Slowing Down Fast Fashion
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Does it feel like fashion trends are coming and going faster than ever? If you answered yes, you’d be right. For decades, fashion seasons consisted of summer, spring, fall, and winter. However, with increased consumer demand and the rise of online shopping, the four fashion seasons are no more. Now there are 52 micro-seasons. Yes, you read that correctly: one season for every week of the year.
Fast fashion uses design and manufacturing methods that aim to produce the highest number of garments in the shortest amount of time and at the lowest cost possible. This method of production usually consists of using the cheapest -- and therefore lowest quality -- fabric available while paying the garment factory workers the lowest wages possible. The aim is to keep profit margins high, while churning out new designs to satiate consumers who are now accustomed to buying new trends almost weekly. Fast fashion puts a huge strain on the environment, while also harming people’s health, safety, and livelihoods.
The environmental harm of the fast fashion industry starts with the fabric. Manufacturers find the cheapest fabric possible for every piece they make, and that option is almost always synthetic. Synthetic fabrics -- nylon, rayon, and polyester, to name a few -- are made of plastic.
When these synthetic garments are washed, thousands of small bits of the fabric -- called microplastics -- shed off and slip past a washing machine’s filtration system. These microplastics often end up in our waterways and very slowly break down, releasing toxic chemical compounds in the process. Fish and other wildlife regularly consume microplastics and the toxins that come along with them.
In addition to microplastic pollution, the fast fashion industry often dumps toxic wastewater containing dyes and chemicals leftover from the manufacturing process. The fashion industry is the second-most polluting industry in the world, behind only the oil industry.
Finally, because trends come and go so quickly, consumers are filling landfills with garments. About 25.5 billion pounds of clothing are thrown into landfills every year in the United States alone.
Harm to People
Fast fashion is both an environmental and a human rights issue. The toxic chemicals and dyes are a huge threat to the health and safety of the employees who construct the clothes, as well as people living near toxic dumping sites.
Many companies outsource their manufacturing to countries with lax labor laws, where they can get away with paying workers less to increase profit margins. The conditions these workers are forced to work in can be hazardous to their health and safety.
When you lay out all of the damage that fast fashion does to people and the environment, it can seem overwhelming. But there are so many ways you as a consumer can do your part to slow down fast fashion.
You can use the Four R’s -- Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle -- to guide your approach to purchasing clothes (or most things, really).
- Refuse: Avoid excessive consumption by only buying pieces you need and know you will wear for a long time. Try to avoid brands that have been linked to environmental degradation and labor rights violations.
- Reduce: Buy second-hand from thrift stores whenever possible, or set up clothing swaps with your friends or in your neighborhood. These actions reduce the demand for garments, save you money, and can strengthen relationships within your community! When you are unable to find what you’re looking for second-hand or want to be sure that the piece is of high quality, invest in pieces from sustainable companies. These pieces will last much longer and feel better than cheaply made clothes. To reduce the amount of microplastics shedding from your clothes, consider using a microplastic filter bag when you wash clothes made from synthetic materials.
- Reuse: When it’s time to say goodbye to a piece, offer it to friends, family, neighbors, etc. If no one you know is interested, donate it to a local thrift store.
- Recycle: If you have garments that cannot be donated, consider using a service like TerraCycle to recycle them. You may also be able to find local clothing recycling centers in your area.
The truth is that cheap, trendy clothes are made possible by environmental degradation and human rights abuses. We need to shift the culture around clothes. We can call out mainstream brands that pollute or exploit people, and refuse to buy from them unless they change their ways. Fast fashion was a response to consumer demand, so we as consumers have the power to shift demand to more sustainably and ethically made clothing. It all starts with everyday people deciding to align their shopping habits with their love for the planet and humankind.