The Global Cost of Fast Fashion
Year ago, when I was still in high school, I made the decision that I would never again shop at Forever 21. And it's true that since then, I've never set foot in one of their stores.
This came after the continued frustrations of realizing that everything I ever bought from Forever 21, I rarely wore more than a handful of times - if that! I liked the clothes sure enough at the time, but they were always so trendy - never the items that I really loved, that I would go back to again and again.
Now, fast forward eight years, and there's a global proliferation of brands I've had to add to my "Forever 21 list". I avoid Zara and H&M. I don't enter Bershka, Topshop, or Mango. I've had to lock out Pull & Bear and Uniqlo.
And though I've long ago personally stopped patron-ing these stores, they've continued to grow with other customers, who flock to their ever-decreasing prices and deals. [Ok, ok - even I have to admit that I've walked into an H&M once or twice in the past few years, to pick up some cheap earrings!]
But seeing the throngs of crowds that frequent these shops, and the ladden-down bags people leave the stores with, never ceases to cause me stress. And there are a few reasons why:
1. The Environmental Cost of Producing Once-Use-Clothing.
This is a topic that has been written on before, so I will just highlight the main points here, and direct you to some of the better resources. In short:
- Polyester is a cheap material, so fast fashion flocks to it. It's also enormously energy-intensive to produce, and it's a plastic that isn't biodegradable.
- 10% of the world's total carbon footprint comes from apparel.
- The Textile industry is the 2nd largest polluter of clean water.
- The US is the largest producer of cotton (which accounts for 25% of all the pesticides used in the US). But it's cheaper to process this cotton in Asia, so it gets exported. Then, after cheap labor has turned this cotton into wearable clothing, it gets imported back to the US. I don't even want to do the math on the carbon emissions from all this transportation - just part one of global fashion production.
- Wood-based fabrics are making a comeback... which means we're cutting down trees, to wear clothing with graphics of trees.
2. We Simply Don't. Need. All. These. Clothes.
... And by buying so many items, then quickly tossing them out, we are being ridiculously wasteful.
We've long ago passed the point where our clothing donations are being usefully repurposed in other countries. In 2010, I traveled to Guatemala and, after a few weeks, realized I was woefully under-packed. A few girls took me to a massive thrift store in Quetzaltenango, where foreign travelers were buying back all the brand-clothing we've been donating, because there is simply so much more supply of used clothing than there is demand.
I see this situation in so many places I go - hangers stock-full of Abercrombie, Adidas, and H&M - clothes that nobody - not even the young children running barefoot on the streets in Marrakesh - need anymore. We simply don't need all the clothes.
We can't fool ourselves into believing that our clothing donations are being sent off to cover the back of a young child in a poorer country, who would otherwise be without. We can't comfort ourselves with the untrue balm that we are 'recycling'. Most of the time, our donations are being discarded.
3. Somehow, though, we still need Food. And Water.
Last year, we had a huge water problem in California. A lot of people started boycotting almonds, when we learned how much of the state's water goes into the agricultural production of these non-essential nuts. And while the agricultural industry is still the number one consumer of water, the fashion industry is coming in fast. Not only is all that water being used to produce the raw materials, but it's also needed to dye and rinse - both processes that are incredibly toxic.
- Cotton is one of the most chemically-dependent crops in the world.
- Toxic runoff from the clothing industry often affects local agricultural production. So we get more textiles produced for us to wear in the US, but South Asian has less food to eat.
- It can take more than 5,000 gallons of water to manufacture a t-shirt and pair of jeans.
4. Misuse of Human Resources, in addition to Environmental Ones.
Again, a quick Google search will reveal the human cost of pushing for increasingly cheaper production, to churn out increasingly cheaper garments.
- Cheap production needs cheap labor, = lower wages and dangerous working conditions.
- I'm talking about fires and collapses at garment factories, which were supposed to have disappeared back in the 1920s.
5. It's Changing How the Fashion Industry Functions, and How we Think About Consumption... and not for the better.
This last one is a bit subjective, so I will simply articulate my personal viewpoints. By continuing this push towards an ever-faster rotation of cheap and trendy styles, we're changing the way consumers think about fashion, and how the fashion industry responds to this.
In many ways, it feels as though individuals are swapping quality for quantity. For many, that also means trading a personal style, for a more generic (though perhaps ever-changing) one. People are trying more things, but never really committing to a look.
In my next post, I'll explore some of the things consumers can do to help to reverse this trend, and keep the fashion industry more responsible, and more sustainable. But for now, each of these costs should be top-of-mind when deciding where exactly you're going to purchase your next t-shirt from.
... And if that wasn't enough for you, here's John Oliver: