What do H&M, Zara, Primark, Topshop, and Forever 21 all have in common? Flashy advertisements and constant sales, sure. The latest fashions, of course. Cheap clothes, most definitely. But behind all the carefully curated racks of polyester-blended fabric lurks an industry that is hardly in style. These stores are major suppliers of fast fashion.
Fast fashion is a business model that entails designing, ordering, and selling clothing in a short period of time. Previously, production facilities would receive large orders for products months in advance, knowing what demand and deadlines to expect. But now, many companies wait until the last minute, basing designs off celebrity looks and high-end fashion. In order to take advantage of the market while clothes are still “in,” companies then have their suppliers, often sweatshop factories all over the world, produce thousands of garments in previously inconceivable time frames. For many fast fashion companies, this means five weeks. H&M has cut its production time down to three.
This is problematic for many reasons. First, the fleeting trendiness of many of the clothes produced means that once the design goes out of style, it is rendered obsolete by the consumer and thus will not be worn. This generates a constant demand for the latest clothes––and a constantly growing pile of unwanted garments in the backs of consumers’ closets.
What happens to these clothes when their owners decide to get rid of them? For some, a quick trip to the local thrift store, garbage bags brimming with the ghosts of seasons past, is enough to clear their consciences. However, most of the clothes donated to stores like Salvation Army and Goodwill are never sold in-store. Instead, after the clothes have sat there unwanted for a certain amount of time (that is, if they even make it onto the sales floor in the first place), they are shipped off to textile recyclers. There, everything is sorted through; wearable clothing is set aside for sale overseas, and the rest is processed for recycling.
Initially, this sounds like a good thing. If impoverished people in Africa are getting our used clothes, then despite America’s penchant for the cyclical buying and disposing of clothing, at least somebody benefits. Right?
Not necessarily. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans alone generated over twenty-five billion pounds of unwanted textile waste in 2009. Of that, fifteen percent, or 3.8 billion pounds were either donated or otherwise recycled. That means the other eighty-five percent, or twenty-one billion pounds, went to landfills. By 2019, American textile waste is projected to rise to thirty-five billion pounds.
Therefore, although the proportion of unwanted American clothing that ends up overseas is relatively small, the massive amount of waste that exists to begin with means that far more clothing is being shipped out than there is a demand for. And it’s not just Americans buying (and subsequently getting rid of) fast fashion. Spanish powerhouse Zara, often cited as the first major fast fashion brand, and British icon Topshop, among countless others, have ensured that the fast fashion phenomenon is a global one.
In addition, fast fashion is not made to last. Most of the garments that are being thrown away have simply fallen apart after being washed and worn a few times. In an effort to crank out as much product as possible under tight deadlines, manufacturers choose to sacrifice durability and quality for trendiness and quantity. This means that more garments end up in the garbage, and even fewer are properly recycled. Paired with the enormous amounts of resources needed to produce these clothes—not to mention the pollution that comes from production—fast fashion has a huge environmental impact.
In direct response to this business model, there is a “slow fashion” countermovement promoting conscious shopping. It urges consumers to invest in higher quality, more sustainably sourced clothing, and be more thoughtful about their purchases. While this means spending a little more money on individual pieces, consumers are able to buy fewer clothes in general, since they will last longer than their fast fashion counterparts. For those still wary of the price of quality new clothing, thrifting is a great way to expand one’s wardrobe while minimizing the effects on the environment and the wallet.
The best way to reduce your impact is to simply think about it. When you no longer have a use for your clothes, make sure they get donated or get properly recycled, so they don’t end up as one of the billions of pounds of textile waste in landfills. Go to thrift stores and give new life to old pieces. And when shopping for new clothes, look for ethically sourced and produced clothing, from companies that are transparent about the origins of their garments.
So ignore those emails and advertisements from Forever 21 and H&M. No matter how cute that ruffled top or those patterned pants may be, resist the urge. They will be tattered and obsolete almost as soon as that flash sale ends anyway.