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Sustainable Fashion Starts With Eliminating Toxic Fast Fashion

The use of toxic chemicals  threatens the progress of creating a truly sustainable fashion industry.  This is exacerbated in the fast fashion industry where there are shorter product life cycles, increased waste, and less consideration for the environment.  Not all textile waste is suitable for some form of recycling and if clothes contain toxic chemicals, their potential for safe recycling and circularity is at best restricted, and at worst impossible. Understanding the toxic fast fashion industry and challenges is the first step in getting to a sustainable fashion industry.

The Story of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is the term for the high-turnaround, low-cost, trendy clothing and accessories created to maximize profit and meet demand. These garments are created without consideration for the environment, waste, and human labor. This has been the common practice for years without consumers blinking an eye; however, trends are shifting and consumers are demanding more ethical goods. With sustainable fashion brands popping up and beginning to dominate the marketplace, it is important to understand the background, environmental, and societal impact of fast fashion to determine what practices to avoid and how to move forward as a sustainable brand and consumer.

History of Fast Fashion

The term “Fast Fashion” was coined by the New York Times in the 1990’s to describe Zara’s mission for the turnaround from design to being sold in stores to only take 15 days. Further, fast fashion describes quick design turnover from catwalk to retailer involving rapid design, production, distribution, and marketing. Retailers took advantage of the shift in consumer behavior from paying high prices for quality products to low price for more variety and began producing at an exponential rate to maximize profit. When the first H&M location was opened in the U.S. in 2000, the New York Times expressed that it arrived just at the right time as consumers had become more likely to hunt for bargains rather than shop at department stores and it was now “more chic to pay less.” Nowadays, consumers would much rather buy more items to have a whole closet of trendy clothing items worn less frequently than invest in high-quality clothing.

Rather than quality, supply chains emphasize increased manufacturing speed at a low price. This has resulted in high-end styles available at a low price immediately following fashion shows in New York, Paris, and Milan. The top players in the fashion industry have constantly been “improving” their operations to get more differentiation of garments out along with the constantly shifting trends. Oftentimes, styles go out of trend between production and sales and are simply thrown out, utterly useless. In 2012, Zara reduced the turnaround rate to two weeks, Forever 21 six weeks, and H&M eight weeks. Now, these retailers sign high profile celebrities to represent their brand, something that would have been unheard of when high quality garments reigned supreme, and encourage people to buy more and more.

Toxic Fashion

Fast fashion has grown into a beast of its own that enables consumers to see a garment worn on the red carpet, social media, or runway and purchase it on their phone virtually moments later. The fashion industry is a $2.4 trillion dollar industry that employs approximately 86 million people worldwide. Between the years 1975-2018 global textile production per capita increased from 5.9 kg to 13 kg per year. Additionally, global consumption has risen to 62 million tons of apparel per year and is expected to rise to 102 million by 2030. The average U.S. consumer now purchases one item of clothing every 5.5 days and wears the item 36% less over its lifecycle, generating 82 pounds of textile waste each year. This consumption demand has driven fashion retailers to producing almost twice the amount of clothing than they did in 2000. 

Consumers are blinded by a need to buy more and do not see the true cost of their wardrobe. What is seen are the countless people walking down the street or on social media wearing perfectly curated outfits, what is not seen is the catastrophic amounts of waste associated with those items. The fast fashion industry has shifted from a symbol of accessibility and affordability to one of excessive human consumption. It is no longer fully encapsulated by the term fast fashion and instead should now be described as toxic fashion to fully capture the reality of demand, true cost, and impact.

Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of the toxic fashion industry is present in virtually every area of environmental concern.

Pre-Production

There is a significant amount of waste and pollution related to toxic fashion pre-production. A study found that 15% of the fabric used in garment manufacturing is wasted, a number that is affected by type of garment, fabric design, cutting, and mistakes in assembly. There is a huge environmental burden even before clothing items and fabrics are made. Throughout a garment’s lifecycle, energy use and carbon emissions are the highest during the initial fiber extraction process, a fact which is particularly true for petroleum-based fabrics. Additionally, fabrics such as cotton and linen are highly water and labor intensive and require harmful pesticides which pose health risks to farmers and laborers. 

Deadstock

A large portion of pre-consumer waste that is often left unaccounted for is “deadstock,” which refers to garments that are unsold, returned (especially after being purchased online), and ultimately disposed of as waste.H&M was reported as holding $4.3 billion worth of unsold inventory in warehouses before it would be incinerated at a waste-to-energy plant in Denmark. Though incineration at a waste-to-energy facility may recover some of the wasted energy of the deadstock that would otherwise be sitting wasted in a warehouse, it also generates more GHG emissions and air pollution. Mass incineration may create a mental picture of significant waste and emissions; however, the greatest environmental impact lies in the energy, material, water, and chemicals that have gone into production of the garment. 

Emissions

Textiles are at the top, along with aluminum, as the highest greenhouse gas emitters per unit of material.The fashion industry produces an estimated 8-10% of annual, global carbon emissions (4-5 billion tons). A substantial amount of the fashion industry’s high carbon footprint is associated with the source of energy for production. For example, manufacturing plants in countries like China, where a large majority of garments are outsourced to be made, are powered by coal and have a 40% larger carbon footprint than textiles made in Europe.

Water

The toxic fashion industry is the second largest industry consumer of water with 79 trillion liters of water per year. To put it into picture, it requires 2,700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt and 2,000 gallons for a single pair of jeans. The amount of water needed for one shirt is equivalent to the amount of drinking water the average person consumes in two and a half years. It is also a source of 20% of industrial water pollution from textile dyeing and treatment The production of leather requires massive amounts of feed, water, land, and fossil fuels to raise cattle. The associated tanning process involves toxic chemicals including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and oils and dyes which are not biodegradable and another waterway contaminate source. It is estimated 300 kg of chemicals are added to every 900 kg of animal hides that are tanned.

Plastic

Another significant polluter are the fabrics themselves which are composed of synthetic fibers such as nylon, polyester, and acrylic and take hundred-thousands of years to biodegrade. Additionally, even simply washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year which equates to 50 billion plastic bottles. Overall, toxic fashion contributes to 35% or 190,000 tons per year of ocean microplastic pollution. 

Waste

Even greater, the fashion industry produces 92 millions ton per year of textile waste which primarily ends up in landfills or incinerated. 85% of all textiles go into landfills each year. The annual value of that discarded clothing totals to greater than $400 billion wasted per year. 

Societal Impact

Toxic fashion impacts every step of the garment production process including the workers. The most detrimental impact is on women in developing economy countries. Approximately 80% of apparel is made by women between the ages of 18-24  primarily in low income countries where women have poor access to rights.  In 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor found evidence of coerced and child labor in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Philippines, Turkey Brazil, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and more countries. Developing countries serve as an excellent host for toxic, fast fashion factories due to cheap labor, tax breaks, and lenient pollution, operation, and labor regulations. 

According to the documentary The True Cost, the toxic fashion industry is the most labor-intensive industry with 1 in 6 people worldwide being involved in some facet of the garment’s life cycle. Garment workers are forced to work excessive hours up to 14-16 hours a day 7 days a week totaling to 96 hours per week. During the peak seasons, they often are forced to work until 2-3 AM multiple days a week to meet demand primarily without any overtime pay. 

There are poor global regulations on working conditions, especially in factories. Employees typically work in dark, unsafe conditions with no ventilation, breathe in toxic substances, fiber dust, or blasted sand. Machinery and structure accidents, fires, injuries, and disease are incredibly commonplace in toxic fashion factories.  In 2013, 1,134 garment workers perished when a textile factory collapsed in Dhaka. The same year, 114 people were killed in a fire at a Bangladeshi brand’s factory. Beyond physical risk, workers are prohibited to form unions, forced to leave their families, and berated for not meeting their expected quota.

Resources

There are numerous resources available for retailers and consumers to educate themselves about the devastating impacts of toxic fashion and how to change their practices. 

Below is a list of toxic fashion documentaries:

  • The True Cost- Netflix, YouTube
    • This film explores the complexities of the fast fashion industry
  • The Machinists- Youtube
    • This film follows the three stories of women who produce clothes
  • Minimalism- Netflix
    • This documentary explores how to live better with less
  • River Blue- Amazon Prime
    • This film focuses on the water pollution associated with the fast fashion industry
  • Unravel- Youtube
    • This documentary reveals where clothes end up and provides perspectives from those who work there on why Western culture wastes so much clothes
  • The Price of Fast Fashion- BBC, Youtube
    • BBC expands upon the fashion production process from cotton growers, factories, and designers and highlights those who are leading the sustainable fashion movement

Sustainable Fashion: Challenging the Norm

Though toxic fashion has created a bleak reality around the garment industry, brands are challenging the norm. Consumers are aware of the significant environmental and societal impacts associated with fast fashion and demand brands to change their practices. The power is in the hands of consumers to only support brands that adhere to sustainable fashion practices and for brands to adjust their practices for the planet. 

About the Author

Leah Mowery

GBB Green Ambassador

Leah Mowery is a content writer for the Green Business Bureau who is passionate about using creativity and storytelling to relay the importance of sustainability. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal where she discovered a love for sustainable development. She fostered this interest in her Master’s in Global Sustainability program with a concentration in Climate Change at the University of South Florida. She enjoys painting, reading and all forms of outdoor recreation.

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