beautiful window displays and fashion shows don’t exactly conjure up images of the environment, in fact, they fail to communicate the relationship fashion has with the environment and its impact on the environment. A relationship the fast fashion industry would rather not talk about, but a subject we believe is important, and you should too.

Fashion creates a distinctive trend or style in a particular era that influences culture and transforms people. In much the same way, the fashion industry also has an influence, but this time on the environment. Fast fashion environmental impact is real and important because the environment affects us. The impact fashion has is not just on our economy and wallets, but also on the planet.

Every piece of clothing we buy has an impact on our environment, even before we bring it home.

Image of bar code and year. concept of eco fashion
With awareness and technology, we can manufacture and purchase environmentally friendly clothing and shoes to lessen our impact. We can use fashion for a good cause and help the environment, but first, let’s tackle the question: what is fast fashion?

Fast fashion is a term used to express the concept that designs, and thus clothing, move directly and quickly from the runway to retail stores. Fast fashion captures the latest fashion trends and styles and manufactures clothing immediately to satisfy demand, season after season. The production focuses on and optimizes certain aspects of the supply chain in order to produce these designs quickly and inexpensively. Marketing efforts target the mainstream consumers, persuading the public to buy current clothing styles. These styles are often set at a low price, making them attractive to consumers and inexpensive enough to replace one season’s garments with the next.

But this strategy is costly and wasteful. 

Manufacturing quickly and at an affordable price is a common philosophy used in large retailers such as H&M, Zara, and Topshop. Zara is considered the leader of fast fashion and is synonymous with the term. Fast fashion came to the forefront during the mid-2000s “boho chic” era with its cheap offerings. 
Image of woman going through clothes.

Referred to as ‘quick response’ and developed in the U.S. in the 1980’s, fast fashion arose from a product-driven manufacturing system and then in the 1990s moved into a market-based system of ‘fast fashion.’ Fast fashion has now become associated with disposable fashion, as in dumping fashion on the market and consumers dumping last year’s trends on the environment.

In stark opposition to fast fashion, a movement has arisen dubbed ‘slow fashion.’ Slow fashion aims to blame its evil twin for the environmental issues fast fashion creates. There is the pollution created in the production of clothes and shoes and in the deterioration of synthetic fabrics that accumulate in the land and oceans. There is the quick and careless workmanship typical of fast fashion clothing that is rushed through an assembly line straight to market.

Fast fashion emphasizes very brief fashion trends over classic and timeless style.

Fast fashion is often criticized heavily for contributing to poor and dangerous working conditions in factories, most often found in developing countries. For example, in 2013 the Savar building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring approximately 2,500. It is the deadliest fashion-related accident in world history. A tragedy that could have been avoided, had it not been for the dangers posed by underfunded factories. These factories are housed in old buildings with improper safety standards and procedures. Fast fashion benefits from the low costs, but people suffer and so does the environment.  

Producing clothing requires many resources from the environment. Every step of the process draws on scarce resources that many developing countries depend on, but are sold off to finance the fashion industry. Water consumption is among the most important resources used by the industry, accounting for millions of liters consumed annually.

For example, jeans are a popular fashion staple; there are an estimated two billion pairs of jeans manufactured every year around the world

  • A standard pair of jeans requires almost 2,000 gallons of water to produce!
  • A t-shirt requires over 700 gallons of water to produce.

That is about the amount of water the average person drinks over the course of 900 days.

Piles of jeans.

Along with water, there is the dying process used to produce colorful fabrics. Chemicals are used to dye garments in large containers, which are then washed out with water that is often not treated to remove the chemicals and finds its way into the environment. It is estimated that around 1.7 million tons of chemicals are used annually in the dyeing industry, containing hazardous chemicals like PFCs that can leave a permanent impact on the environment and the people living there.

In the world of fast fashion, many garments are discarded after just one season with little use. These items eventually end up in a landfill or the ocean. There is also the clothing that doesn’t make it to retail shops to consider. There are an estimated 400 billion square meters of textiles produced annually to satisfy demand, but 60 billion square meters are unused and left on the cutting room floor as scrapes to be thrown away. Of the 80 billion pieces of clothing produced each year worldwide, three out of four garments will end up in a landfill or be incinerated and only a quarter will be recycled.

Donating clothing is a great way of extending the life of your clothing, but not all clothing can be recycled. H&M’s aim to collect and recycle 1,000 tons of used clothing during World Recycling Week, for example, is a noble feet, but does not create a meaningful impact as only one percent of collected clothing can be used as recycled fibers.

A combination of lower prices and reduced demand lessen the incentive for companies to collect used textiles according to a report by UK-based NGO WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Program). This can cause more clothing to be destined for a landfill. An issue WRAP is perusing by working with governments, businesses, and communities to deliver practical solutions to improve resource management and efficiency.

Their mission is to accelerate the move toward a sustainable, resource-efficient economy, a goal the garment industry could use.

But the industry, and our environment, could also use our help. We can make a difference by where we choose to shop and how often. Choosing to shop at retailers that don’t employ fast fashion techniques is among the best ways you can lessen your impact on the environment. Fast fashion has created an industry dominated by supply and driven by an artificial demand; we are conditioned to buy a lot of clothing and often. But how did we get this way?

Many factors have lead to the fast fashion culture, from fashion bloggers and vloggers to becoming famous on social media; fashion has become a fleeting commodity. Wearing the same outfit has become unfashionable according to the online fashion police, leading many to purchase more clothing before outwearing the current clothing they have. This strategy means big business for fast fashion retailers who have seen the exponential growth of 9.7 percent per year, outpacing the 6.8 percent growth of traditional apparel companies.

This extreme growth curve has carved out a massive profit for retailers but at the expense of the environment and our collective conscious.

This trend toward fast fashion and consumerism hasn’t always been the norm but is a recent event that is only now coming to light. The industry has done a good job of keeping the ramifications from the public, choosing instead to only advertise the pros of the industry while leaving out the cons. Americans lead the fast fashion pack, consuming up to three times as much as their predecessors did only fifty years ago, and they buy twice as many items of clothing as they did just twenty years ago according to Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth by Juliet B. Shore. Furthermore, the average American bought 34 items of clothing per year in 1991, by 2007, Americans were buying 67 new items per year. If you do the math, that equates to a new piece of clothing every few days.

This is simply not a sustainable industry both on an environmental level and a social level. So what can we do to help fix the fast fashion problems? You may think you can’t help the impact the industry has, but all problems and solutions begin with you. You can start by not contributing to the issue by staying away from impulse purchases and reusing clothing. You can shop at retailers who do not employ the cheap, fast fashion model and you can share this information with others.

Shopping for new clothing that is sustainable or shopping for used clothing are among the best options to lessening your impact on the environment while still enjoying shopping and the fashion industry.

Fast fashion is not only a detriment to the environment, but also to the industry as it trivializes and sacrifices the history and beauty of clothing.

Fashion does not have to be fast to be chic. Wearing environmentally friendly clothing is becoming more viable as retailers respond to public demand. You, the consumer, have the power to alter the course of the industry and save the planet.  


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