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  • Writer's pictureMeredith Holland

Confessions of an Ex-Shopaholic (Part 2): The Hidden Cost of Fast Fashion on People and the Planet

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

In Part 1 of this blog post series posted on August 19th, I defined fast fashion and gave background on how this booming industry first came about. This post will now discuss how fast fashion impacts people and the planet.

Fast fashion may make the latest trends more affordable, but it comes at an environmental cost. The pressure to reduce costs, while speeding up production time, means that environmental corners are more likely to be cut. As there is an environmental cost of fast fashion, there is also a human cost. Let’s take a closer look at fast fashion’s impact on people and the planet.

Impact on the Planet

Fast fashion is also known as ‘disposable fashion’ due to the significant amount of waste associated with it. Just as quickly as it is produced, fast fashion moves from consumers’ closets to the landfill. The fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissionsmore than all international flights and maritime shipping! It is the second-largest consumer of the world's water supply and severely pollutes the oceans with microplastics.

Fast Fashion + Waste

Source: World Economic Forum

With consumers buying low-quality clothing in exchange for lower prices, and new fashion trends circulating at a rapid rate, consumers dispose of clothing after only a few uses and move on to the next trend. This toxic cycle of overproduction and overconsumption has led to a tremendous amount of textile waste. Roughly 85% of all textiles thrown away in the US–roughly 13 million tons in 2017–are either dumped into landfills or burned. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. The average American is estimated to throw away around 82 pounds of textile waste each year, amounting to more than 11 million tons of textile waste from the U.S. alone.

Fast Fashion + Water Pollution and Ocean Plastics

The fashion industry uses cheap, toxic textile dyes. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally, since the water left over from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams, or rivers. Cheap textiles further exacerbate fast fashion’s environmental impact.

Source: World Economic Forum

Every year, the washing of clothes releases half a million tons of microfibers into the ocean—the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. Let that sink in! Small aquatic life ingest these microfibers. Just think about it: These organisms are eaten by small fish, who are eaten by bigger fish, who are then eaten by us humans, introducing plastic into our food chain. Many of these microfibers come from polyester, a synthetic textile derived from fossil fuels that is widely used in most garments. The production of polyester releases 2-3 times more carbon emissions than cotton, and polyester does not break down in the ocean.

Fast Fashion + Water Consumption

Unfortunately, even “natural fibers” can be a problem at the scale fast fashion demands. Conventional cotton requires an enormous amount of water and pesticides/insecticides to produce in mass.

It takes about 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt. That’s enough water for one person to drink at least eight cups per day for three-and-a-half years. Even crazier, it takes about 2,000 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans. That’s more than enough for one person to drink eight cups per day for 10 years!

The fashion industry’s demand for the highly water-intensive cotton results in a large amount of stress on water basins, as well as competition for resources between companies and local communities, especially in developing countries where it is primarily grown. The fashion industries’ constant demand for cotton results in other environmental concerns, such as higher risk of drought, land clearing, biodiversity loss, and degradation in soil quality. Another thought: As our skin is the largest organ, the chemicals used to produce cotton are passed into our bloodstream when we wear clothing made of cotton!

Impact on People

Source: Fashion Revolution

Who made your clothes? Someone, somewhere, is paying for your clothes to be affordable to you. We are increasingly disconnected from the people who make our clothing as the majority of clothing items are now made overseas.

Garment workers are some of the lowest paid workers in the world and roughly 85% of all garment workers are women. These workers have been found to work in dangerous environments without basic human rights and protections. Global fast fashion brands are continuing to hugely profit from their use of cheaper labor in foreign countries. And further down the supply chain, there are farmers who may work with toxic chemicals that can have devastating impacts on their physical and mental health, a plight highlighted by the documentary The True Cost.

Fast Fashion + Animals

Animals and wildlife are also impacted by fast fashion. The toxic dyes that are released in waterways and the microfibers that shed from cheap textiles are often ingested by marine life, poisoning their food chain and ecosystems. When animal products such as leather and fur are used, animal welfare is put at risk.

It's Time to Start a Fashion Revolution

As consumers in an increasingly disconnected world, it is important that we feel connected to the workers who make our clothes, as well as inform brands that we care about these people and their voice. I encourage you to ask more questions, challenge how fashion is made, and change the way you purchase. I remind you that as consumers, we have the power to do something that creates positive change.

It’s time to start a fashion revolution! Fashion can and should be a force for good—supporting women’s rights and gender equality, the rights and livelihoods of workers and children, reducing poverty, and preserving our planet for generations to come. As consumers, we need to call for greater transparency, sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series coming shortly that will provide ideas on how to break free from fast fashion consumption habits, and offer tips on what to look for in sustainably and ethically produced, slow fashion alternatives!



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