It is hard to argue against the notion that the Western world largely revolves around consumerism. Every billboard and advertisement we see urges us to spend money. We buy goods and throw them out a month later to make room for more, keeping the wheels of capitalism turning and the garbage industry alive. We live in a fast world, but we can’t do so forever. The planet simply cannot regenerate itself rapidly enough to keep pace with the exploitation of its natural resources. It is well known that the oil industry is currently the largest polluter in the world and is heart and scapegoat for our environmental issues. But as we argue over the need for renewable energy, we are ignorantly clothed in the product of the second greatest polluting industry in the world - fast fashion.
The term “fast fashion” refers to the speed at which clothes are consumed and disposed. On average, each American throws out 82 pounds of textiles each year. Large fashion companies such as Zara, H&M, Topshop and Forever21 release as many as 18 collections a year which results in consumers constantly renewing their wardrobes in accordance with the latest trends. Inefficient production practices and the exploitation of workers in developing countries with capital-friendly labor laws allow these companies to produce clothing on a mass scale and sell them at extremely low prices. Many consumers are ignorant to the transnational flow of goods, exploitative labor conditions and environmentally corruptive production practices that result in the cheap prices we see on our clothing tags. Mass supply and affordability, combined with the incessant craving for novelty bred by consumer culture, has created a mindset of expendability when it comes to clothing that the planet is unable to sustain.
The detrimental environmental impact of fast fashion begins with the production of raw material, which mainly consists of cotton and leather. Cotton is used in around 40 percent of clothes but it requires vast amounts of resources to even be created. The production of a single shirt can require up to 2700 litres of water. Uzbekistan, being the sixth leading producer of cotton in the world, has suffered great consequences as a result of the cotton industry. The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world and the main source of water for 1.47 million hectares of agricultural land used for cotton production. Now it has all but dried up and releases toxins and carcinogens into the air which negatively affect the neighboring communities. As laid out by the English fashion designer Katharine Hamnett: “Conventional cotton (as opposed to organic cotton) has got to be one of the most unsustainable fibres in the world. Conventional cotton uses a huge amount of water and also huge amounts of pesticides which cause 350,000 farmer deaths a year [in Uzbekistan] and a million hospitalisations.”
Another main byproduct of the clothing industry is the chemical waste produced from dyeing practices. In Indonesia, chemicals from the textile industry are disposed of into the Citarum River and the water has been contaminated with toxins like mercury, lead, and arsenic. As a result, the aquatic life in the region has suffered greatly and the polluted water often remains untreated as its flows into the ocean. One chemical used in dyeing clothes that is especially dangerous is nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE). NPEs have been banned in the EU but can still be found in clothes imported to the USA, especially in brands like Victoria’s Secret, GAP, Nike, Calvin Klein and Zara. This chemical leads to the feminisation of male fish when it pollutes water and can lead to various complications in pregnant women such as the development of breast cancer cells and damage to the placenta.
Almost every fiber in the material used to make these garments damages the environment during its life cycle. The production of polyester and nylon release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that contribute to global warming 300 times more so than carbon dioxide. These cheaply made fibers eventually end up in oceans and streams as microfibers that come loose during washing cycles. Microfibers and microplastics are then ingested by fish and other ocean life that make their way up the food chain and onto our own plates.
The negative repercussions from production practices aren’t the only harmful output courtesy of the fashion industry. Since most garments are produced in developing countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and Pakistan, they have to be shipped to large urban centers of mass consumption. The shipping industry is widely unregulated and it is estimated that a single ship can emit as many cancer and asthma-causing pollutants in one year as 50 million cars. Moreover, according to EcoWatch, “The low-grade bunker fuel burned by ships is 1,000 times dirtier than highway diesel used in the trucking industry.” Yet, the practices still persist without significant accountability for the damages being done to the atmosphere and oceans.
Unfortunately, just as with climate change, pollution and wasteful lifestyles have the greatest impact on those who contribute to the problem the least. In the Tiruppur district in India, the textile industry has become such a large source of pollution that it has completely destroyed the agricultural industry in the region. Unregulated dyeing practices have resulted in the pollution of the Noyyal river. Crops are now dependent upon rainfall, produce a much smaller yield and threaten the livelihood of local farmers. The primary consumers of these products are spared the negative repercussions that workers in the Tiruppur district must live everyday.
Fortunately, there is a way to make a difference with our own habits that can oppose the current state of affairs and the way that the fashion industry operates. When it comes to fast fashion, countermovements exist in two forms: quantity and quality of purchased clothing. Central power lies in the hands of the consumer. Quantity is controlled by one’s mindset. As consumers, we need to shift our habits toward investing in quality attire. We should buy clothing with the intent of wearing it for years to come and eliminate the desire to constantly renew the items in our closets. Each purchase must be backed by the consciousness of personal responsibility.
The likelihood of people following through with this on a mass scale unfortunately is not very high. Subsequently, the next solution lies in changing the production processes and business models of fashion retailers. Though some large brands such as H&M and Forever21 have launched campaigns to take in old clothes from customers to reuse, the truth is that only 0.1% of these clothes are actually recycled to be used as fibers in new clothes. This practice is referred to as “greenwashing” and is in no means exclusive to the fashion industry. Pumping money into reshaping a company’s public image to make it appear more sustainable and eco-friendly as a business, but not reshaping its damaging and exploitative business practices at its core, is a common technique used to take advantage of consumer guilt. Successful businesses based on ethical and sustainable models do actually exist though and cater to a range of fashion tastes. Patagonia, Noah, Organic Threads, Symbology, and Krochet Kids Intl. are just a few brands that pride themselves in their ethical and sustainable business models. They provide fair wages to their workers and use organic cotton and recycled polyester in their products. Even H&M is making a move towards sustainability with their new Conscious Collection, made from all recycled materials. It is clear that educating oneself on which shops offer quality items and choosing to invest in their products instead of cheap, short-lived alternatives can really make a difference in reducing the harmful footprint of the fashion industry.
We stand at a critical point in time where every decision on how we affect the climate can change the course of humankind’s future on Earth. Each day we get closer to the point of no return and there are certain damages which have already occurred that simply cannot be undone. The climate warms in a system of “amplifying feedbacks” where seemingly small changes in temperature and CO₂ levels create amplified responses that turn into a positive feedback loop. The earth is riddled with these feedback loops and complex ecosystems that are crucial to the overall state of the climate. It is crucial to remain educated and aware of our involvement with the planet’s finite resources. Becoming a conscious consumer within the fashion industry is a meaningful way to claim personal responsibility and is a significant step in combating the climate crisis that we are facing currently.