Fast Fashion is Destroying Lives and the Environment at Rapid Speeds | Sophie Sills
Updated: Nov 23
Reflecting on the recent years, and on all of the changes in life, technology, and human behavior, I have come to realize that one defining change that has occurred over this decade is the increase in the practice of mindlessness. Whether it be mindlessly consuming endless eight-second videos on TikTok or Instagram, or flitting from trend to trend with no particular purpose in mind, we do not typically think of mindlessness as something that can inflict harm on much more than ourselves and our habits. Contrarily however, these attitudes can indeed cause immense harm to a multitude of things outside of ourselves. In recent years, perhaps one of the most deadly behaviors, and unfortunately one of the most prominent in American society, is mindless consumerism.
The increase in consumption—particularly of clothing—has paved the way for the rise of unethical, fast fashion. Often, scrolling through my own feed, I am bombarded with advertisements for brands that sell trendy clothing for impossibly low prices, seeming almost too good to be true. And perhaps it is, for us, the consumers, at least. The cost of this, however, is workers being forced to work under conditions that violate all fundamental labor laws, and the implementation of processes that will cause irreversible damage to our climate at rapid speeds.
How it works:
In order to produce clothing at the lowest possible cost, corporations opt to produce garments in other, less developed nations, in order to evade high minimum wages set by first world countries. For perspective, the minimum wage in the US is $7.50/hour, and up to double that in some states. However, in some fast fashion factories in China, workers are only paid 4000 yuan (~$556) each month while working 18 hour days, amounting to just over $1 per hour. Although production of clothes at lower costs has always been a practice by companies like H&M and Zara, the internet has launched the fast fashion industry to a whole new level. Now, the domination of online companies like Shien and Emmiol have Americans consuming clothing like never before. In fact, as of 2019, reports show that 62 million metric tons of apparel were consumed globally, and since the COVID pandemic, things have undoubtedly gotten worse. We are forced to produce more and more clothing to keep up with demand, and as us Americans love to shop, this demand keeps climbing higher and higher. Studies show that shopping, especially for apparel, triggers pleasure and dopamine releases in the brain, setting off the parts of the mind that are linked to euphoria and addiction.
As demonstrated by its name, a key aspect of fast fashion is that it is indeed FAST. Looking decades back, it can be noted that fashion trends lasted anywhere from months to multiple years, much longer than they do today. Now, in the internet age, trends can last for as little as a matter of weeks, and once they leave the spotlight, it’s onto the next. This constant rat-race to keep up with the latest styles serves almost as a fun challenge for some consumers, but ultimately leads to frequent feelings of dissatisfaction. And to our disadvantage, corporations know this, and have known this since the beginnings of retail. On this matter, 1950s New York retail tycoon B. Earl Puckett told his colleagues, “It’s our job to make women unhappy with what they have in the way of apparel. Basic utility cannot be the foundation of a prosperous apparel industry. We must accelerate obsolescence.” Unfortunately, this accelerated obsolescence has undoubtedly led to drastic increases in production and consumption, causing immense damage to both the Earth and human civilization itself.
Aside from the detriment to the lives of fast fashion factory workers, perhaps the most deadly damage that this industry inflicts is on our climate. The fast fashion industry consumes one tenth of all water used to run factories, with a single cotton shirt requiring a whopping 3,000 liters of water to manufacture. Additionally, the process of textile dyeing uses toxic chemicals which ultimately end up in our oceans. These chemicals are not the only things that end up in our oceans, however. In order to save money and charge lower prices, corporations opt to use lower quality materials, such as polyester and other synthetic fibers. Not only do these fibers require more emissions to make, they also contain plastics that do not biodegrade, and ultimately end up being consumed by marine life.
In addition to the damage done by the production of clothes, the clothes themselves pose their own, equally large threat to ecosystems and our society. Clothing and fabrics that are unwanted often end up in landfills, and when these landfills fill up, are incinerated. As a consequence, toxic greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, however, some countries do not possess landfills, and in these cases, must try their best to dispose of the whole pieces of fabric and clothing, which is oftentimes impossible. One example of this is Accra, Ghana’s capital city. The city simply cannot keep up with the increasing amounts of textile waste building up in their factories as a result of fast fashion. Due to this, LARGE amounts of waste pile up on their beaches and pollute their waters. On one of Accra’s beaches, namely Chorkor Beach, there is a mass of discarded apparel and waste so extensive that huts have been built upon it. Ghana cannot ban the production of textiles in their country, however, because it supports too many livelihoods.
On a global scale, fast fashion could very well become one of the main contributors to climate change and environmental destruction. Currently, the fashion industry is responsible for an estimated eight to ten percent of all global emissions, which for perspective, is more than that of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
How to help:
The ways you can help are simple and relatively easy. First off, be sure to donate clothes that you no longer want as opposed to throwing them away. This way, they will end up in the hands of someone who needs them as opposed to in a landfill or incinerated. Secondly, do your best to research the brands you purchase from. Although it’s hard to ensure that all of your clothing is ethically sourced, doing a minimal amount of research will likely lead you to realize which brands you should (and shouldn't) buy from. At a bare minimum, avoiding flashy internet brands with “too good to be true” prices is always a safe bet. Investing in higher quality clothing will not only ensure that your pieces last longer, it will also take an immense amount of strain off of the environment. Finally, try buying clothes second hand (or even borrowing from a friend if possible) as opposed to buying new clothes. Limiting production and consumption in any way possible will positively benefit workers and our climate.
Although these steps may be small, any individual effort helps. If we can unite against excessive support of the fast fashion industry, we may have a chance of mitigating, or even reversing the negative effects that we have seen in recent years. In times like these, we must suppress the urge to be mindless consumers, and THINK about the purchases we are making and what the effects of our actions will be on not only ourselves, but on the generations to come.