SEATTLE, Washington — “Fast fashion” describes brands who mass produce clothing, footwear and accessories to sell current trends in cheap retail stores. While these brands help many consumers afford current styles, fast fashion is detrimental to the environment. Mass production of clothing accounts for eight percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, placing fast fashion in “the top 5 of the most polluting industries in the world.” Plus, most major fast fashion brands produce clothing in developing countries, exploiting impoverished areas for natural resources. Here are some ways fast fashion causes environmental poverty.
China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and several poor Asian countries account for almost all textiles made for fast-fashion retailers. These countries and other predominantly non-white nations are the largest producers of textiles. It’s no coincidence that fast fashion brands are drawn here to produce their products. Loose environmental regulations in these countries allow retailers to mass-produce clothing without legal pushback.
Fast fashion causes environmental poverty through a volatile combination of water, chemicals and waste. Fast fashion “is responsible for the emission of 1.715 million tons of CO2 [and]79 billion cubic meters of water” every year.
The 2017 documentary RiverBlue discusses fast fashion’s “hydrocide,” or the contamination of clean water for commercial gain. The team discovered how factories “[flush water tainted with chemicals]directly into rivers and oceans.” Clothing manufactories also filter wastewater into irrigation systems, ending up in the food chain. Therefore, developing countries already struggling with water-borne illnesses now must concern themselves with factory waste as well.
Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink
To put the amount of water required to operate a fast fashion factory into perspective, “one cotton t-shirt uses enough drinking water to sustain one human for three years.” Cotton production also uses more pesticides than anything else in the world, heavily polluting waterways.
Additionally, fast fashion uses chemicals for dyeing and production, the most harmful to local environments being those used for denim and leather. While the EU and many other developed countries have banned some or all of those chemicals, developing countries have not. This is mainly due to their dependency on fast fashion work for poor citizens and economic growth.
A 2011 report by Greenpeace found harmful chemicals in the Pearl River Delta and the Yangtze River Delta, two major sources of water in China. These chemicals altered the hormones of animals, “[causing]the feminization of fish and reduced sperm count in men.” The chemicals came from the nearby factories that do business with major retailers like H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch and Adidas. Harmful substances like these are, therefore, major players in the growing threat to biodiversity. This is especially true in areas around fast fashion factories, notably in Bangladesh whose factories produce clothing for over 180 retailers.
The Trouble With Materials
Certain materials notoriously used in fast fashion are devastating to the environment as well. This includes polyester. Polyester in fast fashion is like high-fructose corn syrup in fast food: both are cheap materials used to reduce costs. Since factories make polyester with plastic, it takes hundreds of years to decompose. In addition, consumers constantly throw away polyester clothing due to its poor quality.
Acrylic and nylon, other widely used fabrics in fast fashion, are also synthetic. These fabrics, like polyester, are made from oil, thus contributing to carbon and fossil fuel emissions. Leather is also environmentally problematic since it comes from cows, animals that produce massive amounts of the greenhouse gas methane.
The Tides Change and So Do the Trends
Trends go in and out of style very quickly. While fashion brands used to only release collections for each season, fast fashion brands pump out new products much quicker. For instance, Fashion Nova releases “600 to 900 new styles every week” and Missguided drops 1,000 new items every month.
Furthermore, social media and influencers have created a wear-for-the-picture culture that rapidly buys and throws away clothes. This is clear in the information that “41% of 18- to 25-year-olds feel pressured to wear a different outfit every time they go out.” Additionally, the increasing prevalence of influencing as a career means many people rely on sponsorships with fast fashion brands in order to make a living.
Though fast fashion causes environmental poverty, it can be slowed or stopped by not buying from these mass-production brands. Quickly searching Google will reveal which brands are ethically sound. Good On You is a simple-to-use website and app that checks clothing companies’ ethical/sustainability ratings. If the website rates one badly, it provides similar options that are sustainable. Thrift shopping and thrifting/donating old clothing is another great way to cut back on clothing waste. Although fast fashion causes environmental poverty all around the world, anyone can make a difference simply by changing what they wear.
– Grace Ganz