BY AVNI MISHRA '23
$1000 dollar hauls are the recent trend, with influencers showing off clothing from fast fashion websites like SHEIN, YesStyle, and Fashion Nova. Fast fashion, a model of clothing manufacturing, centers around the design, creation, shipment, and discarding of inexpensive garments. The market’s skyrocketing sales encourage more clothing businesses to adopt the same production style, but its popularity also warrants an examination of its negative repercussions. Fast fashion reflects a shift from artistry towards exploitative consumerism, ultimately damaging the environment.
Throughout fashion history, clothing has symbolized empowerment and identity. Cheaper cottons and somber colors were a celebration of equality after the French Revolution, and bloomers embodied the women’s suffrage movement in the 1920s. While typical retailers might not spark a movement of change, fashion—at its core—is an art. However, luxury brands are the few that still commit to retaining the artistry of fashion today: they use higher quality materials and pay expert designers and tailors more, which helps them carve out their distinct aesthetics.
In contrast, fast fashion brands are practically indiscernible from one another. Individual style is too costly and time-consuming for them, so they copy other brands. They also steal designs from celebrities’ public appearances, sometimes even name-dropping to market their products. This tactic caused Kim Kardashian to sue Missguided USA for $2.7 million after the company recreated a dress she posted on her Instagram page mere hours before—a feat that demonstrates fast fashion’s incredible speed.
With the influx of retailers producing identical items, fast fashion creates an oversaturation of designs. In this manner, trends start and end within months or even weeks after they first grow popular. To ride profit waves, the companies pump out new releases every week, rapidly switching out their entire catalog to attract customers before anyone else can. While adaptation is natural for any industry, this model’s prevalence in the fashion world has environmental consequences.
The amount of waste fast fashion manufacturers and consumers produce is unmatched. On average, 11.4 tons of textile waste populate landfills and incinerators every year. Fast fashion items inevitably rip and tear; these cheaply-made garments are not built to last. Nonetheless, before the threads even unravel, the clothes are deemed outdated and thrown away. Because of rapid clothing manufacturing, the rate of clothing disposal has skyrocketed since the industry’s rise.
Once discarded, clothing waste increases pollution. Many fast fashion companies weave using non-recyclable crude-oil based plastics so the garments release greenhouse gasses when burned and contribute to 10% of global carbon emissions. Other textiles, composed of finely-spun plastic, release threads that bypass washing machine drains, floating through filters in wastewater treatment plants into oceans, rivers, and lakes. While it may seem insignificant, the sheer quantity of fast fashion in circulation causes pollution to accumulate. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that plastic pollution from textile waste is 11 times more abundant than that from plastic water bottles and containers, the notorious sea polluters.
Pollution also affects millions of textile factory laborers: for convenience, most fast fashion companies dump landfills created by textile and factory waste in the developing countries where they outsource their production. Consequently, they pollute the land and water around underprivileged communities.
Yet, not all companies remain ignorant. As activists shed more light on fast fashion’s repercussions, companies sometimes try to present a more environmentally conscious approach to their design, like H&M—one of the larger and more popular fast fashion companies. H&M promotes a “Conscious Collection,” in which every garment is made of recycled fabrics, placing donation bins in every store to boost their environmentally friendly image. However, only 35% of all received material was recycled, with the rest thrown away. H&M thus attempts to gain public approval by greenwashing, where companies market their practices as more sustainable than they really are. H&M understands its negative environmental impacts, but instead of actually fixing the problem, it only deceives the public to preserve its image.
Not all hope is lost, however. As people call out the environmental impacts and violation of human rights that follow fast fashion, more brands dedicate themselves towards sustainable and ethical production. It comes at a greater cost, but pricier items help assure that the workers that produced them received ethical treatment. Some companies worth your attention include Pact, Tentree, Patagonia, and plenty more.
Thrifting has also gained popularity, especially among those who are tempted by fast fashion’s low price tags. It stops support for fast fashion and also combats clothing waste by reselling garments instead of discarding them.
Finally, spreading awareness to friends and families about the dangers and horrors of fast fashion helps immensely. Learning about the victims of factory collapses, clearing the community of textile plastic waste, and advocating for ethical fashion are all important steps you can take to slow fast fashion.