Fast Fashion – To Be Trendy or Thrifty, To Which Harms or Helps The Environment?

Written by: Divyesh Balakrishnan (2SA6) and Vera Teo Hui Zhen (1SA1)

With a massive number of 8 billion people living on earth today, the number of fashion styles are bound to keep increasing, ranging all the way from streetwear to formal clothing. This has enabled an increasing rate of fast fashion brands to pop up in the market to produce extensive amounts of clothes and cater to varying styles.

[Names of several fast fashion brands. Image: Brightly]

Let’s first define what fast fashion means exactly – the inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. But why is the clothing so cheap? How are the retailers able to produce clothing so rapidly? And how exactly does fast fashion lead to environmental and labour issues? 

Fast fashion brands, such as Zara and Shein, mass manufacture new designs almost every single day. To be able to produce at such a fast rate, retailers leverage the use of cheap and low quality materials, like synthetic fibres. They also employ workers in less developed countries that work in sweatshops with unfair and unhygienic conditions. The exploitation of these factors have affected not just us consumers, but also the environment and these garment workers.

1) Consumers

Even though these clothes are cheap, the quality of them are hardly substantial to keep for weeks, let alone years, before they start disintegrating. Sometimes, the quality of them are so poor that they can only be worn a few times before holes start forming and cotton starts piling up, and they are thrown out. This means that consumers will have to buy an increasing quantity of clothes to compensate for the ones they’ve disposed of, leading to a continuous and unhealthy cycle of buying and throwing away cheap clothes. Overall, consumers will fall into the rabbit hole of spending their money on cheap clothes, forgetting that the increase in quantity bought has incurred a greater loss for them.

To save more money in the long run, and to protect the environment, the idea of slow fashion comes into play. Consumers can buy their clothing from thrift stores, that sell second hand clothing, so as to reduce the toxic cloth waste, produced by fast fashion, from being thrown into the landfills and the ocean. 

[Photo of a thrift store. Image: TIME]

2) Environment

Due to the huge number of poor quality clothes being thrown out every day, and the toxic materials that they are made out of, carbon emissions and toxic chemicals are being released into the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate, with fashion waste being a key factor. Landfills are also filling up very rapidly from the heaps of fashion waste. For example, the Semakau landfill is expected to fill up by the year 2035. There is also the insidious by-product of many fashion products – microplastics. “Textiles are the largest source of primary microplastics, accounting for 34.8% of global microplastic pollution”, according to Boucher, J. and Friot, D. (2017) Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: A Global Evaluation of Sources. IUCN.  While tiny in size (less than 5mm), its impact on the marine environment is colossal. They can end up in the bellies of the entire marine life food chain and hence also be ingested by humans!

[Fishermen walking along the ocean littered with waste from fast fashion. Image: Bloomberg]

3) Garment workers

A lot of fast fashion clothes we buy are sourced from less developing countries, including China, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. This is because labour there is very cheap. Fast fashion firms, just like every other firm, are profit-driven, and hence, will make clothes there to cut costs. For countries like Bangladesh, the minimum wage is only 20 cents a year. Unfortunately, the conditions for clothing factory workers may be very inhumane. In such factories, the actions of workers are greatly monitored and restricted as they fear their clothes are stolen from the factory.

[Garment workers and their working conditions. Credits: A.M. Ahad/Copyright 2018 The Associated Press]

Fortunately, there are ways to solve the fast fashion predicament. For one, we could start renting clothes instead of buying new clothes. Look at the company Rent Runway’s approach to fashion. Customers can rent clothes for 8 days and return it afterwards instead of letting the article of clothing rot away in their closet after a one-time use. By adopting such approaches, I hope we as a society can resolve the fast fashion crisis.

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