In theory, fast fashion sounds great. We flood the ubiquitous stores in Orchard Road in pursuit of fashionable and cheap clothing. We wear the trends, and then discard them when the style fades into obscurity. And the process repeats itself. To the average consumer, we want to wear popular styles at affordable prices, and our favourite stores- H&M, Zara, Topshop, Cotton On- they help us do exactly that. But beyond the price tag we see in stores, there is a greater cost embedded in every purchase.
Fast Fashion is the second dirtiest industry in the world, after Big Oil
You got that right. You’ve seen pictures and videos of oil- black gold- dumped in the oceans, killing off marine life, pictures of smoke rising into the sky and choking our lungs. Fast fashion does the same thing, just lesser known. Fast fashion is generating more greenhouse gas emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The problem is so bad that the United Nations has called it an “environmental and social emergency”.
In production, fast fashion causes a lot of environmental damage. Cotton is a thirsty plant, and it requires LOTS of water, along with lots of pesticides, to grow. In a documentary called The True Cost, the adverse impacts of using chemicals in agriculture resulted in the death of an American cotton farmer from a brain tumour, and serious birth defects in the children of Indian cotton farmers.
Our bright, beloved fabrics are dyed in toxic processes (with a lot of the harmful residue just dumped into water sources). As reported by the Independent, Greenpeace’s recent Detox campaign has been instrumental in pressuring fashion brands to take action to remove toxic chemicals from their supply chains, after it tested a number of brands’ products and confirmed the presence of hazardous chemicals. Many of these are banned or strictly regulated in various countries because they are toxic, bio-accumulative (meaning the substance builds up in an organism faster than the organism can excrete or metabolise it), disruptive to hormones and carcinogenic.
Furthermore, factory workers in countries such as Bangladesh are often paid close to nothing and work in unsafe conditions. There have been cases of factory buildings collapsing and killing textile workers due to neglect regarding safety. Additionally, child labour is often employed (although big conglomerations like Inditex would be quick to deny those claims).
And that’s just how the clothes are made.
Many of our clothes are also made from synthetic materials such as polyester and viscose. When we wash our clothes, the tiny plastic threads are shed from the garment and eventually make their way into the water supply. These microfibres are so tiny that they are most often not filtered out, and they are not biodegradable either- so they float around in our rivers, lakes, and seas. Marine organisms eat these plastic fibres, eventually making its way up the food chain to us. When you think about it, when you eat seafood, you are eating plastic as well. Because of your clothes. Yuck.
And then we buy the clothes and wear them. We feel good because we are being trendy and fashionable. Predictably, it falls out of style and we never wear that $19.90 blouse ever again. So what do we do? We throw it away. The Copenhagen Fashion Summit reported that fashion is responsible for 92 million tons of solid waste dumped in landfills each year.
You might say, “Oh, but companies like H&M have recycling incentives and sustainable clothing lines!”
The truth is that it is mostly greenwashing, essentially a marketing campaign to ease our consciences. Read more about the truth of these recycling programs here: https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/clothes-recycling-marketplace-1.4493490. Only 0.7% of H&M’s clothing is made of recycled material. The production and business model does not change.
So what am I supposed to do as a consumer?
- Buy secondhand clothing. Thrifting is a great way to get unique vintage finds, while giving old clothes a new lease of life.
- Purchase clothes made out of organic materials. Labels like Stella McCartney and Eileen Fisher have notably been rehauling the industry by changing their business models to be more sustainable, such as by using organic fabrics and reducing emissions.
- Donate your old clothes instead of throwing them away. Rather than ending up in landfill, give your clothes to someone who needs it.
- If you really cannot turn away from the good deals at Zara, at the very least, cut down on the amount you buy. Carefully think about whether the clothing you buy is absolutely necessary, instead of mindless consumption.
Ultimately, these companies (Inditex, I’m looking at you) need to change their business models and make them more sustainable. But this may be very far away. Till then, buy less and use what you have for longer.