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The Impact Of Fast Fashion And 7 Ways To Avoid It

Last updated on : June 02 2020

Woman browsing through clothing rack in thrift store.

Fast Fashion

With deforestation, water scarcity, and global warming altering the environment and threatening the lives of millions of species—humans included—we need to start thinking of all how our consumption contributes to climate change.

That means it's no longer enough just to turn the lights off when you're not using them, or to use public transport now and then.

Sure, these are essential things to bear in mind, but if we want to curb global warming, we need to change the way we think of consumption.

One of the most publicized ways in which consumers contribute to climate change is through fast fashion.

According to studies by the World Bank, the fashion industry consumes as much as 93 billion cubic meters of water, dumps half a million plastic fibers in the ocean and contributes to 10% of carbon emissions every year.

If we carry on with our current model of fashion retail, that number will surge over the next ten years, resulting in an entirely unsustainable impact on our planet.

Origins Of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is a term that you've probably heard if you've heard anything about the environmental impact of the fashion industry. In a nutshell, fast fashion is the term applied to the unsustainable and wasteful methods currently employed by fashion brands worldwide. Although now we see it this way, it wasn't always the case.

For decades, clothing retail was all about custom-made and tailored clothes, dominated by high-class fashion designers and featuring a high price tag. But in the 1960s, clothing manufacturers began taking advantage of mechanized and industrialized clothes making, and over the coming decades, fast fashion became a popular alternative to bespoke and designer clothes.

By using cheaper materials, outsourced international labor, and machine-led industrial manufacturing, clothing brands could now produce many thousands of one item for a hugely reduced cost. Meaning manufacturers could sell these items on high streets around the world for a fraction of the price of big designer labels.

In the late 70s and 80s, the fast fashion brands we know today were born in Europe. H&M, the oldest fast fashion brand still in existence, opened up in Sweden in 1974 then the UK in 1976, the same year Zara opened in Spain.

It would be a few decades before branches opened in the States—1990 for Zara, the 2000s for H&M—and by that point, the brands were proud of the label fast fashion, boasting about how it took only 15 days to get a garment from designer to shop floor.

We often praise fast fashion for democratizing the fashion industry. Before the 1960s, designer clothing was only available to the rich, those who could afford to pay for tailored clothes, anyone who couldn't rely on handmade or hand-me-down garments.

Fast fashion meant that you could look good no matter where you are or what your socio-economic background.

Impact Of Fast Fashion

Sadly, democratization came at a price, a price not footed to the consumer but to the environment. Speeding up the production of clothes and reducing their sales price without losing on profit margin meant cutting a lot of corners with sustainability and production costs.

Some of the direst effects of fast fashion are in the regions where manufacturers make the clothing.

To grow enough material to meet the demand for garment manufacturers, cotton farms in India turn to high-potency pesticides, some of which leak into water supplies. These pesticides cause increased rates of cancer and congenital disabilities in the local population.

Additionally, to keep down production costs, many clothing brands resort to unpaid child labor to make and manufacture their clothes.

Even after all of the abuse and pollution that goes into the manufacturing process, we still waste a staggering percentage of clothing. Some studies estimate that 85% of all textiles produced each year end up in landfills. That includes defects, items that didn't sell as well as returns.

The advent of online fashion retail drastically increases the extent of wastage. Online shopping makes fashion faster than ever, but as a result, eCommerce clothing retail is a hugely wasteful industry.

The BBC claims that over $6 billion (£5 billion) worth of clothing returns are given to landfill every year in the UK alone, thanks to online shopping returns policies. 

How Consumers Treat Fast Fashion

But the industry is not entirely to blame: we consumers have an environmental impact too. Beyond the effects of the production of fast fashion, there is also an impact generated by consumers. 

Consumers wear clothes for significantly less time and throwing away considerably more clothes than ever before. This waste is partly due to the poor quality of some fast fashion garments that don't stand the test of time as older or bespoke items might, but it's also a testament to how we relate to fashion. Clothes are cheaper and easier to get than ever, so they're more expendable than ever.

The McKinsey Institute estimates that, while we buy 60% more clothes than previous generations, we throw them away at a far higher rate, generating a massive amount of personal clothing waste.

So fast fashion is not just a corporate failing. There is a personal responsibility: with each fast fashion purchase we make and throw away, we're contributing to fueling a global planet-killing, ocean-polluting, human-abusing machine. 

7 Ways to Break Fast Fashion Habits

Thankfully, as we are more aware than ever of the impact of the fashion industry, we are more prepared than ever to reduce it. Here are a few things you can do to break your fast fashion habits and shop sustainably.

Buy less

We buying less is the most significant change we can make to reduce our clothing carbon footprint. The best way to shop sustainably is not to shop at all unless necessary. Think about each purchase you make and see if it's worth the human and environmental impact.

Wear more

The other side of the coin of buying less is getting more wear out of the clothes you already have. Try and love the clothes you have and don't give in to relentless fashion cycles. Learn how to mend small tears, de-bobble sweaters, or repurpose ill-fitting garments to give them new life and avoid having to replace them.

Be thrifty

If your clothes are unsalvagable and you need to buy more, first try thrift and charity stores to get your clothes second hand. Not only will you be reducing your impact on the environment, but you could also be helping out a good cause, all while saving some cash.

If you're feeling crafty, you can alter thrift store buys to make unique garments that will be more personal than an off-the-rack item could ever be.

Rent and borrow

There are ways to wear new clothes without contributing to fast fashion waste. If you're looking for new duds for a fancy event, consider renting or borrowing them rather than buying them outright.

Websites like MyWardrobeHQ or Rent The Runway offer ways to share, rent, and borrow clothes, meaning you can expand your wardrobe without the guilt.

Support sustainable

If you have to buy new clothes, try only to support businesses that have committed to being sustainable in their manufacturing.

Go with smaller brands or local producers to reduce the miles your garments have to travel to get to you. If you do go with a major label, read up to see which have made commitments to reduce their environmental impact (and see what they've done already).

Read your labels

If you were allergic to something, you'd read product labels all the time, right? Well, consider when you're clothes shopping that you're allergic to unsustainable materials.

Whenever you're buying new clothing, check the label to make sure you know what you're buying.

Polyester contributes more greenhouse gasses than cotton, but recycled polyester (usually listed as rPET) and bio-based polymers are far more green. Similarly, organic cotton reduces the use of chemical pesticides and water consumption.

Wash smart

Another way in which you can reduce the impact of your clothes is by thinking about how you wash them.

Every wash has the potential to release thousands of synthetic fibers into the environment, so ask yourself whether you need to wash a garment right after you've worn it once.

When you do wash, stick to a low temperature and wash clothes inside out to reduce energy and promote garment longevity.

The Takeaway

Fast fashion has a significant impact on communities and the environment, but it's not only the clothing brands that are to blame. Every one of us has a responsibility to live sustainably; however, we can, and that starts with how we think about clothes.

Don't think of this as a restriction or a punishment for living unsustainably. This behavior is an opportunity to give back to an Earth that has given you everything you've ever enjoyed in life.

About the author 

Ashley Halsey is a professional writer at Gum essays and Researchpapersuk. She has been involved in many projects throughout the country on sustainability and the fashion industry. Mother of two children, she enjoys traveling, reading, and attending business training courses.

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