by Gillian Murphy, G11 The truth of fast fashion…

From runway to clothing rack in days; modern fashion works like magic. The truth behind this fast-paced cycle of clothing production is far from magical though, and is often more problematic than meets the eye. Fast fashion is defined as “inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.” What appeals to most shoppers from this description is “inexpensive” and “the latest trends,” but what is left out is “detrimental to the planet and to workers.”

In the modern age of technology, the newest fashion designs are shared to the public the minute they are revealed at fashion shows or worn by celebrities. Consumers desire instant gratification – people are used to seeing products online and having them on their doorstep within days, and the same expectations go along with fashion. But what this system that benefits consumers doesn’t show are the damaging effects on the environment and on the workers who create the $5 tops we see in stores like Forever 21.

To keep up with the growing demand for fast fashion, a great number of factories are being built worldwide. But there are few environmental policies that ensure these factories are running safely and protecting the Earth, which means there is often a total disregard for environmental protection in the fast fashion industry. Here are some quick statistics to show how it impacts the environment: the fast fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world (trumped only by the oil industry), it produces 10% of all human carbon emissions, it consumes 1.5 trillion liters of water each year, 85% of all US textiles go to the dump annually, and the list goes on.

The environmental issues involved in fast fashion are visible from start to finish of clothing production. The cotton that is used in many textiles accounts for a quarter of all US pesticides, and cotton production uses 2.6% of global fresh water. Once this cotton makes its way to factories, the dying process used to add color to textiles creates toxic wastewater that often is improperly filtered and disposed of, and seeps into water sources. If we take a look at polyester, it is plastic microfibers that are entering the ocean, which are eaten by aquatic life and make their way up the food chain, right back to the humans who dumped them. Karma, perhaps? And once the clothes are finally put on the market and make their way to the homes of consumers, they are worn for an average of seven times before making their way to the dump. Essentially, people are buying more clothes and wearing them for shorter periods of time. The habits of wastefulness in fashion are ingrained in our societies, and as demonstrated by the endless statistics, are extremely harmful to our planet.

Discarded clothing sitting in a dump.
Photo courtesy of Raconteur.

If the environmental toll that fast fashion takes isn’t enough to convince you of its flaws, perhaps the inhumanity of the working conditions in the industry will. Asia houses a majority of the world’s textile and clothing factories, and also has the majority of worker violence and tragedies. Conditions in many factories are subpar if not abysmal, and many of the countries with these factories do not apply strict regulations to protect workers. Some factories that make clothes for Gap and H&M have faced numerous reports of violence and abuse against their female garment workers, but it is extremely difficult for these companies to be held accountable. Often, companies and factories take advantage of the poverty their workers live in, because they are aware that their employees rely on their low-paying jobs to survive and have no other options. Many tragedies in textile manufacturing have made international headlines. In 2012, a fire at a Bangladeshi garment factory killed 112 people. The fire and consequent deaths were a result of the factory owner’s negligence, as employees were instructed not to leave their sewing machines even when the fire-alarm went off. This astonishing event is not something new to Bangladesh; factory fires are a common occurrence, and so is the mistreatment of workers (the majority of whom are young women).

It can be argued that although the fast fashion industry has a negative impact on the environment and on its workers, it exists for a reason. Fast fashion makes the world of fashion accessible to all, especially those with less money. Clothing and style is an age-old way of expressing one’s wealth, separating upper and lower income levels. The fast fashion industry helps limit the disparity between the privileged and the less fortunate, by making the same styles affordable for all, which can limit class discrimination. Although this is a powerful argument, the toll that fast fashion takes on the Earth and on workers begs the question: is it worth it?

Like most environmental crises, fast fashion often seems too ingrained as a societal habit to fix, but there are many ways every individual can help create a change. The most effective way to contribute is shopping sustainably. There are many alternatives to fast fashion companies, and some of the best sustainable brands are Madewell, Patagonia, and Reformation, to name a few. If you’re looking for something local, Good Krama is a “slow fashion label” that takes discarded fabrics from Cambodian garment factories and turns them into high-quality pieces. And there are many more such stores popping up around Phnom Penh! To guide you through the complicated process of shopping green and ethically are sites that recommend lists of sustainable brands (such as sustainyourstyle.org), and those that indicate which fast fashion shops to avoid (such as minimalismmadesimple.com).

Higher-quality clothing that is made sustainably and ethically will last a long time. The one downside to sustainable brands is the price tag; because of the more complicated processes that ensure neither the environment nor workers are being harmed, their clothes are often quite pricey. This brings us to the next alternative for decreasing your involvement in the fast fashion industry: thrifting! An even better way of cutting down on clothing waste is to buy thrifted or vintage clothes. Thrifting means fewer clothing items are going to the dump and the demand for new textiles is decreasing. And rather than purchasing new clothes, perhaps you can focus on reducing the stigma around repeating outfits. Often people feel like they have to keep up with every new trend, but there are ways to style the same pieces of clothing in various and equally hip ways.

The most important part of working against fast fashion is awareness. With Google one click away, it is exceedingly simple to research clothing companies before you purchase your next outfit, and it can make a great difference. Although it sometimes seems better and easier to save money and opt for the cheaper clothes from fast fashion brands, spending a little more money on higher quality clothing reaps more benefits in the long term. If you have the power to help save the Earth and the workers that fast fashion maltreats, it is important that you utilize it in the right way. Even though these issues can seem quite distant, remember that everything and anything that affects the Earth affects you.


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