You might not have heard about fast fashion, but you’ve almost certainly participated in it. The term refers to cheap, fashionable clothes sold at major department stores and big box chains. As soon as a style hits the runway, fast fashion companies put it into production and offer it to a mass audience, making a considerable profit in the process. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like much of a problem. You get on-trend clothes at an incredibly cheap price; what could be better?
Unfortunately, fast fashion has a dark side.
Ayesha Barenblat is the founder of Remake, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable fashion, the alternative to fast fashion. Of fast fashion she says, “It’s marketed to us as something that’s convenient, cheap, and fast, but it’s only later that we realize in order to enjoy that convenience, we have to cut a lot of corners.”
Fast fashion is like fast food, Barenblat claims, in that “there are so many ways that the food is simply not healthful. Fast fashion is no different in that, in order for our clothes to come to us so inexpensively and so quickly, they’re essentially built for rapid obsolescence.”
In other words, you’re not supposed to wear that cool new t-shirt more than a few times. You’re intended to toss your clothes out and move on to the next big thing.
According to Greenpeace, worldwide clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014. A typical person buys 60 percent more clothing items than an average person did just 15 years ago—and today we keep our clothes for about half as long.
Even if you donate your used clothes to your local secondhand store, you’re still part of the problem. According to ABC News, only about 10 percent of donated clothes get resold; most of the rest are sent off to textile recycling mills. That’s an extraordinarily wasteful process. Clothes that are often imported in the first place frequently have to travel overseas for a second time only to get broken down and turned into cleaning cloths and industrial items that may wind up shipped back to the States.
The goal of seriously considering the impact of fast fashion isn’t to make anyone feel guilty. Fast fashion is nearly unavoidable, and for people on budgets it can often feel like the only choice. We’re not trying to start any new boycotts either (more on that later). Most of us have bought fast fashion products, and we completely understand why clothing brands take advantage of the irresistibly lucrative opportunity.
With that said, fast fashion needs to go away. Here’s why.
Fast fashion has an extraordinary ecological impact.
Many fast fashion clothes are made with cotton, which is an incredibly thirsty crop. To make a single t-shirt, you’ll need more than 700 gallons of water, per the World Wildlife Fund. The textile production industry also has one of the largest carbon footprints of any global industry. By one estimate, manufacturers produce an astounding 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year. That’s more than the maritime shipping industry—which also gets plenty of business from the textile trade.
That would be bad enough, but on top of that, these inexpensive mass-produced clothes aren’t expected to last very long. We’re buying more clothes than ever before, but obviously we’re wearing the same number of clothing items, give or take, on a day-to-day basis as people have been for decades. So how is a retailer going to make you buy more clothes that you don’t really need?
“The only way for fast fashion retailers to make money is for [clothes] to fall apart within five or six washes,” Barenblat says. “A $10 t-shirt probably isn’t going to last very long.”
“Fast fashion is based on trends and low price points,” says Quang Dinh, general manager of Girlfriend Collective, a sustainable athleisure brand most famous for making leggings with recycled water bottles.
“To achieve both, fast fashion brands needs to forecast really well and make a lot of units at the lowest cost possible to hit price points that let their customers purchase more frequently,” Dinh says. “All of those things are problematic because making low-price-point goods generally means that those items won’t last. They ultimately end up at the landfill a lot faster than if the item was well made with materials that were made to last.”
When clothes start to fade, rip, or wear, consumers throw them away or take them to secondhand stores.
“A lot of these clothes are either ending up incinerated or in landfills,” Barenblat says. “Often, American clothes will end up in Haiti or North Africa, but because of fast fashion and the staggering volume of clothes that we’re sending to these countries, they’re starting to push back. They’re saying, ‘No, we don’t want your cheap clothes. They’re devastating our local economies, and we have nowhere to put them.'”
In late 2017, East African countries including Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, and South Sudan attempted to stop importing used American clothes, pressing for an outright ban by 2019.
Their reasoning: They want to manufacture their own clothes, and cheap American garments prevent that from happening. Government officials in the United States have responded by issuing de-facto penalties for those countries in an effort to protect the American fashion industry, according to a piece in The New York Times.
“Garment manufacturing [doesn’t] take hold when the local markets are flooded with cheap secondhand clothes from Western countries,” Dinh says.
Fast fashion doesn’t empower women.
Part of the appeal of fashion is that choosing your own clothing and expressing yourself through style is a fundamentally liberating experience. Over the decades, the fashion industry has empowered countless women, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always a force for good.
About 75 percent of apparel and footwear exports from low-income countries wind up in the U.S. and EU countries. In many of the developing countries that export clothing, work conditions are brutally difficult, if not outright dangerous.
We spoke with Barenblat on April 24, but we weren’t aware of the significance of that date until she told us.
“It’s great we’re having this conversation today,” she says. “Five years ago, Rana Plaza, which was a big factory complex in Bangladesh, fell down. It was the biggest industrial disaster of our time.”
The Rana Plaza factory building had been illegally expanded to meet the growing demand of the fast fashion–obsessed Western clothing market. Floors were stacked on top of one another without proper reinforcement; when the building collapsed, 1,134 people died. At the time, Barenblat was working with major brands on their sustainability efforts; after Rana Plaza, she left to found Remake.
“It doesn’t seem like this generation [of factory workers] in Bangladesh, Cambodia, or Myanmar are any better off today,” she says.
“The fashion industry is one of the only industries in the world that is predominantly built on the backs of women,” she says. “The formal numbers are 60 million [women employed in clothing factories], but it’s actually quite hard to get official numbers of the industry. There are a lot of shadowy supply chains.”
“The numbers go from anywhere from 60 to 75 million, and 80 percent of those who make our clothes are young women in their early 20s. We pay less for our clothes than we did 10 years ago. There’s only one variable cost in that equation, right? The way for a lot of fast fashion companies to profit is to go into countries where the wages are really low and exploit these women,” says Barenblat.
A common response to this point is that American clothing companies are actually stimulating local economies by providing jobs to warehouse workers who’d otherwise remain unemployed. Barenblat says that there’s some truth to those arguments, but other factors quickly change the math.
“Can we really say that these jobs are good enough when we know about the poor health and safety conditions?” she asks. “Many of these factory workers are young women who might be leaving school, forfeiting an education, to work. If the job is not even going to keep her safe, is that really the type of job we want to be exporting?”
“I firmly believe that unless these are living wages—unless these are jobs of dignity, with safe conditions—essentially, what we are creating is modern day slavery for the worker,” Barenblat says. “We’re keeping her trapped in a cycle of poverty and exploitation, and that’s just not good enough.”
But it’s not just the fast fashion that’s made in developing countries. You might think that buying American-made clothes would solve the problem—land of the free, home of the labor laws—but even clothes made here can be unethically sourced.
Per a paper from the congressional Joint Economic Committee, there are positive signs indicating that the fashion industry is “reshoring,” or returning a sizable part of its manufacturing processes to the United States. Barenblat doesn’t believe that’s cause for celebration, though.
“Fashion is really a global industry, and that’s not changing anytime soon,” she says. “Different countries specialize in different technologies and have different resources.”
The idea that Americans can produce most of their own clothes is, according to Barenblat, naive. Even if clothing companies did move all of their production back to the United States, the industry would remain unsustainable in its current form.
“You look at fast fashion manufacturers that operate in, say, Los Angeles or New York, and you find that they’re still relying on poor working conditions to produce clothes so quickly and inexpensively.”
In 2016, the United States Department of Labor announced a crackdown on alleged worker abuses in the Southern California garment industry, citing “widespread minimum wage violations,” while a 2017 Los Angeles Times investigation found Forever 21 employees working in a “stifling factory” on the outskirts of Los Angeles for less than minimum wage.
Fast fashion might even be harmful to your health.
Aside from cotton, many fast fashion products are made with polyester blends. Polyester, a plastic-based fabric, is inexpensive, strong, and flexible—but it’s not really something that you’d want to find in your drinking water.
Barenblat says, “At this point we’re literally drinking the plastic that’s in our fast fashion.”
That’s not an exaggeration. According to one study, 94 percent of the faucet water in the United States contains microscopic plastic fibers. Researchers at the data journalism site Orb found that most of those fibers come from clothes, upholstery, and carpets, and a separate study found that each washing machine cycle could release as many as 700,000 of the plastic fibers.
Many fashion activists also believe that the chemicals used in textile manufacturing deserve more attention.
Cheap fabrics that are used in fast fashion have to survive rigorous manufacturing and shipping processes, so they’re often treated with compounds like formaldehyde, which can cause allergic reactions for people with certain sensitivities. Some clothing dyes may contain heavy metals, which Greenpeace claims can bioaccumulate over time, potentially posing health risks.
Think you’ll simply wash those chemicals out of your clothes before you wear them? Think again. Research shows that many potential toxins remain in clothes through multiple wash cycles.
“Fast fashion is really creating a public health crisis, and we never think about this in terms of health,” Barenblat says.
To end fast fashion, we need to change the way that we shop.
Boycotts don’t really work in the world of fashion. While most consumers say that they want to buy ethically sourced clothes, they’re often willing to look the other way in the heat of the moment.
“If it’s a cute shirt or a cute pair of jeans, we sort of turn a blind eye,” Barenblat says. “But we don’t really show what we say. We [hold] these values, but it doesn’t translate into actual sales.”
She believes that the best way to fight fast fashion trends is to provide shoppers with the resources they need to purchase high quality, sustainably sourced clothing. Remake—which, again, is a nonprofit—evaluates brands and provides an online directory for consumers.
“We don’t have a relationship with any brand,” she says. “We’re able to give you choices to make better purchases. I think that’s what needs to change, and that’s an area where we, as activists, failed consumers in the ’90s. All we were doing was calling for boycotts, but as it turns out, unless we’re all running around naked—which is the most sustainable option—we need better choices.”
Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to research brands, read about sustainability efforts, and make smarter choices. Your research will pay off since higher quality clothes last for considerably longer, and you won’t succumb to flash-in-the-pan fast fashion trends that you’ll be over by next season—or sooner.
Once you’ve settled on a long-term wardrobe, keep the goodwill going. The World Wildlife Fund recommends air-drying clothes and skipping ironing whenever possible, which can reduce a t-shirt’s carbon footprint by a third—and it’s easier on your clothes than sending them through a hot dryer. With proper care, our clothes can last for decades, and we certainly don’t have to sacrifice fashion in the process.
“A lot of our clothes today come from shadowy places,” Barenblat says. “The best disinfectant for this is transparency. That’s what this industry needs, and that’s what people should demand when they’re shopping.”