The fashion industry is much more complicated than current trends and cute clothes. Rather, it’s an entire system.
From the textiles and raw materials, production, shipping, retail, and finally, where the garment goes when you decide you no longer want it, how we chose to consume and buy our clothing affects our planet in ways that will last lifetimes longer than this season’s latest trends.
So what exactly is fast fashion?
It’s defined as the process of the design, creation, and marketing of clothing, specifically the way in which it emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available. And as the demand for clothing increases, brands evolved to find ways to keep up with consumer appetite.
By relying on mostly underpaid factory labor overseas, along with the use of cheap materials that are harmful to our planet, fast fashion brands are able to speedily boost clothing production at increasingly lower prices to meet the needs of buyers.
First, let’s discuss the cheap, outsourced factory labor that many fast fashion companies utilize that is more often than not a hotspot for worker exploitation.
Fast fashion brands outsource production to factories in developing countries that are not directly affiliated with the brands. Therefore, without this affiliation, the brands have no legal responsibility to ensure proper and safe working conditions and appropriate levels of pay.
This paired with aggressively high production targets and pressure from the brands to crank out garments as quickly as possible creates an inevitable environment of exploitation.
In addition, women make up the majority of laborers in these types of production factories, and The True Cost reported that roughly 85% of all garment workers are women.
In many cases, this leads to the disproportionate infliction of physical, mental, and sexual harm on women.
The textile and fashion industries also impact the environment in harmful ways, which causes irreversible damage to our planet.
As we’ve mentioned before, fast fashion trends shift very quickly. With prices so low, and the lifetime of trends growing increasingly shorter, fashion is now considered disposable. For example, according to The Environmental Protection Agency, the average American throws away nearly 70 pounds of clothing per year. This means that it’s become possible for consumers to wear these cheaply produced garments only a handful of times, and then simply replace them with next season’s trends without giving much thought to where their clothing will end up.
In some cases, the clothing is disposed through incineration or landfill deposits, and both are hazardous to the environment and release toxic chemicals during their long decomposing process.
Consumers also dispose of old clothing by donating to thrift stores. But much of what is donated is never repurchased. So, where do the garments go? If the unsold clothes don’t immediately go to landfills or incinerators, they are often shipped off to third world countries, where they create unbeatable competition for local clothing makers.
And the cheap materials and textiles known as synthetic fabrics that fast fashion brands are harmful too. These fabrics contain microfibers, tiny threads that are shed from the fabric. So tiny, in fact, that they cannot be captured in the filtration systems at water treatment plants. The microfibers are then able to infiltrate our natural water systems and contaminate our food chain.
These industries have other impacts on the planet as well.
What can we do about this?
One of the first steps is to recognize the culture of western overconsumption, and to accept that we consume way beyond the actuality of our needs. Simply put, the industry is driven by consumer demand. If we buy only the clothing that we need, rather than submitting to the never ending and insatiable cycle of trends, we force the fashion industry to reconsider their methods of production.
And when we do purchase clothing, we must always keep sustainability in mind in order to shift the demand towards ethically and sustainably made garments, produced using high-quality materials. The elimination of synthetic textiles and fabrics in clothing production can prevent harmful synthetics and microfibers from ending up in the natural environment.
A good way to know if the products you buy are always ethical and sustainable is to purchase from fair trade clothing brands. These are brands that produce garments using exclusively ethical methods, are never mass-produced in sweatshops, and are often handmade and unique, all with the interests and fair treatment of workers at the forefront of their mission. Working with developing countries, they provide dignified and empowering employment opportunities and create fair and ethical working conditions.
However, buying fair trade can be expensive. This is why purchasing secondhand clothing is also advantageous. Using apps and online marketplaces like Depop to buy and sell old clothing removes the amount of textile waste that is sent to landfills or developing countries.
Overall, how we chose to consume is a responsibility that we all share that affects the future of our planet.