Fashion has arguably taken the same downturn as the fast food industry; cheap, low quality clothes are found in abundance, taking a toll on the environment and low wage workers. This shift in shopping towards ‘disposable’ trendy clothes has thus been dubbed “fast fashion”.
Since the industrial revolution, household services like making clothes have been entirely outsourced to businesses. The advent of the commercial sewing machine made clothes cheaper and more abundant. While this allowed for greater accessibility, it also promoted overconsumption. By the late 1990’s, as speed and efficiency increased, low-cost fashion became the norm.
A few decades ago shopping was a chore of necessity, but it has now become an affordable hobby. There is a cost to fast fashion, however, and it is not reflected in the price tag. The emphasis on production speed means cutting corners in other areas, such as ethical and environmental responsibilities.
Fast fashion depends on quick and cheap labor, which often means garment workers operate in dangerous environments, for low pay, and without basic human rights. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh (2013) is an iconic example of mistreatment of garment workers. In this infamous disaster, 1,138 people died, and another 2,500 people were injured in what is considered the fourth largest industrial disaster in history. The building served as a massive garment factory for top fashion brands such as Joe Fresh, The Children’s Place, Mango, and Walmart, and it failed due to negligent management.
Some obvious environmental effects of the fast fashion industry have to do with the textiles and materials. Cheap dyes are often toxic and pollute water supplies, and inexpensive fabrics such as polyester are usually derived from fossil fuels, which has its own set of issues.
The environmental effects are not limited to the manufacturing level; plastic-based materials such as polyester are known to shed microplastics—plastic fragments that are less than five millimeters in length—with each wash. This contributes to the increasing concentrations of plastics found in water, and eventually in marine ecosystems and food chains. Read: there are probably microplastics in your sushi.
The lesser-recognized environmental effects have to do with life after use. Landfills are being filled by clothes at an alarming rate. In the 2011 EPA report of municipal solid waste (MSW), about 13 million tons—out of the 250 million tons of annual waste—were textiles. While this translates to only about 5% of all waste, textiles are among the top waste items that are rarely recycled. Only about 15% of disposed textiles get recycled. The turnover rate is also grotesquely swift. Trendy clothes that were once seen on store racks have been found in bulk in landfills within months of having a sale value.
So, are you a perpetrator of fast fashion? Do you buy cheap clothes that you don’t necessarily need? Do you shop at stores that regularly turn over their stock for more trendy selections? Do you buy an item for its style, knowing the material couldn’t possibly last more than a few wears?
If you answered yes to any of the above, you are most likely supporting fast fashion, and therefore encouraging companies to neglect environmental and ethical responsibilities with your own money.
The good news is that, if you are reading this, you have the power to make a change. The following guide shows the best things you can do in order of importance:
- Buy less. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. Your wallet and closet will thank you! If you need an outfit for a single event, consider renting it from sites like RentTheRunway.com, or borrowing from a friend.
- Buy second-hand. If you need to buy something, there is nothing greener than buying something that was already used or on its way to a landfill.
- Buy sustainably. If the funds are available, consider buying from highly-rated store like People Tree or Pact. You can use the Made For You app to browse more stores and view their ethical ratings.
- Buy smart. Sustainable clothes are often outside of the standard college student’s price range. In that case, prioritize finding items that will last. Think about how, when, and where you would wear the item if you bought it. How many wears would the item last? Prioritize functionality and durability over trendiness.
- Dispose responsibly. When you need to get rid of clothes, think about its alternate purposes. If you are donating, make sure to include only clothes that are actually wearable, including dirty underwear or socks with holes can make a donation pile look unworthy of sorting. If you deem an item unwearable, consider using them as rags.
Local Donation suggestions:
The Salvation Army: 699 Springfield Ave, Newark, NJ 07103
Goodwill Industries Store & Donation Center: 400 Supor Blvd, Harrison, NJ 07029