12.8 million tons. That’s how much textile the U.S. dumps into our landfills on average every year according to the statistics by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The culprit behind this massive load of fabric wastage? Fast fashion, or the industry that’s responsible for all of your favorite brands: H&M, Forever 21, Zara, etc. While clothes from these cheap, lower-end labels may seem like an economic way to update your wardrobe for the new season, it’s costing our environment-and eventually our bank accounts-in the long run.
But customers aren’t the ones paying the biggest price for fast fashion. Our planet is taking the toll under its immense weight of garment wastage.
The fashion industry promotes new trends at an alarming speed, encouraging shoppers to buy new items on a monthly, if not weekly basis. This culture of fast fashion is driving the consumeristic mindset of our generation to spend more and more on clothing that gets worn once or twice, only to sit in the back of our closets until our next spring clean-out. These clothes then get dumped into landfill along with millions of other abandoned fashion items that aren’t recycled or donated to organizations like Goodwill.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) calls fast fashion an “environmental and social emergency.” On top of producing 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions, the fashion industry is also a leading source of hazardous working conditions and unethical labor practices. These problems put fashion at one of the highest causes of environmental and humanitarian impacts in any commercial industry today.
We may understand why fast fashion is such a concern for our environment and economy, but why is it causing such a dramatic impact now? There are several reasons to be considered:
Commercialism/Consumerism At Work
With the rise of commercialism and quick, easy promotions of the latest season’s clothing through social media, shoppers are cycling through fashion like old newspapers. Compared to the speed of the industry in the previous decade, our generation is introducing new trends, new items in stores at an unrealistic rate for most average-income individuals. Anything out of season is immediately put up for sale, then trashed at the end of the period. Instagram models and Youtube vloggers rave about new products that pay to sponsor them on a weekly basis. Daily photos of our favorite fashion influencers wearing the latest items from labels like Topshop, Urban Outfitters, and ASOS make us itch to click the dangerous new “shop” feature now available on Instagram: letting us directly go from the tagged photos to the linked items in online stores. And by the time we finally decide to splurge on the runway trend that’s been all over Vogue or InStyle, like mules or off-the-shoulder tops, the new season fashion show is out to remind us of the next craze we’ll have to keep up with. Advertisements and social media influences through highly creative endorsements and campaigns are making people want the newest and hottest item. Much like iPhones, one, two-year-old clothes-even perfectly wearable items are dull and out-of-fashion compared to the exciting items worn by popular celebrities and bloggers.
Less Responsibility for Recycling/Re-Using Fashion
Unlike plastic or paper, many people don’t automatically think about the value of recycling clothing. Not nearly enough companies or individuals are bothering to recycle garments; only 16.2% of textiles by 2014, according to the EPA, were recycled out of 16.22 millions of tons of waste generated. A lack of both education and emphasis on the environmental impact of textile waste is playing a big role in this, as well as the general attitude towards recycling when it comes to fashion. Since the rise of consumerism-driven shopping choices that prioritize quantity and novelty over quality, cheaper clothes are being purchased then regarded as less valuable–thus ending up in the trash. It’s easier to throw clothes away when you know you didn’t spend enough money on them to begin with. It’s as if you’re paying for the price of disposable items in the first place, much like buying plastic forks or paper plates rather than ceramic.
Clothing, unlike other industries, has had a much slower, steady increase in price over the years. This means the rising cost of clothing hasn’t been as easily noticed by consumers, who continue to purchase more and more fashion goods on a yearly basis. Yet it is difficult to ask most middle-income brackets to budget more than they currently do on their clothing. For many, fast fashion is an easy and cheap answer to following the latest runway trends without breaking the bank. Even if we can’t afford to buy luxury items on a monthly basis, we can at least shop at the lower-end brands that offer copycat designs for a bargain. Again, it begins with the problem mentioned above, of consumeristic and commercialized mindsets, leading to the cycle of buying affordable goods, enjoying them for the short amount of time it trends on Instagram, then throwing it aside for the next new thing. When clothes continue to be made at low-quality, low price standards, it’s not difficult to keep up with this pattern.
So what can we do about it?
Thankfully, there are answers to these problems: eco-friendly clothing brands such as Everlane, Alternative Apparel, and even H&M, who has created a textile recycling program to make up for their already massive carbon footprint on the environment. Awareness of the fast fashion industry’s problems and advocacy for sustainable fashion is on the rise. As long as people are continued to be educated on the subject and make conscious everyday choices to reduce their impact on the environment and economy, slow but eventual progress can be made. Organizations like the UNECE and environmentally conscious fashion designers/companies are fighting to create sustainable fashion a sustainable reality-a goal that can only be achieved with the help of consumers like you and me.