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The massive 2.5 trillion dollar fashion industry may be economically thriving in the age of fast-changing trends but it is in no way sustainable. In fact, fashion is the second largest polluting industry after fossil fuels. Countless cases of its damage to natural resources, pollutive waste and emissions, and unethical labor practices have fallen under the public eye over the years. Along with addressing the threats of fast fashion or “toxic fashion”, finding solutions to improve the efficiency and sustainability of the fashion industry is just as significant. This article will discuss some flaws on the sales and consumption side of the fashion industry, why clothing’s end-of-life destination matters and how prolonging the life cycle of garments relates to sustainability.

Flaws In The Consumption Side of Fast Fashion

Beyond material sourcing and garment production, the dangers of fast fashion continue on into the hands of the consumer. Fast fashion is fueled by buyer’s choice which is why the industry spends so much to influence these purchasing decisions. Here are some of the greatest flaws on the consumption side of fast fashion and how our purchases continue to support it.

Cheap Clothing Harms The Environment 

To keep up with the high turnover of clothing trends, fast fashion runs on rapid production of cheap clothing. Commonly, fast fashion garments are made from synthetic materials, many of which include toxic dyes and harmful chemicals. Once disposed, these garments degrade, releasing chemical and microplastic pollutants into surrounding water systems, wildlife and even our own bodies. Cheap, fast fashion is a health hazard to both the environment and human health.

Further, in another effort to keep manufacturing costs low, fast fashion brands will typically source from foreign countries with lower prices. This creates vast distances between where garments are assembled to where they are sold. This results in significant transport emissions and it is estimated that the fashion industry accounts for a staggering 10% of all global carbon emissions.

Cheap Clothing Exploits Workers

Behind the scenes of the glamorous fast fashion industry are exploited employees that often work under exhausting, unethical working conditions. To keep garments cheap for consumers, fashion companies often build their factories in low-income countries so they can pay their workers very low wages without much pushback. They also cut financial corners by ignoring ethical working conditions standards. Employees in fast fashion work long hours in warehouses without air conditioning and are not offered benefits such as health insurance or paid sick leave and personal time off. Every purchase of a fast fashion product may very well be supporting worker exploitation.

Fast Fashion Skews Consumer Perceptions

Fashion has evolved into a throw away culture that introduces 11 million tons of textile waste per year in the U.S. alone. Much of this can be dedicated to the fast, cheap way clothing is often made, but it is also due to the way trends come and go so quickly in the fashion world. Often, once clothing hits the physical or virtual shelves, it is considered obsolete within months or even weeks.

Marketing in the fashion world targets consumers’ perceptions of beauty, status and success and often creates the narrative that you need the latest trend to be happy. Fashion also associates rarity with value, and so luxury and name brands will often manufacture a limited number of articles to enhance their value and pressure consumers into a fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) mentality. This limited time only tactic consequently pushes luxury brands to quickly remove out of season clothing and excess inventory and rather than selling these items at a discounted rate, companies will throw them away to prevent the devalue of their brand. It takes the same amount of resources to produce a garment whether it is worn once, a thousand times or not at all, and the worst part about these terrible fashion perceptions is that they are generally accepted across much of society.

The Average Life Cycle of a Garment

The average garment follows a linear life cycle. In a linear life cycle, products are ultimately created for one use, and after they have fulfilled their use, they are considered waste. We are living and operating with a finite supply of natural resources, and linear production strategies will eventually exhaust those resources.

linear life cycle of a product

What is Sustainable Fashion?

Sustainable fashion is clothing that is designed, manufactured, distributed and used in eco-friendly ways. Designing and manufacturing sustainable clothing involves using sustainable materials that are obtained from environmentally friendly and ethically responsible sources. Once the garments are created, sustainable fashion ensures that their life cycle is cyclical and they are assigned more than one use before, if ever, deemed to be waste.

circular life cycle of a product

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Sustainable Fashion: Extending the Life Cycle of Garments

We can stretch the life of natural resources by replacing the linear “fast fashion” systems with circular ones. A circular system is one that creates products, consumes them, and then reuses or recycles them before they are deemed waste. Some clothing articles in this system may never be considered waste. After they have reached their full potential as a garment and can not be upcycled into new clothing, they can be transferred to another industry and be used as primary material to create something else.

Reuse and Offer Resale of Second Hand Items

Even just one extra use of a garment will make it more sustainable. Any purchase of a new item is a vote to continue with fast fashion and encourages more garment production and subsequently, waste. By changing hands, second hand clothing prevents unnecessary purchase of a new fashion product.

  • Petite Lucette, a French clothing company, sells sustainable clothing for children and women. They have launched a partnership with second hand retailer, Kids O’Clock, that incentivizes customers to resell their gently used kids clothing in exchange for a discount. Kids O’Clock accepts Petite Lucette clothing among many other clothing brands.
  • ThredUp sells used clothing from over 35,000 different brands. This online marketplace has taken thrift shopping online to a whole new level. Offering designer and everyday clothes at just 10% of their original cost, ThredUp is a one stop, sustainable fashion shop.

Use Recycled Materials

When clothing and fabrics become too worn from long-term wear, they can be broken down and recycled into new garments. In fact, nearly 100% of textiles can be recycled when turned into a malleable product. Beyond Retro is a second hand clothing retailer that upcycles the items that are too damaged or outdated to sell thus reducing the amount of textile waste that enters landfills.

Offer Garment Recycling and Repair

Companies that offer returns and repairs are keeping their garments from sitting idle in closets or worse, being tossed into the trash. Patagonia’s Worn Wear program allows customers to return their used Patagonia products in exchange for store credit. Customers can keep their wardrobe novel and up to date without contributing to textile waste. Patagonia resells the worn items or recycles the materials to be used in other clothing items. They also offer repairs to their clothing and have online guides to help the customers fix their clothing themselves. By keeping their items in use for longer, Patagonia significantly reduces the carbon, water and waste footprints that come from manufacturing new pieces and disposing of the old.

Make Timeless, Functional and Durable Clothing

The longer duration that clothes can be worn, the longer a consumer can hold out from buying a replacement. Sustainable clothing is functional clothing that is designed to stay in fashion and uphold long-term use. GBB Member, Fjallraven, specializes in outdoor gear and clothing designed with functionality and durability in mind in an effort to create products that last and reduce textile waste. Combined with their careful selection of materials with the lowest environmental impact, Fjallraven also believes in learning from past mistakes and striving for continued improvement. This growth mentality is at the core of their values and translates into products that are good for people and the planet.

Summary

The fashion industry has evolved into a fast-moving, depletive industry that exhausts natural resources, exploits people and produces a tremendous amount of waste and pollution. Fast fashion practices produce cheap, non-durable clothing items that follow an inefficient linear life cycle. After creation, the garments are distributed, sold, used and disposed of sometimes in a matter of months.

To combat the dangers of the fast fashion industry, we can extend the life of garments through a circular approach. Choosing second hand items over new, finding ways to recycle or upcycle fabric, repairing items before throwing them away – these circular fashion practices help preserve natural resources and avoid the release of unnecessary waste. Many fashion companies are dumping their old conventional ways and introducing more sustainable methods of making, selling and disposing of clothing, often incentivizing their customers to partake. Sustainable fashion is not only about extending the life of our clothing – it’s extending the life of our planet too.

About the Author

Natalie Sheffey Soto

GBB Green Ambassador

Natalie Sheffey Soto is a content writer for the Green Business Bureau with a Master’s in Global Sustainability and Sustainable Business concentration from the University of South Florida. Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains, she developed a love for the natural environment and has committed herself to a career working to protect it. Along with her outdoor enthusiasm, Natalie loves to play sports and foster animals for local rescues.

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