The Environmental Price Tag on Fast Fashion
One garbage truck full of clothing is burned or sent to the landfill every second.
Let that sink in.
The promotional products industry is notoriously wasteful, and we are on a mission to lead necessary change in the industry. Moreover, we want to help our community find additional ways to be less wasteful in their everyday lives.
That brings me to the topic of conscious consumerism, and more specifically, the phenomenon that is fast fashion (looking at you, Zara and H&M). Fashion cycles have gotten increasingly shorter, trends come and go, and influencer culture is still on the rise. The result of this is that the average consumer is buying more clothes and wearing them for much shorter periods of time. In fact, by 2018 the average time a garment was worn was already at a 36% decline from the previous 15 years.
It is tough to blame the consumer. The rise of fast fashion has made it affordable for the average person in a middle class economy to participate in the latest trends. Early reports also showed that fast fashion has created jobs in developing countries. Between these two factors alone, one could be fooled into thinking fast fashion might be a good thing.
But alas, there are consequences to the fast fashion industry and they are unfortunately pretty dire.
Fast fashion, faster deterioration of the planet
According to the United Nations, the fashion industry alone produces up to 8% of the entire world’s carbon emissions. At the current rate, the fashion industry will use half of the world’s carbon budget in less than 30 years. If that wasn’t enough, clothing dye is the second largest water polluter across the globe.
Oh, and the textile making process is responsible for a massive amount of microplastics entering the ocean, which has disastrous effects on marine life and the increasingly fragile marine ecosystem.
Much of this clothing carries toxins and can take two centuries to biodegrade. The clothing that is tossed aside ends up polluting natural environments as pollutants are released into the air and into underground water supplies. In the Chilean desert, 39,000 tons of unsold clothing is dumped yearly into desert landfills. In 2019, somewhere between 55,000 and 74,000 tons of textile waste was shipped to Kenya from the Global North, polluting their waterways and air as they try to manage these excessive amounts of waste.
Who benefits and who suffers?
The demand for faster fashion cycles disproportionately impacts people in developing countries as the demand for cheap labor coincides with labor exported to countries where labor laws are either insufficient or poorly enforced. Not only do countries producing clothing to feed the fast fashion industry feel the immediate impacts of environmental contamination, but many people are also subject to abuse under the fast fashion business model.
98% of people making our clothing do not earn enough money to provide for themselves or their families. A shocking number of these workers are also under the age of 18, as the demand for more clothing pushes children into forced labor at long hours.
So while the price of clothing is cheap, it comes at a very expensive cost.
What do we do?
Clothing companies are aware of this issue, and the pushback over the past years to change their practices has led to some successes. Large fast fashion companies are developing sustainability practices and climate goals, but it is simply not happening fast enough nor to the degree it needs to be to stop destruction of the planet and improve the lives of garment workers. In fact, recent studies have found that many of the worst polluters have failed to improve at all when it comes to decarbonization and sustainable materials. This is disappointing, but maybe not too surprising.
On an individual level, it can be as simple as trying to get more clothing secondhand, taking the time to repair your clothing, or researching the brands that you purchase your clothing from on sites such as Good on You that rate brands based on their environmental and social impact. Maybe it means investing in a few good quality staple pieces for your closet, and forgoing the frequent shopping that ends up totaling the same amount in the long run.
At better., we are partnering with brands such as Allmade Apparel, Tentree, Cotopaxi and more as part of our stand against unethical practices in the clothing industry.
The good thing is that you don’t have to make perfect choices to make a difference, you just have to make better ones.