Fast and furious: How the fashion industry is wreaking havoc on the environment

Like many other industries, the realm of fashion is ruled by consumers.

While designers may decide trends, experts in fashion design and marketing say it’s still the consumers who dictate what they want, how they want it and when they want it. As technology and social media continue to grow, consumers’ demands have become more and more urgent.

The term fast fashion gained popularity in the 1990s, and was coined to describe the quick movement of trends from the runway to consumers at a low price point. This movement saw tremendous growth in the 2000s, and the popularity of fast fashion retailers today are at an all time high today.

Beth Weigle an instructor in the Textiles, Merchandising and Interiors department of the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia focuses on historic dress and trend forecasting.  She says fast fashion has become a phenomenon.

“We’ve got this ability now with globalization to see what consumers want, and this is the shortest time lag we’ve ever seen in history, of the time it takes to put out something out that consumers want,” Weigle said.

Though fast fashion is revolutionary in making trends accessible for almost everyone, environmentalists and even fashion experts it has also had a largely negative impact on the environment.

The two main factors of fast fashion are speed and price, which have led to quick turnovers both for manufacturers and consumers. Zara, a huge global fast fashion retailer, used to roll out new products every couple of weeks. However, now they send new merchandise out to their stores twice a week.

“Obviously the problem then with retailers being able to put out a new trend so fast, is do you want your consumers to be going through items or trends that quickly, which means throwing more clothes potentially into the landfill,” Weigle said.

As fast fashion products are being produced and purchased in a short amount of time, they consequently have a very short life cycle. In order to be manufactured at a low price point, fast fashion products are mainly made with cheap materials, not built to withstand the test of time.

The brevity of the life cycle of fast fashion products causes multiple environmental issues. After consumers are done with these items they do one of two things: take them to thrift or consignment stores, or simply throw them away.

However, there are major problems with both of these options.

Many people think that they are doing a good deed when they donate their unwanted clothing to thrift and charity stores, but what they are unaware of is that only around 20% of items donated actually get sold.

So what happens to the other 80% of donated clothing? It piles up in landfills in the U.S. and across the world.

According to the 2015 documentary The True Cost, directed by Andrew Morgan, the average American produces 82 pounds of textile waste per year.




(Graphic/Emily Williams, 2017)


This number quickly adds up. In a 2014 report from the Environmental Protection Agency, it states that there was 16.22 million tons of textile waste that year alone.

Of that number, 16.2% of textile waste was recycled, 19.4% was combusted and 64.5% was landfilled.

Even more alarming was an additional study done in 2014 by the Environmental Protection Agency that showed an increase in textile waste over the previous decades.

In 1960, 1.76 million tons of textile waste was generated. In 1980, 2.53 million tons of textile waste was generated. By 2000, that number had more than tripled to 9.48 million tons of textile waste.

(Graphic/Emily Williams, 2017)

According to Weigle, consumers need to be cognizant of this issue when purchasing items.

“There’s no excuse for consumers to not be thinking about every item they’re buying. At this point you’ve got to just picture anything you’re buying going into a landfill,” Weigle said.

In addition creating waste, fast fashion has also made it nearly impossible for that waste to be broken down.

Many fast fashion products are made with materials like polyester, acrylic and nylon, which take hundreds (if not more) years to biodegrade. Even clothing made from naturally derived materials like cotton, silk and linen causes issues, because even though they are organic, most times they have been chemically or synthetically processed.

These processes, such as dyeing and printing, prohibit the garments from being burned because doing so would release toxins into the air. Processed clothing is not safe in landfills either, as in some cases they can cause chemical leakage into underground water sources if the landfill is not correctly made.

Many fast fashion product nowadays are made with a blend of fibers, which can also cause problems when it comes to biodegradation.

“Another problem with recycling is that if you do a blend, 50% polyester, 50% cotton, you can’t recycle it because it’s too much of a blend. If you’re going to go natural fiber you need to go 100%,” Weigle said.

Although the problems with textile waste are tremendous, small steps are being taken by some designers and fast fashion retailers to combat these issued.

Stella McCartney, the designer behind her own eponymous brand has been one of the few designers who prioritizes ethics and sustainability when creating her lines.

H&M, the Swedish fast fashion retailer has also been making major changes to combat its environmental impact. They launched what they call the “Conscious Collection” of clothing made only from sustainable materials that still fall into an affordable price range.

H&M also created an initiative to encourage the recycling of clothes, setting up bins in their stores for customers to drop off old or unwanted clothes, and in return giving them discounts.

Manufacturers and designers are beginning to do their part to reduce their environmental impact, and consumers can do the same. The following are small steps consumers can take to lessen their effect on textile waste.

Resell clothing

Technology in the form of apps like Poshmark, and Facebook pages make it easy for consumers to directly sell their unwanted clothing to other people. As Weigle puts it, “Really there’s no excuse to put something in a Goodwill pile because you can make money back on it in an easy way.”

Repurpose unwearable clothing

For items that are too worn or old to be donated, turning them into rags or even new garments can extend their lifestyle and prevent them from clogging up landfills.

Be a smart shopper

While shopping, focus on pieces you will wear in your everyday life that can be paired with multiple items you already own instead of whatever is popular at the moment. Or, as Weigle says, “Buying quote unquote staple pieces, instead of something so trendy it borders on a fad.”

Be an informed consumer

Do research and become educated on fabrics and brands by utilizing smartphones, tablets, websites and apps. “We’re all very knowledgeable, we always have our hands on our phones, why not use that to become more sustainable in the process,” said Weigle.

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