If Looks Could Kill: The Hidden Cost of Fast Fashion
The term ‘Fast fashion’ first was introduced in 1989 by the New York Times in reference to Zara boasting that it only took them 15 days to ideate a new design and get it into its stores. It relates to clothes that are inexpensive, cheaply made, and mass-marketed. These clothes are purposefully made not to last, but to be thrown out and new, current fashion to be purchased. Does this quick process leave the consumers with questions such as how on earth are these companies having such a quick turnaround when producing these clothes? The main answer is that they cut corners to keep the manufacturing cost as low as possible, which poses all sorts of issues for the environment around us.
The first major issue in which fast fashion pushes onto our environment is that of water usage. The fashion industry uses around 21 trillion gallons of water annually, enough water to fill 37 million Olympic swimming pools. Companies that produce fast fashion usually set up their factories in countries that are cheaper to run in, like China or India. The problem with this is that a byproduct of textile factories in such countries is untreated, toxic water. It contains substances like lead, mercury, and arsenic that are extremely harmful to aquatic and human life which are dumped directly into the local water source. In Bangladesh alone, 22,000 tons of toxic waste from tanneries goes straight into the waterways a year, and it has been found that It can take up to 200 tonnes of freshwater to dye and finish just one ton of fabric. This water usage doesn’t go without long-term risks either. According to a report by the United Nations, we’re on track to increase the world’s temperature by 2.7 degrees by 2040, which will flood our coastlines, intensify droughts, and lead to food shortages.
Another contributor to the temperature of the earth increasing is to do with the number of unnecessary greenhouse gasses which are used in the process of fast fashion. According to Greenpeace’s Journal, ‘Unearthed’, if the demand for fast fashion continues to grow at its current rate, we could see the total carbon footprint of our clothing reach 26% by 2050. This is due to the sheer amount of energy which is needed to create these garments, for example, the synthetic fibers that most of our clothes are made of are generated from fossil fuels as well as the countries in which these factories are based in usually run on coal.
Typically when we think of deforestation, we connect this with the use of palm oil or timber, but another big contributing factor is the fashion industry. There are many fabrics that are derived from plant pulps or from plants themselves. The forest campaign group Canopy revealed that dissolving-pulp (the base material for rayon/viscose) wastes approximately 70% of the tree and involves a chemically intensive manufacturing process. Approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton and is a big factor in land clearing.
Toxins are a very present and real factor in the production of fashion. Chemicals are used in every stage of the process when manufacturing fast fashion, chemicals that are still present after purchasing and can absorb into human skin, causing health problems. The Greenpeace Detox campaign discovered 11 chemicals that are commonly present in clothes production that causes cancer and disrupts our hormones. These chemicals are being released into the environment and causing all sorts of problems for habitats and the quality of air. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has calculated the fashion industry produces 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions every year.
So with this being said, how can we sustainably shop without giving in to fast fashion? The easy answer is to say do your research. There are plenty of brands that sustainably source their materials and leave a minimal effect on our environment. For example brand such as ‘alternative apparel’ focuses on using organic cotton and recycled materials, as well as ‘Eileen Fisher’ which looks at everything from the fibers, to the dyes and finishes, to ethics during the production process, to repairs and waste at the end of the cycle – and the list goes on. They also have a buy-back scheme where they will buy back any of their own gently worn clothes to resell. These are just a couple of handpicked brands amongst many which are doing a great job at consciously staying sustainable.
An even better option however would be to either buy or swap second-hand clothes. In all circumstances, the most sustainable fashion is that which has previously been purchased. With this in mind, the single most sustainable way to buy clothes is through the app Swapabee. After downloading, this simple app lets you list any items you have at any price and you will be matched with other items of the same price. You can then message the swapper and arrange a meet, or send your items to each other in the post. Using Swapabee allows you to both get rid of one of your own preloved items as well as pick up a brand new one at no extra cost to you or the environment. The second best to Swapabee would be to shop at a charity/second-hand shop. This also has no impact on the environment, as well as gives money to a worthy cause.
It is absolutely worth noting that I have focussed on the environmental factors here, but the conditions of fashion industry workers are another reason why fast fashion is totally inhumane. Unbearably long working hours, terribly low pay, and extremely hazardous working conditions are just some of the issues. The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster is just one example of how unsafe it is to work in this industry. With that being said, cheap fashion comes at a high cost that isn’t on the price tag, but someone somewhere is paying.
This article is in association with SWAPABEE. An environmental app company that allows anyone to swap their items for others. Create an account and start swapping today at https://swapabee.co.uk/.