Fast Fashion and Why It Sucks

 

A tank top for $1.50? Hell yeah! A maxi dress for $15? Hell yeah! A pair of jeans for $10? Hell yeah!

We all know we love being able to find cheap clothes that look good. If I needed something to wear for my birthday, my friend’s birthday, or whatever, I knew I could always depend on Forever 21 to provide me with endless options while being on a budget (cause broke college students and pretty much everyone else are on a budget, amiright?).

We also know that the style changes so fast these days, that by the time we get to the mall, stroll around the store to look at everything, and finally find a shirt that looks nice, then try it on and look in the mirror for 15 minutes and finally decide that it fits weird, it’s very likely that the shirt you picked up is “out of style” and the new arrivals are already being hung on the racks.

I know I have some clothes in my closet that I thought looked good on me at the store but then once I brought it home and wore it a few times, it didn’t look the same. So I threw it out to be donated. I went threw my clothes and found a lot that I didn’t really wear that often. There were also some pieces of clothing that I had that still had the tags on them or wore once and never wore them again, and this is the unfortunate truth for many people I know…

Forever 21 and other stores like it (H&M, Charlotte Russe, Target, Old Navy, Shasa, Wet Seal, etc.) are able to provide us with cheap clothing (that is poorly made, has anyone noticed how clothing from Charlotte Russe starts falling a part after wearing it once or twice?) and the latest fashion trends because they are a part of what is called fast fashion. 

Fast fashion means that stores are mass producing clothing to bring us the newest style. The style cycles are constantly changing — when faux fur jackets are in style, they are quickly replaced with green utility jackets, when stripes are in style, they are quickly replaced with polka dots, which are then replaced with a different kind of stripe, and graphic tee’s that make important statements  like this:

Image: forever21.com

The fashion industry needs us to feel “out of trend” so we can continue to buy the best next thing. “It used to be four seasons in a year (Spring/Summer/Winter/Fall); now it may be up to 11 or 15 or more,” says Tasha Lewis, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design.1

Having so much cheap clothing that is shittily (not a word I know) made, has great impacts on people, the environment, and us. To keep it short, here’s why fast fashion sucks so bad:

Fast Fashion’s Impact on People

  • Around 260 million children are employed around the world, the International Labour Organization estimates 170 million are engaged in child labour. Many of them are making textiles and garments to be sent to consumers in the U.S., Europe, and other “first world” countries2. Egypt, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Thailand, China, and Uzbekistan are notorious for child labour in the textile and garment industry.
  • Recruiters in Southern India have convinced parents in impoverished rural areas to send their daughters to spinning mills where they were promised to receive a well-paid job, opportunities for education, nutritious meals and a lump sum at the end of three years, as found by a recent report that can be found here. Their findings show; “in reality, they are working under appalling conditions that amount to modern day slavery and the worst forms of child labour”3.
  • 80% of people in the garment industry are women who are frequently subjected verbal abuse, physical abuse and sexual harassment. They also receive lower wages than their male counterparts4.
  • Sweat shop working conditions can still be found in the U.S. A recent study on the state of the Los Angeles garment industry found that many workers were getting paid far below the federal minimum wage, had experienced physical/verbal abuse, and were working in unsafe/harmful factories 5. Forever 21 has been found on multiple accounts to be sourcing clothing from these sweat shop-like factories in the U.S. and of course, abroad6.
    .

Image: www.littleyellowbird.co.nz

Fast Fashion’s Impact on Energy/Natural Resources

  • Cotton is the world’s most commonly used natural fiber for clothing (40% of our clothing has cotton) and relies on a vast amounts of water and chemicals to be produced, causing trouble in river basin ecosystems like the Rio Grande in Mexico and the U.S. Cotton makes up 2.4% of the world’s cropland but yet consumes 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of insecticides7.
  • It can take more than 5,000 gallons of water to manufacture one shirt and a pair of jeans made with cotton (including organic cotton)8.
  • Polyester is in 60% of our garments and is extracted from fossil fuels, it has 3 times the amount of CO2 emissions for production than cotton9.
  • From the harvesting of the fibers, to the transportation of clothes across the ocean, to disposal, the fashion industry is one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels and other natural resources.

Fast fashion environment Image:http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/toxics/Water%202012/ToxicThreads01.pdf

Fast Fashion’s Impact on the Environment

  • The clothing industry is the 2nd largest polluter in the world, after the oil industry10.
  • Textile dying and finishing also uses tons of water and releases toxic synthetic chemicals into surrounding waterways, accumulating over time in sediment, having great environmental, human, and economic costs11.
  • The Citrus River in Indonesia is one of the most polluted rivers in the world due to industrial textile factories dumping their untreated wastewater containing hazardous substances like lead, mercury, arsenic just to name a few.
  • The World Bank estimates that 17-20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dying and finishing treatment given to fabric
  • The untreated, chemical laden water pours into surrounding waterways, which then lead to the ocean, spreading all around the world. China releases 40% of these chemicals (in order to make the clothing that is shipped across the ocean, to us).
  • 90% of garments are shipped by containers and they consume tons of gallons of fuel every hour, causing great amounts of pollution affecting the health of those living inland and around coastal areas
  • According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 85% of our clothing ends up in the landfill or an incinerator, the other 15% gets donated or recycled12.
  • For each garment produced 15-20% of the fabric is thrown away as scraps (1 billion garments come out of China each year) creating a shit ton of waste and wasted natural resources13.

Image: http://truecostmovie.com/christina-dean-interview/

Fast Fashion’s Impact on Us

  • The synthetic chemicals used to dye and treat garments remain in them… even after washing them several times.
  • Researchers tested 60 garments from international clothing chains and found high concentrations of quinolines and aromatic amines in polyester. Quinolines are classified by the CDC to be very toxic to aquatic life and a possible carcinogen for people.
  • The study also found clothing made from cotton, including organic cotton, contained high amounts of benzothiazoles, which are probable carcinogens14.
  • The European Union (EU) member states have banned imports of clothing and textiles containing nonylphenol ethoxylates which have hormone-disrupting properties and is hazardous at very low levels but it is not banned in the U.S.15.
  • Flame retardants have been linked with learning disorders, reduced fertility and cancer, kid’s sleepwear and other products are required to be treated with these toxic flame retardants (one study found flame retardants in 80% of baby and kid’s products)
  • Public health officials, including Greenpeace and European regulatory bodies that oversee chemical safety, are  increasingly concerned by evidence that shows a possible link between sportswear and health issues such as cancer, obesity and developmental disabilities16.
  • Products aren’t required to list the chemicals that they contain, imagine seeing a shirt tag that read “100% polyester doused in carcinogenic aromatic amines”?

I remember a couple of years ago I bought a pair of black jeans from Forever 21 and they reeked like tar. I washed them about 5 times and they still smelled so bad, so much so that it was embarrassing to wear them so I just threw them away. Now I know those jeans were most likely doused in a soup of harmful chemicals…

Some side notes 

  • Since the fashion supply chain is so complex — from the harvesting of the cotton, to the dying of garments, to putting the garments together, it is hard for companies to monitor and control every step of production
  • Where there is extreme poverty, many children and women will be willing to work for poor wages and in harsh conditions
  • There are weak environmental and working regulations/enforcements in many of the countries who export our clothes and even if there are industrial chemicals banned under law, inspectors can be paid off to look the other way
  • There is not a simple fix, the textile and fashion industry provides millions of jobs to people who live in the countries who export our clothes but at the same time more people who depend on clean waterways for their livelihoods are going into extreme poverty
  • Treating pollution from the garment industry is expensive and there are a number of other challenges as well as numerous opportunities for governments to take charge of these industries as highlighted by this report
  • Our consumption of cheap clothing has doubled over the past two decades and it continues to grow
  • Second hand stores like Goodwill only accept a small portion of clothes donated since much of it comes from stores like H & M and is poorly made

We’re a consumer culture, we buy! buy! buy! because everywhere we go and everything we hear tells us to buy! buy! buy!

(Sorry I had to).

We are always worrying about what people think of us and what they think of us is often judged by what we’re wearing. This is because what we wear is a visible marker of social status and before we even begin a conversation with someone, we are communicating our identity just by what we chose to put on our bodies (which can be constantly changing as we seek to always be ‘in style’).

I don’t really think our consumer habits of demanding cheap clothing, fueled by trying to look like a celebrity or “cool”  will change much . Telling an 18 year old who wants new clothes and is on a budget to not shop at Forever 21 or pay more for clothing would be a lot like telling a dog not to pee on a tree.

A lot of us also can’t afford to buy clothing that is ‘fair-trade’, ‘organic’, ‘made from recycled materials’. Many of us are trying to make ends meet and if it is a choice between clothing and feeding our children, or contributing to sweatshop labor, the choice is obvious: we will clothe our children for what is economically viable.

Though it may not be realistic for the time being, there has to be a change in our consumer culture. Water, oil, and cropland is being threatened by our constant need for growth/progress and we are trashing our world with cheap, shitty clothing. What we really need to do is buy less (much, much, less) and/or invest in companies that are innovating the process of clothing production.

Fast fashion is not the only way to do things. My boyfriend raves about his Gustin raw denim jeans that he got to personalize by putting his wallet and his phone in his pockets, overtime making an outline of them. Gustin uses crowdsourcing to line up supply and demand for every one of their products, so if a lot of men are not crazy about the design of a t-shirt, they won’t make it. This kind of business model eliminates tons of waste and helps save our precious resources (not a paid sponsor, I wish lol).

On another note, one of my favorite sweaters that I still wear today was given to me by my sister around 10 years ago. Not everyone has the privilege of having 3 sisters and always getting ‘hand-me-downs'(what 70% of my closet consists of), but really take advantage of it if you do. Personally, I don’t know if I will ever buy anything again from Forever 21 or H&M, I most likely will. But I know that any purchase I make will be a conscious one and if I don’t 100% love it, I won’t buy it.

Now when I think about it, the only reason why I was able to buy this flannel for $10, years ago at H&M, was because someone in Bangladesh, the community around the factory where it came from, the rivers, and the species that live in those rivers and the surrounding land, were all paying for it…

 


  1. Tan, Y. Z. What Happens When Fashion Becomes Fast, Disposable, and Cheap? National Public Radio. 2016.
  2. Moulds, J. Child Labour in the Fashion Supply Chain. The Guardian.  
  3. Moulds, J. Child Labour in the Fashion Supply Chain. The Guardian. 
  4. Kaur, H. Low Wages, unsafe conditions and harassment: fashion must do more to protect female workers. The Guardian. 2016.
  5. Nasser, E. H. LA garment industry rife with sweatshop conditions. Aljazeera America. 2015.
  6. Hines, A. Forever 21 Under Investigation for Using ‘Sweatshop -Like’ Factories in Los Angeles. The Huffington Post. 2012.
  7. Sweeney, G. It’s the Second Dirtiest Thing in the World — And You’re Wearing It. Alternet. 2015.
  8. Sweeney, G. It’s the Second Dirtiest Thing in the World — And You’re Wearing It. Alternet. 2015.
  9. Cobbing, M. and Vicaire, Y. Timeout for Fast Fashion. Greenpeace. n.y.
  10. Sweeney, G. It’s the Second Dirtiest Thing in the World — And You’re Wearing It. Alternet. 2015.
  11. Brigden, K. et al. Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up. Greenpeace International. 2012.
  12. The Facts about Textile Waste, Council for Textile Recycling http://www.weardonaterecycle.org/about/issue.html
  13. Dennis, G. 2015. The hidden environmental impacts of the fashion industry. http://blogs.colgate.edu/sustainability/2015/04/28/the-hidden-environmental-impacts-of-the-fashion-industry/
  14. Toxins remain in your clothes. Science Daily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/10/151023084508.htm
  15. http://www.greenpeace.org/eu-unit/en/blog/toxic-chemical-banned-in-EU-textile-imports/blog/53585/
  16. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jun/02/toxics-apparel-nike-adidas-reach
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2 thoughts on “Fast Fashion and Why It Sucks”

  1. I love this post, and I think it’s a very important topic that a lot of people aren’t fully aware of because of our consumer society. Thank you for being so thoughtful and for all of the research you did for this post 💕

    1. Hi Amanda! Yes you’re right, it is a super important topic but I think a lot of people just don’t know because we never really learn about it you know? I barely found out about how damaging fast fashion is a few months ago, I had never thought about clothes being environmentally destructive before. Thank you for reading, I really appreciate it!

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