There have been times in the past few years when I’ve walked past a Zara or H&M store and lingered in front of the window, wishing I could go in and drop $20 or $30 on a cute top or dress. The old me, 10 years ago, would have done it – not because I needed the outfit but because it was fun and affordable. But that was before I knew what I do now about the fast fashion industry and just how atrocious it is for the environment.
Fast fashion is clothing’s equivalent to fast food – cheaply made, with low-cost materials (usually petroleum-based synthetics), that are not built to last.1 Like fast food, it’s unhealthy all around.1 The workers who make the clothes are paid too little while enduring awful work conditions; the trendy styles and low prices make us want to consume more, so we fill our closets with a surplus of items that stretch, stain, and pill too easily; and those items end up in the trash before long.1
The trash part of this timeline is a big problem. Sixty percent of clothes are thrown out within a year of purchase, and when so many of those are made from polyester or acrylic, that’s no different than throwing away plastic – a material many of us are trying to get rid of in other parts of our lives.2 As Kelly Drennan, founder of Fashion Takes Action, put it in a recent TEDx talk, “Why is it we care more about plastic straws and plastic bags in the landfill than we do our plastic clothes?” It’s time to start thinking about synthetics as future plastic waste.
What if you switch to all-cotton clothing? It’s another common fabric in fast fashion stores. Unfortunately cotton emits greenhouse gases, too, as it decomposes in landfills. Drennan said that, in Canada alone, emissions from decomposing cotton are enough to power 20,000 houses for a year. Cotton is also resource-intensive, requiring significant amounts of water and chemicals to grow.
Right now the fast-fashion problem is out of control. The price of clothing has dropped 30% over the past two decades, Drennan said, while annual consumption rates have doubled on average. That’s partly due to the cheap price of oil. Making “plastic” clothes requires 342 million barrels of oil a year, which Drennan explained is like “driving your car around the world 1.5 million times.”
Altogether, the fashion industry is thought to be responsible for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which amounts to roughly 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Estimates vary; a 2020 IPCC report said 10%. Regardless, it’s clear we need to rethink how we shop and dress.
So What Should We Do?
You could start by swearing off fast fashion, as I have. I refuse to give any money to retailers that are notoriously unsupportive of garment workers and more concerned with selling quantity than quality.
Spend more to buy less. Consider setting a minimum price for the clothing you buy, in order to value it more. You’ll save up, think long and hard before buying, and then be more inclined to wear it, and for longer. If you’re an avid shopper, try skipping a week just to slow your consumption somewhat.
Familiarize yourself with brands and designers that prioritize eco-friendly and ethical practices. There are many wonderful companies out there producing gorgeous, good clothing. Support these, especially if you can go into a privately-owned sustainable fashion boutique, talk to the owner (who’s likely passionate about this topic), and try things on.
Shop secondhand. The resale market is booming, apparently growing 21 times faster than the new apparel market. When you’re extending the lifespan of clothing that would otherwise have been discarded, you don’t need to worry as much about the ethics of its production (though you should still be aware of it). The item already exists, and you’re doing good by buying it, especially if you wear it for years. Thrift stores are where I pick up items like leather jackets and boots, down-filled comforters, and cashmere sweaters because then I am not driving demand for controversial animal-centric industries.
Avoid buying online, if possible. There are significant environmental repercussions with the amount of shipping going on, as well as free returns, which result in staggering amounts of waste. (Brands often throw clothes away, rather than pay the price to restock, especially if clothes are low-value.) Sometimes, however, sustainable designers sell directly to consumers, in which case online shopping is necessary; do your best to pick the right size and style, and opt for the slowest shipping, which allows trucks to be completely filled before beginning their rounds.
Take care of your clothes. Read the care labels, hand wash when necessary, hang dry most of the time, wash less (“airing out” as needed), learn basic repairs, tackle stains as soon as they appear.
Consider the end. Donate your clothes, sell them on an online marketplace, organize a swap with friends, or turn old outfits into cleaning rags. Drennan maintains it’s OK to donate less-than-perfect clothes, as the businesses or charities receiving them are better positioned than you may be to sort, fix, and recycle as needed. (Alternatively, have a tailor make repairs before donating.) See this post on What To Do With Old Clothes.