I love this transitional period between spring and summer. For those of us who live in areas of the world with seasonal shifts like this, it’s time to pack up winter clothes and bust out the warm weather gear. T-shirts replace sweaters, sunglasses sub in for scarves, flip flops take over for boots…
It can be a lot of fun to rediscover the stuff that’s been packed away for months and even add a few new things to our closets. But there’s a dark side to these seasonal wardrobe shifts—the pressure to buy, buy, buy.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think that fashion can be a fun way to express ourselves. But when you combine insatiable demand for trends with the fast-paced nature of today’s world and ruthless competition to create the cheapest products possible, fast fashion is born.
Today we’re going to cover what fast fashion is, why it’s a problem (especially for the environment) and what you can do to help. I’ll provide you with some specific, simple tips—it’s not complicated or hard, I promise!
What is fast fashion, anyway?
The term “fast fashion” is used to describe trendy clothing that’s mass-produced to meet consumer demands (note: I use the word “clothing” throughout this article for simplicity’s sake, but I’m talking about all fashion, which means shoes, bags, accessories, etc.). These items are usually made inexpensively and rapidly in an effort to cut costs and deliver products to the market as fast as possible.
Many people associate fast fashion with cheap, throw-away crap that lasts about as long in your closet as an avocado does on your counter. This kind of clothing often falls apart after a couple of washes or wears due to low quality standards. It also tends to go out of style quickly because it’s made to meet society’s hunger for passing trends, not to stand the test of time.
Wondering how to figure out what’s fast fashion and what’s not? It’s not always cut and dry, and it’s important to research your favorite brands. But keep an eye out for clothing that’s priced really low—there’s usually a reason it’s so cheap, and someone somewhere might be paying the price. Also tread carefully when shopping from the stores you’d typically find in malls or those owned by big corporations. I’m not saying they’re all bad, but I encourage you to look into their environmental and labor standards. I’ll share some resources later on in this post to help you learn what to look out for and how to research your go-to brands.
Why is fast fashion a problem?
As with many mass-produced consumer goods (everything from your couch to the utensils you use in your kitchen), the problems with fast fashion are far-reaching and incredibly complex. I know it can be hard to wrap your head around these issues, so I’ve broken down some of the key themes and impacts below. While we can’t cover all of the nuances and details surrounding this issue in one article, understanding these aspects is a good place to start.
Society’s hunger for fast, cheap, trendy fashion hurts our planet in a number of serious ways. Here are some of the biggest environmental impacts:
- Water consumption: It takes about 2,700 liters of water to make just one cotton shirt (source). And those shirts (and jeans and dresses and purses and so on!) add up quickly. According to the World Resources Institute, that’s enough water for one person to drink for 2 ½ years. Another study estimated that the global fashion industry consumes enough water every year to fill 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools (source).
- Pollution: The fashion industry is responsible for about 20% of water pollution around the globe. It’s also to blame for about 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions (source). That’s right… for the entire world. Plus, one study found that approximately 30% of the substances used to make clothing pose a risk to human health (source).
- Waste and landfills: Because fast fashion products either wear or go out of style quickly, we’re throwing a whole lot away. A 2016 article from McKinsey states that within a year of being produced, almost three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills. That means those potentially harmful, non-biodegradable materials we discussed just sit there slowly seeping toxins into the air, ground and water.
While consumer pressure has caused some fast fashion brands to improve conditions in their factories, many workers are still subject to unsafe work environments. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor reported evidence of forced and child labor in the fashion industry in several countries (source).
Young women between the ages of 18 and 24 make about 80% of the apparel on the market. And they’re often not paid a living wage because fast fashion companies hoard most of the profits for themselves. They’re forced to live in poverty, often unable to afford the bare minimum necessities for their families (source).
People aren’t the only living beings impacted by fast fashion. Our furry and feathered friends are vulnerable, too. For example, most of the world’s leather comes from India and China, where animal welfare legislation doesn’t exist. And in the countries where those laws do exist, the legal protections are geared toward pets and often don’t extend to animals raised for leather. Make no mistake, leather is not simply a by-product of the meat industry (which is deeply problematic in and of itself!).
And as for that wool sweater—well, we’re not talking about happy sheep who get to live stress-free lives running free and playing with their friends. Many of the sheep exploited for their wool undergo painful procedures and live in otherwise inhumane conditions. More responsibly sourced wool does exist, but it’s more expensive and hard to come by from the big fashion retailers (source).
The bottom line when it comes to animal products used for clothing: If it doesn’t say it’s ethically produced, it’s probably not. And many people (myself included!) believe that regardless of the process, owning and using living creatures like commodities is exploitation, plain and simple.
The fast fashion industry isn’t just polluting our planet, it’s also polluting our minds. We’re constantly flooded with ads designed to make us think that buying = happiness. There’s unbelievable pressure to follow the latest trends and never wear the same thing twice. And while fashion can be a fun and beautiful way to express our individuality, it can also make us feel inadequate or bad about ourselves.
The messages are pretty clear: We’ll be more attractive/successful/desirable/satisfied/etc. when we buy. But the more we buy, the more we end up throwing away (that shirt is so last year, am I right?!). That kind of mindset is really at the root of the fast fashion problem: The industry has to cut corners to keep up with voracious demand. The more we demand, the more they produce. And the more they get away with producing and selling, the harder they push us to consume even more.
7 Simple Ways to Stop Supporting Fast Fashion
This may be a complicated issue, but together we can influence big change. Even one small shift in the way you approach your wardrobe has the power to make a difference. Start by trying one of these tips on for size.
1. Remember that less is more.
I remember when my cousin (a well-known photo director in the fashion industry) saw my closet for the first time. I had a good chuckle when she praised me for doing a great job on my “spring closet edit.” My response: That’s no edit, that’s everything I own! LOL. Now, I haven’t mastered this, but I’m working on cultivating a mindful, minimal approach to my wardrobe—something I’m hoping you’ll be inspired to do, too.
Contrary to what the big fast fashion retailers want you to think, true style is not about having a closet that’s overflowing with all of the latest passing fads. Rather than jumping on every trend train (because they never stop coming—so why stress yourself out trying to keep up?!), choose fewer high-quality, classic, versatile pieces. They’ll last longer and you can say buh-bye to that whole “I can’t see my floor because it’s covered in a mountain of clothes but I still have nothing to wear” feeling.
2. Focus on the stuff you love.
Style is about expressing your individuality and being comfortable. It’s about feeling your best and dressing in a way that allows your gorgeous light to shine through. When you focus on wearing what you love rather than what the ads/models/media tell you to wear, you’ll find that you naturally start buying less. You’ll gravitate toward the stuff that really sparks joy (thanks Marie Kondo!) and stop filling your space with stuff you only wear once… or never.
3. Get educated.
There are tons of incredible resources out there to help you learn more about the problems with fast fashion and what you can do to influence change. Here are just a few:
- Eco Warrior Princess publishes tons of helpful articles on all things sustainability. They’ve dedicated a whole section of the site to fashion, where you’ll find practical, well-researched articles to help you understand these issues. The Good Trade is another fantastic website in this same vein that I recommend checking out!
- Good On You’s mission statement says it all: “Wear the change you want to see.” This website and app is run by a group of campaigners, fashion pros, scientists, writers and developers who aim to help create a world where fashion is sustainable and fair. They rate fashion brands based on criteria such as environmental impact, labor conditions and animal welfare. DoneGood is another great app that’s designed to help you find environmentally and socially responsible brands.
- The Minimalists Podcast is what it sounds like… a podcast about minimalism! You don’t have to go full-blown minimalist to pick up some great ideas from these guys. Listening is a great way to get into that “less is more” mindset we discussed above. Plus, they have a whole episode (#56) on clothing.
- On my watch/read list: The True Cost (this documentary is available on Netflix!) and The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy.
And while you’re at it, don’t forget to share the love! When you learn something interesting—especially something that inspires you to take action—get your peeps in on it, too. Saving the planet is more fun together, after all. Just remember to lead with compassion, patience and understanding. People tend not to respond to negativity, preachiness, etc., so opt for positivity and your unique brand of amazingness (the world needs it, toots!). We can influence so much more change that way.
4. Practice conscious consumption.
Let me be perfectly clear—our conversation today is not about buying more! Reducing overall demand is a big part of stopping fast fashion. As we’ve discussed, that means adopting a more minimalist approach to your wardrobe.
If you do feel compelled to buy something new, think carefully about whether or not you really need it. And if you don’t really need it—do you just want it? That’s ok, too! There’s nothing wrong with treating yourself or filling the gaps in your closet. Just choose wisely. Again, it all comes down to being mindful about when and how we buy.