A few years ago, I was browsing a clothing website, itching to purchase a new dress for my upcoming trip to Mexico. I had short-listed 5 or 6 dresses but couldn’t make that final call on which one to go for. After an hour of indecision, my brain whispered, “Get them all, they’re so cheap!” And I did. I bought them all. That's the subconscious thinking we’ve been tricked into by fast fashion retailers – that clothes are practically disposable. It’s not surprising then that fashion names like Zara, H&M and Forever 21 have taken over our closets. They make it so easy to get a trendy new outfit for the price of a lunch!
But what is the true cost of this type of consumption? Why are these fast fashion companies getting such a bad rep, when they seem like such a win as a consumer? The answer lies in the environmental and societal impacts of this industry.
- Fashion is Wasteful
Did you know that an astounding 100 billion items of clothing are made every year? I don’t even want to count the number of zeros in that figure. On average, we own 5 times more clothes in our wardrobe than the past generations. But we make use of each item far less. That right there, is what the fast fashion model is built on: cheap manufacturing, a short-lived use of the garment, and frequent buying.
This phenomenon of buying a multitude of on-trend clothing is further perpetuated by social media and the rise of influencer culture. Watching our favorite Instagram influencers doing transformation videos in beautiful new outfits has a much bigger effect on consumerism than we realize. Especially when you can “get the look” for just $19.99
The cheap materials used by fast fashion companies to keep costs low are not designed to last very long. Think disposable. When you combine the sub-par quality of clothes with the high turnover, it’s no wonder that products of fast fashion rarely last more than a season… before they are donated to overwhelmed secondhand shops or dumped out as garbage. You know those bags of donations that we drop off to our nearest donation center, that make us feel so charitable? More often than not, they also end up in the landfill. Three out of five of all fast fashion items end up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being made. It’s the fastest growing category of waste!
To make things worse, a lot of these synthetic materials used to make our clothes take a ridiculously long time to decompose, or are entirely non-biodegradable. Spandex falls in the latter category. Polyester, the most common clothing fiber, can take up to 200 years to decompose – it can basically stick around in a landfill forever. This alarming fact had me rushing to my closet to check the clothes I owned. Sure enough, many a shirt boasted 100% polyester. It is horrifying to imagine that my discarded shirts will stick around in a landfill not just past my lifetime, but past my great-grandchildren’s too. Yikes.
- Fashion is Thirsty
20,000 liters. That’s the amount of water needed to make one kilogram of cotton – which will spurn out just one t-shirt and a pair of jeans. That single t-shirt in your closet used the same amount of water that an average person drinks over the course of 2-3 years. Insane, right?
But there’s more. UN estimates that 80-90% of wastewater from production is returned to the environment untreated. That makes the fashion industry a top polluter of water at all stages of the value chain. Just the dyeing process uses enough water to fill up 2 million Olympic-size swimming pools every year.
This sheer volume of water consumed by the global fashion industry just boggles my mind! Having lived a good portion of my life in Pakistan, where water shortages are not uncommon, I’ve been raised to conserve water however possible. So, you can imagine my chagrin when I realized that, while I was trying to minimize the number of times I ran the dishwasher, or feeling proud of myself for always turning off the tap when brushing my teeth… my clothing purchases were fueling the largest water pollution crisis of current times.
- Fashion is Cruel
We’ve known this for years. The fast fashion industry has been built on the backs of workers who are severely exploited. Cheap labor sourced from sweatshops - in countries where worker rights are limited, if at all existent. Most of these workers are women and children. From not earning a living wage to working in inhumane conditions… its modern-day slavery. And it’s being supported by us every time we choose to buy from these fast fashion companies.
I’m not, by any means, trying to make anyone feel bad about buying clothes. Heck, I’m a recovering fast fashion enthusiast myself. But I’ve come to understand that what we wear matters. And a cognitive shift is needed. While it’s easy to shrug our shoulders and blame these fast fashion companies, we must realize that we are the driving force behind their success. As consumers, we hold a lot of power. Our demands and purchasing habits form the direction that these fashion organizations will follow. Even small actions can have an impact and drive change at a higher level.
It’s time to wield that power.
Stay tuned for part two of this series which talks about slow fashion and how you can join the movement.