Caitlin Ryan is a sophomore English major.
Did you know it takes 700 gallons of water just to produce a single cotton shirt? The fast fashion industry has been facing global scrutiny over wasteful practices like these for years, practices which harm our environment and deplete the Earth’s finite natural resources. Despite this global attention, though, it’s still up to us to be conscious consumers. Personally, it wasn’t until I realized the devastating impact the fast fashion industry has on our environment that I felt inspired to switch to sustainable fashion choices that respect and protect the Earth. As someone who’s been thrifting for the last six years, I have found that buying second hand is a great way to switch to sustainable fashion on a budget.
Well-known fast-fashion companies receive new shipments of garments every day. To give you an idea of just how many clothes that is, consider that Topshop releases 400 new styles every week, and Zara comes out with 20,000 new designs annually. While these numbers might be justifiable if these companies actually produced quality clothing, the fast fashion industry relies upon sweatshop manufacturing, frequent consumption, and, ultimately, short-lived garment use in order to make a profit. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Fast fashion companies use excessive water and chemicals during production, waste textiles in both pre- and post-production, and release carbon dioxide emissions during manufacturing, distribution, and consumption.
And, these environmental impacts are global because fast fashion companies rely on a supply chain characterized by vertical disintegration and global dispersion. In other words, the production of different stages of a single garment of clothing is usually spread out among multiple companies in multiple countries. Acknowledging the intricacies of this supply chain is essential to understanding the widespread negative impact fast fashion has.
Fast fashion companies have a disproportionate impact on environmental harm in developing countries for this reason. According to Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, “Much of the initial fiber production and garment manufacturing [of fast fashion] occurs in developing countries, while consumption typically occurs in developed countries.” This is a textbook example of climate injustice, where less developed countries bear the brunt of climate change. A single fast fashion garment leaves a toxic footprint in each part of the world as it travels along the supply chain. The textile industry also uses 8,000 different chemicals, beginning with fiber production, that find their way into our water sources and ecosystems and can have negative health effects, like dermatitis, according to Green America.
Additionally, according to Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, the fashion industry alone produces approximately 8-10% of the world’s CO2 emissions through synthetic material production, textile manufacturing, and garment construction. The same study also revealed “The fashion industry is also a major consumer of water (79 trillion liters per year), is responsible for about 20% of industrial water pollution from textile treatment and dyeing, and contributes about 35% of oceanic primary microplastic pollution and produces vast quantities of textile waste, much of which ends up in landfill or is burnt.”
The fast fashion model uses lower costs to trick consumers into buying more and wearing items less frequently, which disguises overconsumption as buying for a “steal.” As consumption of fast fashion increases “to an estimated 62 million tons of apparel per year, and is projected to reach 102 million tons by 2030,” according to The Fashion Law, the obvious solution is to buy less. But my favorite solution is buying second hand.
As a college student, thrifting is very economic (and, let’s be real, very San Franciscan). However, when doing so, it is important to avoid synthetic fibers like polyester because these fabrics take exponentially longer to break down. Organic fibers like cotton, hemp, bamboo, lyocell, and linen are all environmentally friendly textiles (and they feel nicer on your skin, too). While every piece of clothing you shuffle through in a cluttered Buffalo Exchange will have its fabric(s) listed on its clothing label, you should also be on the lookout for “ecolabels,” a special symbol on a tag that indicates the garment’s sustainability credentials.
Upcycling, or repurposing old clothing items, is another great way to economically practice sustainability while also being creative and crafty. Instead of contributing to landfills, the possibilities to upcycle and create a new garment are endless, such as sewing jeans that have frayed at the bottom into a mini skirt or covering holes with patches. In addition, donating and consigning are other great options if you want to recycle unwanted clothing items.
The fast fashion industry itself is ultimately responsible for changing its harmful practices, but the consumer must take on this responsibility as well. An effective way to combat the excess of clothing production is to be mindful of personal buying habits and to take the steps to consciously oppose fast fashion companies.