The effects of fast fashion

Most people know that over-consumption is harmful to the environment. Clothing is no exception, but we still buy loads of it each year. While it’s unrealistic to expect people to stop buying new clothes entirely, lessening our consumption and making mindful choices can make a difference for the planet.

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion is an approach in the fashion industry that speeds up the design, creation and marketing of clothing, shoes and accessories in order to get new trends to the market as quickly and inexpensively as possible. The rate of new seasons and trends is so fast that it makes people feel “out of trend” quickly after purchase. Fast-fashion retailers launch new “micro seasons” almost every week, rather than the traditional approach of two seasons per year: spring/summer and fall/winter. This encourages consumers to buy more, more often, and as fast as possible. In addition, fast fashion may be of lower quality than conventional fashion, accelerating the need to purchase new garments. But, perhaps most damaging is the way fast fashion has altered how we think about our clothes – low prices and ever-changing styles give the illusion of disposability. According to McKinsey, nearly three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced.

Family at beach

By the numbers

According to the UN, clothing and footwear production is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Ninety-three billion cubic meters of water, enough for five million people to survive, is used by the fashion industry every year, and the industry is responsible for 20% of global wastewater. 

Not only is the average person buying 60% more items of clothing than they did 15 years ago, but, according to the McKinsey 2019 State of Fashion report, they are only keeping them as half as long as they used to. The EPA has found that 150 billion items of clothing are delivered out of factories annually, and Americans alone throw away 14 million tons of garments each year. That’s equivalent to over 36 kg per person. Most of these items end up in the landfill or an incinerator, releasing harmful toxins and CO2 emissions as they break down or burn. Many of the garments also never break down, adding to the great amounts of waste already in landfills.

Not only is our over-consumption impacting our planet, there are also labor considerations for the people in factories making our clothing, including their workplace conditions and salary – particularly in the fast fashion industry, where clothing prices must be kept low.

What can we do?

Recycling garments is an option; however, synthetics and blends can make this difficult. Donating clothing is also better than throwing it away – but since many charities receive too much clothing, a lot of what they receive is also sent to landfills or exported abroad. Some solutions include buying better, buying less, caring for your clothes, and participating in the sharing economy.

  • Buy better: You can help the environment by buying higher quality clothing that will last several seasons. Choose garments made from fibers such as organic cotton and wool, and try to buy from sustainable brands that can trace their supply chains and guarantee their workers are paid a living wage. Look for brands that offer year-round collections, which are usually comprised of wardrobe basics designed to last.
  • Buy less: Go through your closet, get a clear picture of what you have and work to improve the utilization of your clothing – most people wear just 20% of their closets, 80% of the time. You probably have some hidden treasures in there that you totally forgot about! Avoid buying items just because they are on sale; instead, try keeping a list of items you would like to buy to stay focused on what you really need. 
  • Care for your clothes: Take care of your clothes and find ways to reuse and repurpose them when the time comes. Wash clothes carefully and air dry whenever possible. If an item is damaged, can you sew a torn shirt or patch old jeans? Even many fast fashion items can last for years if we refuse to see them as disposable and care for them properly.
  • Join the sharing economy: Maybe you have some friends that would be up for a clothing swap. You’ll not only save money, but you can also find some cool and unique items. There are also numerous clothing rental services available, where you can try out new items or rent clothing for different occasions instead of buying new.

We have a long way to go, but once we stop seeing clothing as something to be thrown away, we are taking a step in the right direction. By looking for conscious clothing, caring for our clothes and keeping them longer, our individual actions can make a big difference for our planet.