The Hard Truth about Our Culture’s Fast Fashion Habits

Fast fashion is a global phenomenon, making clothing cheap and exceptionally accessible. It is however, a massive contributor to water and air pollution.

Fast fashion stores line a busy shopping street

Ask any young person where they like to shop for clothing and accessories, and undoubtedly they will name off some very recognizable brands. H&M, Forever 21, Uniqlo, Zara and Mango are some of the more recognizable and popular fashion brands offering a large selection of apparel options to the masses. These retailers are considered fast fashion because they reflect the quickly changing nature of the fashion industry. Inventory is vast and always on the move as a “quick response” to demand.

While popular all over the globe, there is a problem with this concept: fast fashion companies are often some of the biggest offenders contributing to environmental degradation and pollution. The inexpensive nature and accessibility (online shopping, multiple locations) of this trend also leads to overconsumption and a disposable mindset which increases waste. The finished product raises plenty of ethics questions and this industry is unfortunately notorious for its approach to working conditions and human rights. These issues are serious concerns when the demand is ever growing.

Environmental Impact

Fast fashion production creates environmental problem in air and water pollution

Fast fashion has been criticized for creating a significant negative environmental impact, including water and air pollution and environmental degradation.

According to an article in the Huffington Post, the apparel industry is the world’s second worst polluter after the oil industry. The article lays out some shocking facts about the apparel and textile industry:

  • 25% of the world’s chemicals are used for textile production.
  • Around 10% of the world’s global carbon emissions result from the apparel & textile industry.
  • The textile industry uses more water than any other industry apart from agriculture.

Understanding the scope of how the fashion industry impacts the environment is overwhelming due to the complicated and lengthy process it takes to produce, ship and sell a garment. Add the popularity and global demand of the fast fashion trend, and the problems seem to grow exponentially.

Mass production of garments from the fast fashion retailers means the use of synthetic fibers on a large scale. Polyester, for example, is present in about 60 percent of apparel today and emits three times more carbon dioxide than cotton does in its lifetime. Fossil fuels are also required to produce polyester, which increases the industry’s carbon footprint considerably.

Fast fashion tshirts made from polyester which contribute to environmental pollution

While the industry clings to its obsession with chemical-laden, synthetic fabrics, some retail giants like H&M try to change the narrative by producing eco-conscious lines.  As much as this sustainable line is meant to do good, the fact of the matter is the mass-production of apparel around the globe still relies on a considerable amount of resources.  Cotton, for example, and even organic cotton, still uses about 5,000 of water to manufacture one shirt and pair of jeans. EcoWatch, an environmental-focused news website highlights this impact in a case study about the cotton industry in Uzbekistan, showing just how intensive the production can be and how much it can affect the environment of a region:

“Cotton is the world’s most commonly used natural fiber and is in nearly 40 percent of our clothing. It has a clean, wholesome image long cultivated by the garment industry. But the truth is that it is a thirsty little plant that drinks up more of its fair share of water. It is also one of the most chemically dependent crops in the world. While only 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, it consumes 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals and 25 percent of insecticides. Some genetically modified varieties, which are resistant to some insects and tolerant of some herbicides, now make up more than 20 percent of the world’s cotton crop. Cotton is indeed grown all over the world with China being the largest cotton grower followed by India, the U.S., Pakistan and Brazil.

Uzbekistan, the world’s sixth leading producer of cotton, is a prime example of how cotton can severely impact a region’s environment. In the 1950s, two rivers in Central Asia, the Amu Darya and and the Syr Darya, were diverted from the Aral sea to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and nearby Turkmenistan. Today, water levels in the Aral are less than 10 percent of what they were 50 years ago. As the Aral dried up, fisheries and the communities that relied on them failed. Over time, the sea became over-salinated and laden with fertilizer and pesticides from the nearby fields. Dust from the dry, exposed lakebed, containing these chemicals and salt saturated the air, creating a public health crisis and settling onto farm fields, contaminating the soil. The Aral is rapidly becoming a dry sea and the loss of the moderating influence that such a large body of water has on the weather has made the region’s winters much colder and summers hotter and drier.”

Taking the environmental impact into account, it’s reasonable to think that consumers would hold on to their clothes for many years. The reality is this couldn’t be farther from the truth when it comes to fast fashion consumption.


Overconsumption and Waste

Fast fashion apparel hanging in storefront window

With low prices, consumers can expand their wardrobes with fast fashion pieces in double the amount of time they could with more expensive items. The idea that fast fashion is always changing, daily even, also encourages shoppers to dispose of their items more often. Coupled with the low quality of these items which fall apart and break more often, this means a whole lot of waste.

These retail giants also occupy massive store spaces, their selection of items equally as massive. More options at low prices makes it easier to purchase more than your necessarily need. And the cheaper the item, the more likely it is to be discarded after one use. There is less of an attachment to a low-priced item, not to mention how easy the industry has made it to replace these items.Why repair a cheap top when you can just throw it away and buy another?

This cycle of purchasing, wearing once, tossing, purchasing again, is wasteful and perpetuates the negative impacts of the apparel industry. It begs the question, how much is the consumer really saving? Could they have spent a little more on a sustainably produced item with a longer lifespan?

While sustainability is a primary concern in the apparel industry, the high demand for new items on a daily basis not only creates a problem for the environment, it brings up the problem of unethical production practices.


Ethical Concerns

Poor conditions in fast fashion factories raise ethics questions
Photo Source: SumOfUs


A global phenomenon like fast fashion means its production is on a massive scale, requiring many hands to produce the ever changing inventory. More often than not, working conditions for those in the industry are, for lack of a better word, terrible. Human labor and natural resources are exploited at the hand of profits for fast fashion. The ethical issues of child labor, health, safety and low wages for workers is an extraordinary problem for the fashion industry, an industry that is so focused on image.

Retail giants place many of their factories in Second and Third World countries in order to take advantage of lenient child labor laws and workplace standards, low wages expectations and minimal environmental protection measures.

Due to the large amount of pesticides and chemicals these workers are exposed to on a daily basis, often consisting of long hours, health and safety concerns are serious. Poorly maintained buildings and a disregard for a safe working environment are issues that came to the forefront of global news with the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, killing 1,135 people, making it the industry’s most fatal accident. When many have avoided acknowledging the history of inhumane conditions garment factory workers are forced to work in, a tragic event of this magnitude brought the topic to global attention.

The antithesis of fast fashion is locally owned and operated boutique shops

While small, fair trade and locally made boutique shops are becoming popular shopping destinations, they will never be able to fully replace the demand and profits of the fast fashion industry. Shops that boast handmade or locally made items often come with a higher price tag to take into account the intensive labor and higher cost quality materials. It’s a dilemma consumers will need to think carefully about: can they give up their fast fashion habit for a more sustainable and humane production process?

Stay tuned for part two in this series as we highlight companies and initiatives in the fashion industry that are doing their part to make things a little more sustainable and better for the environment.