Fast Fashion: What’s the Real Cost?

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Fashion has always revolved around the next new style or trend. With social media, trends are cycling in and out of style at an ever-increasing pace. Thanks to “fast fashion” – clothing that is designed and manufactured to be sold cheaply, worn a few times and then discarded – the average consumer can update their wardrobe in response to a new trend for as little as the cost of a fast-food meal.

Traditionally, fashion brands have introduced new designs based on four seasons per year: spring, summer, fall and winter. With fast fashion, retailers follow micro trends that take place at a staggering pace of one to two per week.

The Rise of the Micro Trend
Clothing brands such as H&M and Zara helped popularize fast fashion in the early 2000s and much of the fashion industry has since adapted to the process. The number of garments produced annually around the world has doubled since the early 2000s, with many sources saying about 150 billion articles of clothing are currently manufactured per year.

In the past, people held on to clothing longer so it was expected to be made to last. Today’s fast fashion is so low-priced that consumers don’t feel bad about wearing something just a few times before discarding it. For many, clothing has become another product that’s discarded after just a few uses. The impact of this new attitude goes far beyond the closet.

Fast Fashion’s Environmental Toll
Producing fast fashion comes at a steep cost to the environment. Cotton is one of the most popular fabric choices. Although it’s a natural fiber, it’s a water-intensive crop. It takes approximately 2,700 liters of water to grow the cotton for one shirt; that’s enough water for the average person to survive on for two and a half years. In addition, commercial cotton production is responsible for as much as 24 percent of global insecticide use and 18 percent of pesticide use.

Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon and acrylic also cause problems for the environment. These petroleum-based fibers shed microplastic particles every time they’re washed. The particles end up in rivers, lakes and the ocean, contributing to water pollution and harming fish and other wildlife.

Leather production has been linked to a wide range of environmental and health problems. Leather tanning is one of the most toxic processes in the fashion industry, polluting air, soil and water and putting tannery workers at higher risk for cancer.

Filling Landfills and Incinerators
Another negative side effect of fast fashion is unsold clothing. In 2018, H&M reported that it had $4.3 billion worth of unsold inventory. Like many other clothing manufacturers, H&M resorts to burning some of its unsold inventory each year.

The “wear it and toss it” attitude at the heart of fast fashion also contributes to waste production. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that the average American family throws away an average of 76 pounds of clothing per year. Most discarded clothing is burned or buried in landfills, with less than 1 percent recycled into new clothing. Discarded clothing made of non-biodegradable fabric can sit in a landfill for up to 200 years before disintegrating.

Long Hours, Dangerous Conditions
Buying that perfect little dress or jacket at a super-low price may seem harmless, but even this simple purchase can have far-reaching impact. A $14.99 jacket sold by a U.S. retailer is likely to have been sewn by a young woman in Bangladesh working under harsh conditions for less than $3 per day. The fashion industry employs millions of people in developing countries, including children. Most are paid a wage that’s barely enough or not enough to live on. These low wages help fuel lower prices for consumers and higher profits for fashion companies.

Many garment workers in China and India work in proximity to harsh dyes and fabric treatments in rooms with poor ventilation. There are few legal protections for these workers and some have died in factory fires, collapses and other work-related disasters. In 2013, more than 1,100 garment workers perished and 2,200 more were injured in the collapse of a Bangladesh warehouse.

What Can Consumers Do?
The average consumer may feel powerless when it comes to fighting the negative effects of fast fashion, but there are some steps you can take to counteract the waste. Purchasing second-hand clothing and renting clothing are alternatives to buying new clothing. Another alternative is to buy fewer items of clothing but spend more on higher-quality items. You can also try to buy more clothing from slow fashion brands such as Patagonia, Eileen Fisher and Levi’s that are dedicated to producing quality clothing using ethical and sustainable practices. ■

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