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The Underlying Environmental Problems with the Fast Fashion Industry

by Ella Hartmanis

      After looking through my closet, I realized that I don’t wear half of the clothes that I own. So I asked myself, why don’t I wear them anymore? Well, the answer is simple: they are no longer in style. The mustard-colored Brandy Melville sweater that I wore at most four times has been hanging in my closet for over a year. It remains untouched and will likely never be worn again, simply because it isn’t considered stylish anymore. My relatively inexpensive sweater seemed like such a great purchase at the time, but similar to many of my peers, I have fallen into the trap of fast fashion.

      Fast fashion is inexpensive clothing that is rapidly mass-produced to mimic new fashion trends as seen on celebrities or the catwalk. Stores like Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters constantly produce new clothing in order to keep up with the latest trends. With cute clothes at relatively low prices, these brands among others, appeal to shoppers who don’t want to or are unable to spend a significant amount of money on high end and designer clothing. 

      A key part of fast fashion businesses’ strategy is deeply discounted and frequent sales. When I first bought my $10 skirt from Tilly’s, I was elated because I thought it was an awesome bargain, but I soon realized that I didn’t even like it and it fell apart after one wear. With frequent discounts, these companies make shoppers feel like they are getting a “great deal”, stimulating demand; however, this is merely a ploy for companies to get rid of stale inventory to make room for “trendier” clothes. 

      One major concern with fast fashion is that the process of creating a new item of clothing has a huge environmental impact. According to Tree Hugger, it takes approximately 1,800 gallons of water to produce the cotton used in a single pair of jeans. Additionally, dyes and textile treatment account for 20 percent of industrial water pollution, according to Scrip. The dyes contain chemicals that harm marine life, soil, and are a threat to human health when they contaminate water. The fashion industry is also responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions. Since 1960, textile waste has increased by approximately 750 percent, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The waste is a result of the massive volume of clothing produced by fast fashion companies. In addition, this percentage has risen as consumers have continued to buy more pieces of clothing than they wear. 

      Along with the enormous ecological damage, the fast fashion industry exploits cheap labor. They rely on sweatshops to produce their products cheaply and quickly. Consequently, sweatshop workers are frequently overworked and underpaid. For example, at a BooHoo sweatshop in the United Kingdom, workers were being paid only £3.50 an hour, which is less than $5 US; however, BooHoo has made £856.9 million in revenue, which is greater than $1.1 billion, according to Euro News. Historically, fast fashion companies have been able to use unregistered sweatshops because they aren’t directly affiliated with the manufacturers, meaning that they operate without government regulation and many have poor working conditions, according to Green America. They outsource their production to suppliers who most often employ unauthorized manufacturers - working without government regulations. 

      Over the past several years, there has been a rise in eco-friendly fashion. Popular stores including Levis and Nike are part of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition whose vision is to rid the textile industry of unnecessary environmental harm. Patagonia is also part of the coalition and is one of the most well-known sustainable clothing brands. Patagonia uses recycled fabrics and has created multiple programs that aim to reduce their waste and repair existing clothing. If your Patagonia clothing is damaged from wear and tear, they will either fix it for free or return a portion of your money in exchange for the article of clothing. Patagonia also has a program called Worn Wear that resells worn Patagonia clothing at reduced prices thus giving clothing a second life. By reusing clothing, Patagonia helps to reduce consumption and generate less waste. 

      Thrift stores are also a great way to shop because it gives clothing a second life, reducing manufacturing and consumption levels. There has also been growth in online thrift stores and companies, like Rent the Runway, which rents clothing instead of selling it. This allows articles of clothing to be worn multiple times, such as a prom dress or bridesmaid gown, which otherwise may be worn only once. 

      So, next time when you are shopping, whether online or in a store, consider your purchase before making it. Is this brand sustainable? Why am I making this purchase? Will I wear the item a lot? By asking yourself these questions before buying something new, it will help you to become a more sustainable shopper and protect the environment.

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