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The Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

by Helena Spydell

Whilst shopping for new clothes, whether it be online or at a clothing store, a person will, at some point, notice how inexpensive the products are. Although considering it strange, the consumer probably won’t bat an eye and continue shopping. The real impact that the individual’s purchases have on the environment and the lives of millions of people around the world, as large as they are, will not have crossed their mind. And even if they did realize that the manufacturing of the clothes they are buying is detrimental to the environment, the customer likely would have rationalized their purchases. Perhaps they would have told themself, “I am only one person, this is only one shirt. How could I single-handedly destroy the planet?”

The real impact of those purchases on the world, unbeknownst to the customer, goes far beyond them or the item itself. In the past two decades, fast fashion has transformed the world, with changes that will last for years to come. Fast fashion is by definition cheap, trendy clothing that recreates styles seen on runways and celebrities. The essential idea is to take new styles and put them on the market as quickly as possible, spending close to nothing in the process. It is a newer idea - before shopping became a hobby during the 1970's and 80's, it was a necessity. People almost exclusively bought clothes when their old ones were worn out or when there was a seasonal change. However, due to clothes becoming cheaper and trend cycles becoming faster, consumers began to view shopping as a pastime. Fast fashion was only amplified with the rise of social media, when apps such as TikTok and Instagram further sped up trend cycles and introduced online shops that supplied a seemingly endless amount of designs that were almost identical to ones seen on influencers.

No matter how trendy the styles being sold by “fast fashion” manufacturers are, the disastrous effects they have on the planet cannot be ignored. By speeding up production time and reducing the cost of their products, companies constantly cut corners, in the process harming the environment as well as the lives of their workers. The material used in styles often includes toxic dyes which infiltrate water sources, making the fashion industry the second largest polluter of clean water worldwide. Accompanying the pollution of water, manufacturers also use an excessive amount of it to run factories and clean products - the making of one t-shirt uses over 700 gallons of water. In addition, the speed of which items are made, along with the excessive amount of the products themselves, causes a disproportionate amount of clothing and the constant waste of many of the items produced, causing more than a billion pounds of unwanted clothing to end up in landfills each year in Australia alone. Much of this waste will eventually end up in oceans and natural environments, causing detrimental harm to the lives of countless animals. The cost of fast fashion on the lives of humans is just as unsettling as the environmental impact. Oftentimes products are produced in such a way that ignores the fundamental human rights of the people producing them. An Oxfam report in 2019 shockingly discovered that 0% of Bangladeshi and only 1% of Vietnamese garment workers received a liveable wage. Because the workers do not receive adequate funds to live on, they often employ their children at a young age, trapping the family in a cycle of poverty for generations. Conditions within the garment factories are just as horrible as the wages the workers are paid, with many female workers developing bladder infections due to the management not permitting bathroom breaks.

Luckily, there is an increasing number of affordable fashion brands that manufacture trendy styles without taking a toll on the environment or the lives of their workers. Some examples include the brand Kotn, which sells mainly closet staples, Levi’s, where one can buy all the denim their heart desires and CHNGE, a genderless brand that has donated countless amounts to important causes around the world. By shopping from brands that make an effort to reduce their impact on the planet, any person can make a positive effect on the environment. However, it must be mentioned that many sustainable clothing brands are outside of the price range for countless individuals. If buying from fast fashion companies such as SHEIN, Zara, Forever 21, and H&M is unavoidable, the customer can still decrease their environmental footprint by only buying clothes when it is necessary, instead of going shopping as a pastime. By being a mindful consumer, anyone can make a positive impact on the planet. And as more and more people become aware of the harm of their actions when shopping and take positive actions to reverse their effect, the harm that fashion has on the world will be significantly reduced. Hopefully someday in the future, the impact will be completely eliminated.

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