An average American buys about five times more clothing now than they did 40 years ago. This is mainly because the industry introduced the fast fashion model in the 1990s. Ever since that time, the clothes got cheaper and more available. Yet, only the price tag of the clothes is low. The environmental, social, and mental health cost of fast fashion is, in fact, very high.
But, how high exactly?
Nowadays, there is a lot of information about the fashion industry circulating around social media, and it is not always easy to make sense out of it. Some information is confusing and even contradictory, packed with the industry jargon and specific terminology that is strange to most of us. If you feel overwhelmed with all of that, you are not the only one!
Navigating through that jungle of information is difficult and can be time-consuming. So, today we are bringing you everything you need to know about fast fashion. We summarised the key facts about the industry and the impact it has on the planet, people, and mental health.
Let’s start from the top.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion is the dominant model of the fashion industry today. It refers to the design, production, and marketing that creates trendy clothes as fast and as cheap as possible. Though the term originated first in the late 1970s, the current use of the word refers to the business model of big fashion brands, such as Zara, H&M, Primark, ASOS, and others.
While the industry traditionally crated around the seasons, these companies are all about the speed. They can bring new items every week, making up to 52 micro-seasons a year. They base this model on the assumption that people will not wear their clothes more than a handful of times, turning clothes into disposable and fast-moving products. Clothes are no longer an investment, but a small thing that you buy weekly, almost like you buy the groceries. Along the way, the fast fashion brands are cutting the production costs, making it possible to have high-profit margins off a $10 t-shirt. Despite the decline this year, the experts are estimating that the fast fashion industry will reach a value of $38.21 billion in 2023.
Yet, making and selling ultra-cheap clothes fast and profiting out of it sounds a bit too good to be true. And it is. While the products may be cheap, their production actually costs a lot.
The environmental impact of fast fashion
In the past 20 years, the fashion industry has doubled the number of clothes produced. Turns out, nobody really needs that many clothes. After wearing it only a few times, we get rid of the clothes. Collectively, we send about 21 billion pounds of clothes to the landfills every year. That is an equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles wasted every second! To be fair, the clothes produced so fast are not meant to last long in the first place. The quality is as low as the price tag on those clothes. Plus, much of it is made out of non-degradable and synthetic materials, which means that they will stay in the landfills for a very long time.
But before the clothes even can reach our closets (and wallets), they already pollute. The fashion industry directly contributes to climate change, by producing 2.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year. Most of the emissions come from the production process and the transport of clothes. The fast-fashion supply chain is usually long, making a piece of garment travel through several factories and countries before it is shipped to the store. Usually, the label will only tell you where the garment was finally put or sewn together.
Such production relies on the heavy use of natural resources. One of those resources the industry uses the most is water.
A very thirsty industry
Almost the same amount of water that you would drink in the course of 3 years goes into the production of a single cotton t-shirt. An outfit composed of such a t-shirt and, let’s say, a new pair of jeans would require about 20,000 liters of water in the process. The whole fashion industry uses the amount of water that would satisfy the thirst of 110 million people for an entire year. Already today, 1 in 8 people on this planet live in water scarcity. Considering that this will only intensify due to climate change, we have a right to question if we can afford such a thirsty industry.
Of course, the water used in production has to go somewhere. It does, fashion production contributes to 20% of the global industrial water pollution. In many cases, there are no strict regulations when it comes to the disposal of fashion wastewater. The chemicals in the water that leaves the garment factories easily end in the local waterways and soil. As the RiverBlue documentary (which we highly recommend watching) shows, the garment manufacturing heavily pollutes the rivers, putting at risk the people and animals that depend on those rivers.
High profits and cheap labor
Making a good profit from cheap products also means that the people making the clothes are not paid fairly for their work. The fast fashion industry is possible because of cheap labor. The garment workers, most of whom are women, can earn less than $3 a day. That is not enough for them to afford basic things, like rent, food, medicine, or education. It common that the workers earn significantly below the national minimum wage. For example, a recent scandal exposed Boohoo producing their clothes in sweatshops in the UK, paying their workers less than half a minimum wage. A few years ago, another scandal revealed how Forever 21 treats their workers in the LA factory in the same manner. Even when the workers earn the minimum wage, it does not mean that they can afford the living costs. In Bangladesh, 72% of garment factory workers interviewed for Oxfam said that they cannot afford medical treatment when they get sick.
Exploitation and sweatshops are at the core of the fast-fashion business model. Global Slavery Index identified fashion as one of five big industries guilty of modern slavery. This means that the industry includes practices like forced work, debt bondage, human trafficking, and forced marriage. Another common practice is child labor. Children work across the industry, from picking up cotton, yarn spinning to sewing garments in factories. This means that the industry directly profits children and adults who are denied freedom of choice and have no control over their lives. The next time you see a fast-fashion brand promoting empowerment and freedom, know that they might not be able to guarantee the very basic human rights to the people who are making their clothes.
Unsafe working conditions
It is not just the low paid or forced labor that the garment workers produce. The factories can be highly dangerous places. Most of them, across the world, lack sufficient safety measures, are old and not well kept. Many don’t have proper air conditioning or ventilation, nor enough facilities like toilets. The incidents are not rare. The biggest tragedy happened in the Rana Plaza factory in 2013, which killed over 1 100 people and injured many more.
And in 2020, in the height of the global pandemic crisis, garment workers had no choice but to return to work, even though the factories could not provide conditions for physical distancing nor basic hygiene requirements. Many workers choose to return to work, under fear of losing their jobs. In the same way, because they are earning below the living age, many workers will work long hours just to be able to afford the basic needs. Working over 12 hours, a day is a standard. Working for such long hours, with no breaks nor days off, has a lasting impact on the worker’s health, both mental and physical.
Fast fashion impacts the consumers too
Clearly, the fast fashion model is highly unsustainable. But with this enormous production comes the pressure to always buy more clothes. Fashion became an endless race after the latest trends. With a new line every week, the industry is constantly stimulating our brains. We all have at least once bought the same shirt or another pair of shoes when we didn’t need them. The industry created a system where impulse buying is an accepted way of shopping.
The combination of heavy marketing and more-than-affordable prices is the perfect fuel for addictive behavior. The scientists found that even just thinking about shopping increases our levels of dopamine, the happiness hormone. Not surprisingly, fashion addiction became a recognized problem. But the scientists are clear, the more we shop, the unhappier we are. This is because we get a dopamine kick quickly, but as soon as we have the object, the levels of this hormone drop. Ultimately, we become addicted to the idea of having, rather than the things we are buying. We end up spending more money on the cheap things that simply cannot make us happy. As the founder and creative director of Eco-Age, Livia Firth, says: “Fast Fashion is like fast food, after the sugar rush it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
Becoming aware of this is the first step toward getting out of this practice.
Alternatives to fast fashion
Though it is not easy, it is possible to move away from fast fashion. There is a powerful movement and a community created around the concept of slow fashion, as a counter way of consuming fashion. Simply put, slow fashion means buying less, but better and focusing on what we already have. Many brands, some of which we love, embrace this slow business model. They choose to produce sustainably, in smaller quantities and to pay fairly for the labor that they ask for.
Shopping consciously means shopping in a more eco-friendly and socially responsible way. By supporting the businesses that are choosing to put the environment and people over their own profits, you can help fight the toxic model of fast fashion. As a bonus, you will feel better and give yourself a break from the endless trends. Instead, you can focus on the items that are good for you, the planet, and the others.