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  • Writer's pictureKara M. Zone

Fast Fashion, By Design

When was the last time you made a cheap clothing purchase? Sure, it’s convenient to buy a $5 shirt from the mall. But just because you can’t see the environmental damage, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. As the threat of global warming and irreversible damage becomes increasingly severe, consumers must consider how their shopping habits affect the environment. Though it’s not as prominent of an offender, the clothing industry seriously impacts the Earth.

Some argue that clothing companies must be responsible for their production methods. But, consumers neglect to consider what they’re funding through their purchases. Clothing producers cannot be expected to be the moral compass when they’re making a substantial profit. Consumers not only need to be informed, but they also need to act on the information they have. There’s no excuse for being willfully ignorant and shirking personal responsibility.

The Current State of Fast Fashion

A $5 pair of pants seems like a no-brainer for bargain hunters. These items are low-quality, but they’re great for matching ever-changing trends. Clothing companies recognize consumers’ desire to buy cheaper, trendy pieces. According to Investopedia, stores may introduce several new styles of clothing multiple times a week, producing millions of shoddy, foreign-made pieces to keep prices low. Some of the most well-known fast fashion producers include Target, Uniqlo, H&M, Forever 21, and Zara.

Landfill Contribution

Consumers’ support for fast fashion leads to an inexcusable amount of waste. According to the World Resources Institute, consumers are buying 60% more clothing pieces since 2000 but are only keeping the pieces for half as long. It’s easy to throw away clothes and not consider where they go.

According to CBS News, there are more than 25 million pounds of discarded clothing by U.S. consumers per year. Large numbers like this are hard to visualize, but what if it’s in the context of garbage truckloads? The average capacity of a garbage truck is 11 tons, according to Heil. By that measure, U.S. annual clothing waste is equivalent to over 1.13 million garbage trucks full of clothing. And much of is still wearable.

Consumers also buy more items than they ever have. It’s easier to discard a cheap piece. But all that waste adds up. U.N. reports that U.S. consumers waste more than $500 billion worth of clothing per year. And the amount of waste isn’t slowing down anytime soon. According to the Global Fashion Agenda, the fashion industry will produce around 63% more waste by 2030. The Economist investigated clothing waste and possible ways to reduce it, and its findings are shown in this video.

Many people donate or recycle clothing, reducing the impact of their waste. But that’s not enough to stop the problem. The Global Fashion Agenda reports that only 20% of clothing is collected for reuse and recycling. Some may argue that clothing degrades quickly, reducing the amount of time it spends in a landfill. However, popular synthetic fabrics like polyester can take 20 to 100 years to decompose, according to Close the Loop.

Consider that the polyester shirt or nylon skirt you throw away today will sit in a landfill for the next couple of decades. It’s irresponsible not to consider this, and consumers need to stop ignoring the problem. Is your style more important than the planet you live on?

Waste of Water

Not only does fast-fashion fill landfills and increase global greenhouse gas emissions, but it also wastes one of the world’s most valuable resources: water.

According to the World Resources Institute, it would take one person over two years to drink the amount of water needed to make one cotton shirt. Cotton is a crop that requires a large amount of water. The impact is particularly serious because cotton is one of the most common fibers used in clothing. The clothing industry severely impacts bodies of water as a result. The Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, largely used for cotton irrigation, is drying up from overuse, according to National Geographic.

On the left is the Aral Sea in 2000; on the right is it in 2014.

National Geographic.

Additionally, it’s not just that the industry uses too much water. It’s also polluting water. Accordin

g to the World Resources Institute, about 20% of industrial water pollution is due to clothing production. By 2030 the clothing industry is projected to use 50% more water than it did in 2015, according to the Global Fashion Agenda.

Consumers must consider if cheap, trendy clothing is worth depleting bodies of water or polluting water. No one should be able to answer that being fashionable honestly is more important than any environmental impact they’re making.

Improving the Future

For anything to change, consumers must start taking responsibility for the sustainability of their clothing. One of the easiest methods is to donate and resell clothing instead of discarding. Consumers can repair slightly damaged but still wearable pieces. They can also buy used clothing or rent instead of purchasing all brand-new pieces. Also, spending a little more on higher-quality pieces that’ll last longer will reduce waste and reduce the need to buy new clothing. There’s little excuse for consumers to buy all of their clothing from fast-fashion retailers.

Buying without thinking about the wider implications is lazy. It’s easier not to have to think about how clothing is produced, but consumers must take responsibility for what they’re supporting with their purchases. The industry is driven by consumers’ desire to have cheap and trendy pieces. Fast fashion wouldn’t exist if consumers didn’t place their happiness and personal convenience above anything else. If we all place sustainability at a high priority, clothing producers will have no choice but to adapt to make money. If better quality and more environmentally friendly production is a widespread desire of consumers, then fast fashion may someday slow down.

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