By Chloe Kugelmas (Awear Intern)
Did you buy a new shirt recently? Was it cute, but unnecessary? Did you buy it because it was just $15 from Zara and the price was worth it? It’s a reasonable choice at first thought, but maybe it’s because you weren’t aware that Zara is right in the middle of a great handful of companies in the world of toxic fast fashion. Maybe to you, plastic water pollution looks like a multitude of plastic bottles floating in the water. Maybe it looks like a gathering of containers and bags sitting in a river. Although these are in fact plastic water pollution, there’s a part of the pollution people fail to realize is actually not visible to the naked eye, is very damaging, and right there in your new shirt. Today, I’m going to be showing you the effects fast fashion can have specifically on areas in our environment like the damaging ways of plastic water pollution, other aspects of pollution, and giving some examples of companies who want to make a change. Maybe you’re even aware that fast fashion is bad for our environment, but today I will make it clear, showing you exactly how these effects are weaving their way through our economy and damaging much of what we know in our world.
It’s important to understand that the reason why only 6% of total mass plastic entering the ocean is visible to the naked eye is really because of the fact that it’s already broken down into small microplastics, sinking to the seafloor. This then threatens the health of the sea life that consumes these plastics, considering how it can be unclear just how much is on the ocean floor. When fast fashion companies and big chain stores like Zara, Forever 21, H&M, and Shein produce mass amounts of clothing items using microplastics, like polyester, rayon and nylon, it only builds up more waste in our oceans and bodies of water. It’s completely understandable to want to shop at these stores, trying your best to spend less on clothing items you want instead of need, but studies show that 85% of all textiles go to the dump each year, and the more dump, the more pollution goes into our environment. A textile very common amongst these brands and fast fashion in general is polyester, as mentioned, which reports from the IUCN estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean came from textiles like this polyester. The reason why this is so harmful is because of that used term microplastic, meaning that these pieces of plastic not only are so small we cannot see them, but they can’t be broken down anymore than they already have been, becoming unnoticeable. This has become such an issue because it makes it harder for people to realize how much damage the microplastics do because we can’t see them with our eyes, and can’t define the damage because it’s not recognizable to the naked eye. With fast fashion selling mass amounts for cheap prices, the large sums of clothing that come out of this directly contribute to the fashion industry being the second-largest consumer of water worldwide. Textile dyeing is the world’s second largest polluter of water because of the leftover dye being dumped into bodies of water, and with unsustainable fashion companies producing so much with these dyed textiles due to efficiency, it only contributes more to the negative effects. The trend with these examples of the plastic water pollution through fast fashion and unsustainable fashion really shows the carelessness of fast fashion for our environment, where the outcome of mass amounts of cheap clothing becomes more important than saving our environment from pollution and damaging our waters.
The fast fashion industry has slowly over time shifted from being a symbol of easy and affordable fashion to the craze for inexpensive clothing at a high demand. An aspect of fast fashion and big chain companies that isn’t talked about enough is deadstock, which is the garments that are left over and not sold that ultimately become waste, once again creating pollution. The company H&M was reported to hold a total of $4.3 billion worth of inventory and garments that hadn’t been sold in their warehouses that would then be incinerated in Denmark at a waste-to-energy plant. Although the method of incineration at a waste-to-energy site might recover some wasted energy from deadstock, it also unfortunately generates more GHG emissions and more air pollution. So not only are fast fashion companies emitting microplastics and immense amounts of waste and plastics into oceans, their deadstock is leading to more air pollution. And though mass incineration might seem to be the biggest and baddest impact because of that, the true biggest impact lies in the materials, energy, water, and chemicals that are needed for the production of these exact unsustainable products that are being sold millions at a time.
With all the negative effects on our environment that fast fashion and unsustainable clothing brings, it also makes a lot of people wonder what the future of fast fashion might look like, or which companies are reliable now. More and more people are becoming aware of the truths and horrors of the damage that big fast fashion companies are doing to our environment, and more and more people want change. There are plenty of brands out there who respect the environment and are sustainable. Patagonia is an example of one of these brands, known for creating products from sustainable materials in the most low impact ways possible. The company has developed wornwear.com to encourage customers to “put used to use” as well as providing useful and helpful tips on fixing your own items or getting exchanges and store credits, rather than throwing something away that you don’t wear. Then, maybe a less obvious way to help out the environment, is sites like Depop, Etsy, Ebay, and Poshmark. These are places that encourage people to sell old belongings they don’t want anymore, and encourage others to buy second hand. This does have a positive effect on the fashion industry because if people are buying more second hand, this can contribute to less fast fashion being bought. In the UK, the first peer-to-peer wardrobe rental service, Hurr Collective, is encouraging people to rent outfits from them, have an opportunity to enjoy it, and are paving the way to a more sustainable future. The company has made it clear that they consider their mission as a company to “cut out fast fashion”. If you’re passionate about helping your environment and making a noticeable change in the toxic fast fashion industry, it’s worth it to read up on companies and websites that encourage more sustainable methods and ways, and help to break you away from the habits of shopping at fast fashion chains.
If it wasn’t clear to you before, I hope it is clear now how truly dangerous fast fashion and unsustainable fashion can be. Though I only dived into the horrors of water plastic pollution for the most part, I hope it’s clear that these issues are amongst many other issues that stem from fast fashion and its toxicity. As a society, there are more changes being made by the day, yet at the same time not nearly enough, which is why I’ve shared just a few examples of places and companies who acknowledge the issue and want things to change. Our environment only has a bright future if we decide to take care of it, which we can do by slowly eliminating fast fashion and doing our best to make all the improvements we can as individuals.
“Fast Fashion Is Dead, What Is the Future of the Industry?: The Flash Pack.” The Flash Pack | Social-First Content Activations for Brands and Agencies, It’s The Flash Pack Ltd, 11 Nov. 2019, https://itstheflashpack.com/the-lens/fast-fashion-is-cancelled-so-how-will-the-industry-avoid-extinction/.
McFall-Johnsen, Morgan. “The Fashion Industry Emits More Carbon than International Flights and Maritime Shipping Combined. Here Are the Biggest Ways It Impacts the Planet.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 21 Oct. 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/fast-fashion-environmental-impact-pollution-emissions-waste-water-2019-10.
Mowery, Leah. “What Is Toxic Fast Fashion and How Does It Impact the Environment?” Green Business Bureau, Clearyst GBB LLC, 10 May 2022, https://greenbusinessbureau.com/industries/fashion/what-is-toxic-fast-fashion-and-how-does-it-impact-the-environment/.
Tobin, Catie. “How Plastic Pollution Is Being Woven into Fast Fashion Culture.” New Security Beat, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, https://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2020/07/plastic-pollution-woven-fast-fashion-culture-2/.