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Fast fashion’s impact on the environment

By Brittany Reed

As social distancing is leading us (or at least me) to shop online for clothing that won’t even be ready to wear for another month or two, it’s important to be conscious of the way fashion production is impacting the environment. Fast fashion is the mass-production of clothing that is cheap and disposable, making inexpensive fashion trends available to consumers at a breakneck speed.

While it’s fun and trendy to consistently purchase new clothes every time a new trend arises, it’s hurting the planet. According to Business Insider, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, pollutes the oceans with microplastics, and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply. Clothing production is increasing, leading fashion companies to offer multiple collections per year—Zara releases 24 and H&M releases between 12 and 16. An increase in clothing collections leads consumers to buy more clothing items and then dispose of them faster, as they aren’t made to last long.

 “When buying from stores, brand sustainability is important, but so is the quality of the piece. If I can wear something over and over, that also makes it sustainable overall,” said Ella Mitchell, former fashion design major at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). “Providing low quality clothing that becomes unwearable after several wears brings in more money, but it creates articles of clothing that can’t even be donated if they are too torn.”

According to the New York Times, H&M reported $4.3 billion of unsold inventory in 2018, which means they were producing more than they could sell. However, not all fashion companies rapidly manufacture inexpensive styles for consumers to purchase. According to Forbes, brands such as Patagonia, Amour Vert, and Levi’s lead the way in sustainability. For example, Patagonia uses sustainable materials, monitors its supply chain and encourages customers to recycle old Patagonia pieces. 

Other fashion companies are working towards sustainability as well. Popular fashion company, American Eagle Outfitters, has a goal to be carbon neutral by 2030. According to their website, they plan to reduce water usage, save energy and improve materials. In April 2019, AEO partnered with Blue Jeans Go Green Denim Recycling and now offers $10 off a new pair of jeans when a customer brings in an old pair to recycle. The recycled denim gets turned into housing insulation.

“Sustainability is so crucial to the fashion industry,” said Mckenzie Nall, junior fashion design student at SCAD. “Nowadays it isn’t enough to be innovative and new. You have to do all this and create something sustainable—something that does the least to no damage to the earth.”

According to Nall, SCAD offers a sustainability in fashion course where students engage in guest lectures and discuss sustainability in different fashion houses. SCAD requires all fashion students to take an intro to textiles course where they learn about fabrics, how they’re made, why they are or aren’t sustainable and natural dyeing and printing techniques. 

According to the United Nations Environment Program, every second, enough textiles to fill an entire trash truck is either burned or sent to a landfill. Materials like synthetic fibers, denim and the chemicals used in cotton farming all contribute to fashion waste and pollution. According to sustainyourstyle.org, synthetic fibers like polyester (plastic) can take up to 200 years to decompose—these fibers are used in 72% of clothing. Textile factories create toxic wastewaters that contain substances like lead, mercury, and arsenic, and these can easily be dumped into rivers and other water sources. Water contamination also comes from the chemicals used to grow cotton, which can pollute runoff waters, therefore polluting larger water sources. 

However, there are multiple ways to be mindful of your fashion environmental impact. Sustainyourstyle.org says you can buy less, buy clothes from sustainable brands, buy quality clothing and buy second hand. 

Secondhand shopping is a great way to find clothes at a cheaper price without fueling the fast fashion machine. Thrift stores, consignment shops and clothing swaps are all ways to reuse clothing items. Secondhand shopping websites like ThredUp, Depop and Poshmark allow consumers to thrift through thousands of clothing items from the comfort of their computers.

Buying quality clothes ensures that they will last longer. If you purchase quality staple pieces then it lessens the amount of cheap, disposable clothing items needed to fill your wardrobe. However, sustainable brands and quality clothing items can be pricey.

“Having the ability to buy from sustainable brands is a luxury. Not everyone has the ability to shop like this. Even though we all need to do our part in reducing waste, it is the fashion industry entirely that needs to change, making it easier for the average consumer to buy quality clothes with a low environmental impact,” said Mitchell. 

Overall, I believe raising awareness of how fashion is harming our planet is the first step to fighting the fast fashion industry. Working towards a sustainable wardrobe should be a goal for every environmentalist. 

“Fashion has no future if we can’t take care of the world around us,” said Nall.

Brittany Reed can be reached at brittany.reed@spartans.ut.edu

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