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The Environmental Cost of Fast Fashion

Fashion retail took a plunge in March 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic put a hold on in-store shopping, slowing down the production of fast fashion – which is the production of clothing made cheaply and quickly. However, the industry quickly bounced back following a surge of online shopping. Fast fashion has continued to be a booming industry.

In 2019, Forever 21 closed its locations in Canada but was quickly replaced by a seemingly identical store, Urban Behaviour, not to be confused with Urban Outfitters. Despite its environmental impact, the fast fashion industry continues to rise due to its low manufacturing costs and affordable prices.

It’s no secret that fast fashion is detrimental to the environment. A 2020 study showed that the industry contributes to over 92 million tonnes of waste every year on top of the 79 trillion litres of water consumption. Cotton production alone uses up to 11,000 litres of water per year.

One major factor that contributes to water pollution is the harmful chemicals used to dye textiles, chemicals that make beautiful colours but ultimately kill wildlife in nearby lakes and rivers. These chemicals also pose a major threat to the workers.

In addition, garments are often made with polyester, a synthetic fabric that releases microplastics into the ocean harming both marine life and humans across the globe. A report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation shows up to half a million tonnes of microplastics are released into our oceans just from clothing alone.

Once these trendy garments are no longer wearable, they inevitably end up in landfills. According to data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2018, 17 million tonnes of textile waste was accumulated in landfills.

The production of textiles is ranked just below aviation in greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, it was reported in 2018 that the fashion industry made up 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 10% of carbon emissions worldwide.

On top of being widely scrutinized for its environmental impact, the fast fashion industry has also been criticized for its unethical treatment of workers. Items are produced using cheap labour where workers are subjected to poor working conditions in sweatshop factories. This business model is what allows the cost of items to be so low.

Consumers and researchers can agree that fast fashion must slow down. One of the ways we can slow down the demand for fast fashion is by investing in higher quality clothing that might be a higher price but will last longer. Jeans, for example, are long lasting when made by high quality denim and can be donated, repurposed, or resold. 

If paying more is still not a viable option, many people have grown a passion for buying second-hand. Online thrift stores such as Depop have become more popular, especially among youth. YouTuber Jasmine (Jazmatazz) is one of many content creators who promote thrifted fashion.

“Thrifting is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint, support local businesses, [and] challenge your creativity,” told us over messaging correspondence. “[It] gives you something to do when you’re sad, and let’s you be unique.”

“There is little to no risk. There’s no investment. If you don’t like something that you bought […] someone on Depop might want it more.”

Filmmaker Alex James for his movie “Alex James: Slowing Down Fast Fashion,” interviewed designers and fashion enthusiasts to discuss the urgency of fast fashion and came to the following conclusions. Consumers must buy less frequently and buy high quality garments made with natural fibres. Consumers should consider upcycling old clothing and repairing what one already has.

Buying second hand, or from sustainable clothing companies, might not be a solution to the environmental impact of fast fashion as a whole, but it can help reduce your own carbon footprint, and that’s worth a shot to save our planet.

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