The Dangers of Fast Fashion and Better Alternatives

My Senior Year Capstone Project

The term “fast fashion” refers to the mass production of inexpensive clothing that is made as quickly as it lasts. On the surface, fast fashion seems like a great idea because its affordability allows everyone access to the latest trends. But buying clothes this cheap comes with an incredibly high cost. The production of fast fashion relies on exploitative labor conditions and destructive environmental practices. The “fast” in fast fashion refers to both how quickly these items are produced and how long they last. Unlike sustainable clothing, which focuses on long-lasting quality, fast fashion is made for quantity. For example, the popular clothing brand Zara introduces more than twenty collections a year. Yet now, in the golden age of online retailers, that number seems low. For example, “ultra-fast fashion” giant Fashion Nova launches 600-900 new styles every week. With such a rapid production rate, the shoppers’ desire to buy more is intensified in order to stay on trend. 

The clothing industry has not always been so speedy, however. As our world has rapidly changed, so has the way we dress. The twentieth century began as an era where clothing was bespoke (custom-made clothing that was tailored to fit a single individual), shifted to the factory produced ready-to-wear model, and ended with the first business models of fast fashion. In 1963, Zara, which is credited as the first successful fast fashion business model, was founded based upon four key points: vertical integration, data analysis, fast design-to-retail production, and outsourcing labor. These four points would become the foundation of fast fashion: a singular corporation that oversees all aspects of the textile production where the clothing is based on current trends and manufactured quickly with cheap labor. As you can see, fast fashion relies on speed. This need to be on trend comes at the cost of the environment and those that make the clothing. The extreme pollution of fast fashion factories and the amount of unnecessary garbage produced creates a destructive cycle. The individuals who work in these factories are paid poorly, subject to horrible work conditions, and often exploited. 

It is not reasonable to expect everyone to suddenly boycott fast fashion, however, especially not when it has become the societal norm to be seen in a new outfit everyday. Nor is giving up fast fashion an option for everyone– often, sustainable clothing is extremely expensive and not a lifestyle most people can afford. On top of that, some brands that claim to be extremely ethical are, in fact, not actually sustainable at all. However, there are small changes we can all do to help live a more eco-friendly lifestyle. Whether it is properly recycling our textiles, or supporting the development of higher labor and environmental standards for suppliers, the Earth will be a better place because of it.

Fast fashion is a complex problem that spans multiple issues, from excessive air pollution, to exploitative labor conditions, to hidden economic costs for the everyday consumer. These concepts inspired me to spread awareness of the darker side of fast fashion through a series of art installations. Before we moved to remote learning this spring, I had planned to create a single installation that focused on the environmental cost of fast fashion. However, since I had to shift my plans, I decided to create a series of mini installations in my front yard. This series can be taken as a proposal for a larger, more permanent version in the future. 

Installation 1: “Trashion”

For this first installation, I compiled clothes from my wardrobe that I had purchased in the past from fast fashion companies such as Brandy Melville, Victoria’s Secret, and Levi’s. I arranged them into symbols and words out on my front lawn, photographed each one, and then used Adobe Draw to emphasize each message. Each photo in the slideshow shows the main statistic I wished to convey through my installation.

Every year, Californians spend over $70 million to dispose of textiles in landfills; however, 95% of this material is recyclable.

One side of the fast fashion industry that often goes unacknowledged is the economic cost of the textiles after they have been disposed of. Because the synthetic materials of the clothing are produced cheaply, they do not last very long. Most people simply throw out their clothing when it becomes too worn out. However, this comes at a great economic cost. In California, taxpayers spend over 70 million dollars each year to dispose of these textiles in landfills. This is because 5% of all landfill in California are textiles. However, 95% of these textiles are recyclable or reusable (although unfortunately, once commingled, become garbage). Imagine how much money we could save if we all properly recycled or donated our used clothing!

Even the material we wear comes with a cost. 20,000 liters of water are used to produce one kilogram of cotton, which in turn, emits 10-15 kilograms of carbon dioxide. On the other hand, it takes 17 liters of water to produce one kilogram of polyester, which emits 2.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide. This does not mean polyester is a better material than cotton, however. One kilogram of polyester also requires 1.5 kilograms of oil made from fossil fuels. Since polyester is the most commonly used fiber, nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used each year. The carcinogenic compounds of fossil fuel eventually break down into microplastics within the fiber. These dangerous microplastics eventually make their way into the ocean where they move through the food chain right back into what is served on our table. On top of that, it takes more than 200 years for polyester to decompose.

Washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year, which is equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles.

Wondering how microplastics get into the ocean? One way is through laundry. Washing some types of fabrics can send tons of microplastics into the ocean. On a larger scale, the fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater. In fact, textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally. This brings us to Installation 2…

Installation 2: “Macrofibers”

What if microplastics weren’t actually so… micro? If we could tangibly see and quantify the amount of plastic waste we’ve created, would we take more steps to minimize the damage? The answer to that question is probably yes, and was the inspiration for my second installation. Here, I draped a few articles of clothing over a piece of large driftwood that had washed ashore. The clothing represents the synthetic microfibers that contaminate the ocean because they are the very source of the pollution. The plastic microfibers that are shed from the synthetic clothing we wear end up in the water supply and account for 85% of the human-made material found along ocean shores. As aforementioned, these microfibers threaten marine wildlife and eventually end up in our food supply.

Installation Three: “The Human Cost of the Fast Fashion Industry”

With a demand to release hundreds of new styles every week, fast fashion retailers and manufacturers rely on cheap low-wage labor in order to produce clothes as fast as possible. In order to maximize profit, these laborers are often grossly underpaid (only being paid 19 cents for a shirt that will be sold for $19.99). Fast fashion’s demand for increased production often results in unrealistic deadlines, which in turn leads to dangerous working conditions. These conditions escalate the likelihood of worker injury. For example, apparel workers often work for piece rates– a system where the worker is paid per unit of creation– which pressure them to work at hazardous speeds. A 2002 study showed that garment workers often developed back, kidney, and musculoskeletal problems due to their extended exposure to fabric dust and chemicals as well as their long shifts of sitting with little to no breaks.

While a lot of retailers outsource their labor internationally, fast fashion sweatshops exist in the United States as well. These sweatshops are especially concentrated in Los Angeles, California. There are a few reasons for this, including the fact that L.A. has a well-established cut and sew manufacturing base, a large number of fast fashion company headquarters (Forever 21, Fashion Nova, etc.), and its proximity to the North American and Asian Pacific Rim markets. And perhaps most importantly, the industry’s need for cheap labor relies on the city’s vast population of immigrant workers from Latin America and Asia. Despite being necessary to the fast fast fashion industry, this immigrant workforce is subject to exploitative and dangerous workplace conditions and treatments. These workers make less than minimum wage and work (on average) around 60 hours a week just to make ends meet. The cheap price of fast fashion comes at the cost of human lives. 

So, what can we do to help?

How to Reduce our Impact

Thankfully, there are several steps anyone can take to reduce some of the social and environmental risks of fast fashion: 

  1. Buy less, wear more. Rewearing the clothes already sitting in your closet is always the most sustainable option!
  2. Instead of trashing old clothing, try these options.
    • thredUP: Save the earth AND make money! thredUP takes your old clothes and sells them on their online thrift store where you get a percentage of what is sold. Plus, they properly recycle any clothing item that is not sellable or in disrepair for you.
    • Earth911: This site allows you to find the nearest textile recycling area near you. 
    • Donate to charities such as Goodwill.
  3. Read the label! When browsing different clothing items, look for organic cotton over synthetic fibers like polyester. 
  4. Vote with your purchase. By supporting brands that are sustainable (Reformation, Patagonia) or have pledged to increase their sustainability (IKEA, GAP), you send a clear message to companies that sustainability sells.
  5. Decrease the amount of laundry loads. Try to rewear clothes if possible before sending them to the washing machine. Washing clothes at a lower temperature also uses less energy.

There are other broader ways we can reduce fast fashion’s global impact:

  1. Develop standards for designing garments that can be easily reused or recycled. 
  2. Invest in the development of new fibers that lower the environmental effects of garment production.
  3. Establish higher labor and environmental standards for suppliers and create mechanisms to make supply chains more transparent.
  4. Make retailers/brands responsible for wage theft and wage hour violations as well as the unsafe conditions of their factories.
  5. Implement indoor heat standards for workers in the garment industry (especially in California).
  6. Actively promote state and citywide standards to fill current gaps in worker protections. 

Fast fashion is a serious problem that only seems to be growing. Although it can feel overwhelming, it only takes one person to create lasting change. Any step in the right direction is helpful. If each of us choose to implement just one of these steps into our lives, the world will become a better place because of it.

🌎🌍🌏🌎🌍🌏🌎🌍🌏🌎🌍🌏🌎🌍🌏🌎🌍🌏🌎🌍🌏🌎🌍🌏🌎🌍🌏

A huge thank you to everyone who has supported my Capstone project:

Thank you Ms. Donald for allowing me to explore the Archives; Thank you Ms. Rampertab for your helpful guidance when researching; Thank you Mr. Freeman for sparking my interest in the environmental history of Choate; Thank you Mr. Davidson for allowing me to pursue this Capstone; Thank you to my parents and friends who constantly supported me and offered their help; and of course THANK YOU to Ms. Jessica Cuni for not only being the best Capstone adviser, but also for supporting me these past four years. I could not have done it without you.

And finally, thank you Reader. I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed writing it! Let me know if you have any questions/comments/new ideas. I’m always open to connect!

Skylar Hansen-Raj

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