“The very nature of fashion’s raison d’être — new styles, looks and lines every season — is diametrically opposed to sustainability,” says Max Lenderman, CEO of School. Fashion conditions us to follow trends and frequently reinvent our style — to discard the old and buy-in to the latest hype.
The fast fashion industry’s so-called “democratization of fashion” emulates this perception. Fast fashion opened the floodgates, allowing people to wear the styles of a coveted designer, however, while boosting the production of clothing to massive levels and encouraging a throwaway lifestyle. Is this wasteful business model changing in 2021? Here I decode fast fashion’s environmental health impacts, investigate “green” initiatives, and suggest habits you can implement today to be a more sustainable shopper.
The realities of fast fashion’s terrible effects on our planet include carbon emissions, water pollution, and agricultural workers’ exposure to pesticides. The fashion industry alone accounts for 8 percent of carbon emissions, with textile production, in particular, contributing more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined. Washing, solvents, and dyes used in production contribute to one-fifth of industrial water pollution, and the most commonly-used fiber, polyester, introduces vast amounts of microplastic into the ocean annually. Microfibres take more than 200 years to decompose and endanger marine life, alter underwater ecosystems, and when ingested by humans are linked to harmful health effects, including various cancers. Another key concern is the significant threat pesticides pose to agricultural workers who treat conventional cotton, one of the most commonly used fabrics in the fast fashion industry.
As the realities of fast fashion’s impacts on our health and the planet become ever more apparent, a penchant for sustainable fabrics and practices is more than just ethically sound. It now feels urgent, necessary, and non-negotiable.
Increasingly fast fashion brands have reacted to shifting consumer dynamics and have adopted green initiatives such as recycling and conscious collections. However, little to no retailers focus on making production transparent and eco-friendly. This painting of a “green sheen” is called greenwashing. For instance, Zara’s commitment to have 100 percent of cotton, linen, and polyester be sustainable by 2025, and 100 percent of viscose by 2023, has not defined what it means by “sustainable” when it comes to viscose. Further, its pledge to have all stores be eco-efficient is not supplemented with a specific target to reduce carbon emissions or water consumption across its supply chain. Clearly, such fast fashion brands are not doing enough. On top of the lack of transparency and nonspecific actionable items, a key issue lies within the lack of a consensus on what constitutes “sustainable” and particularly, “sustainable fabrics”. Policymakers germane to retail and environmental health, and others within the space should set clear standards to keep fast fashion businesses accountable. On the other hand, we as consumers must do our part to make conscious efforts to reward sustainable brands, make informed shopping decisions, and reduce clothing waste.
A good way to be more sustainable is to purchase from eco-friendly brands. Most of us know how damaging fast fashion can be to the environment, and want to make sustainable purchases, but sometimes a t-shirt at Everlane for 18 dollars is less enticing than a 5 dollar Zara alternative.
Secondhand clothing may just be the solution. Whether you are purchasing from a sustainable label or a fast-fashion brand, shopping preowned clothing promotes a circular lifecycle and is good on your wallet.