It's a term we hear more and more these days. It refers to the practice of producing large quantities of clothing, very quickly, for the lowest price possible. If you've heard of fast fashion, you probably also know that it isn't very good; but how bad is it really, and what are our options? The situation is worse than you may have guessed. The fashion industry not only has catastrophic effects on the environment; it also exploits workers by putting them in dangerous settings and making them work long hours for astronomically low wages.
Fashion is a big polluter. It is the second-largest polluter in the world (after the oil industry). As humans destroy the earth at an incredible rate and approach the point of no return, culprits such as the fashion industry cannot be ignored. The production of textiles and garments releases many harmful substances into the environment. The chemicals used on cotton plants are harmful to the soil and the farmers; they cause cotton farmers to die prematurely. Untreated wastewater is then dumped into rivers, polluting the environment.
Chemicals are used in every step of the clothes-making process; to make any mass of textiles, you need an equal mass of chemicals. In terms of carbon emissions (arguably the most significant problem humans face at the moment), the fashion industry accounts for 10% globally. 10% may seem like a small number but that’s 10% of 37 billion tons (in 2019). Aside from pollution, the fashion industry causes an immense amount of deforestation: it claims 70 million trees each year. Mongolia in particular is struggling greatly because of deforestation. To breed cashmere goats, 90% of Mongolia’s surface is in danger of being deforested. The fashion industry attacks the earth from two sides: carbon emissions contribute to global warming, and deforestation prevents that carbon from being absorbed.
So we’ve established that the fashion industry has disastrous effects on the environment. That must be all… right? Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but there’s more. Big companies are concerned with getting as much clothing as they can, as quickly as possible, for the lowest price. In the US, and other countries where they’re based, this is impossible. In order to pay all of the workers a living wage, and make sure that their factories are safe and up to standard, these companies would have to spend a lot more than they are willing to. So, what do they do? They outsource.
They ask a factory in Bangladesh or India to make the products for them. These factories are mysteriously able to produce the same items, for a much lower price; the big companies aren’t responsible for the methods that are used. Bangladesh is one of the biggest producers of textiles, but they have one of the lowest minimum wages. The people making the products are not paid a living wage, and the company that profits off of them doesn’t take any responsibility. These workers are severely underpaid: the minimum wage in textile-producing countries is 2-5 times lower than the living wage. Working conditions are also often dangerous and hours are unreasonable. Companies need to be held responsible for the working conditions of their sources. When given the choice between people and profits, they always choose wrong. They need policies that force them to care.
The problems I have mentioned are all large scale and seem overwhelming, but there are some small steps that everyone can take to reduce the harms of the fashion industry. The biggest thing you can do is to be a responsible consumer. Try to buy second-hand when possible. Second-hand stores have more clothes than they know what to do with; take the time to look through the racks, and you’re sure to find some great pieces. Buying second-hand is also a great way to be more environmentally friendly while saving money too.
If you are going to buy new, choose items made from organic, natural fibres, or choose clothes made in countries with stricter environmental regulations. Instead of rayon, modal, or viscose, choose lyocell/Tencel. (Lyocell can be recycled and is renewable. Tencel is a brand of lyocell that is produced from sustainably farmed eucalyptus trees.) Choose sustainable brands and research where your clothing was produced. Sadly, some people care more about money than people; stop supporting them financially, and you’ll hit them where it hurts.
When purchasing any item of clothing, check to see that it is well made and that it will last a long time. Check the stitches to see that the thread is strong and that there are no missed stitches. Pull the fabric to see if the material keeps its shape and that the stitches don’t become loose. Check the thickness of the fabric by holding it up to a light, and check the zippers (metal ones are stronger than plastic ones, and YKK zippers are generally strong). If there is a spare button included with the garment, and if the pattern matches up at the seams, these are both signs of quality. Well-made items need to be replaced less frequently, and part of reducing the negative effect of the fashion industry is increasing the lifespan of each item. (Most items of clothing are kept for 3 years before being discarded.)
In addition to making sure that the item is well made, there are other ways to increase the lifespan of an item. When buying new, try to prioritize high quality, staple pieces that you know you won't get sick of; items you can wear for years to come. If you want a more adventurous staple piece, try to find something similar in a thrift store. It’s a good idea to have a needle and thread so that you can do basic repairs on your clothing. Most items can be repaired fairly easily if they get a small tear, and knowing how to do this can greatly extend the lifetime of an item. Finally, when you need to get rid of your clothing, donate it or put it in the textiles bin (if it cannot be donated).
The world seems like a scary and overwhelmingly hopeless place. As long as doing the wrong thing is more profitable, people seem incapable of good. It’s up to the next generation to prioritize people over profits. Creating policies that hold big companies accountable is much more efficient, but there are also changes that we can make in our everyday lives to reduce the harmful effects of the fashion industry.