The actual cost of fast fashion

Clothing brands are drifting towards cheap materials to satisfy the consumer's desires for the freshest trends. But using cheap materials has a large, negative impact on the environment.

The influence of fast fashion spans the world. According to Forbes, the clothing giant H&M makes roughly 2.3 billion annually, with stores in approximately 50 countries. I’ve made my fair share of purchases from other retailers like H&M and Uniqlo, both offering cheap options as low as $10. But how can a piece of clothing be that cheap to make, transport and advertise? In fact, it isn’t. There are environmental and human costs that are not factored into its price tag.

The phrase “fast fashion” is used as an umbrella term to define the accelerated process of bringing new clothing designs to consumers. Most companies want to cut the cost on the production of clothing. They accomplish this by drifting towards cheaper materials and cutting labour costs.  Doing this, allows companies to further profit from the already cheap manufacturing. 

Our fascination with inexpensive, trend-focused clothing is generating damaging effects for the environment. Textile waste is steadily growing in landfills. The piles of clothing slowly decompose, releasing various toxins that go into the air and leach into the ground. 92 million tons of textile waste gets disposed of every year. We may see that number increase by 60% in a little more than a decade. Shedding of microfibres plays a factor to 35% to all microplastic pollution in our oceans, causing grave environmental and health problems to the habitats in oceans. Clothing factories contributes to the contamination of nearby bodies of water, unabling communities to have access to clean water. 

Clothing has become more disposable each year. Growing consumption patterns have produced millions of tons of textile scrap in landfills and uncontrolled environments. Tons of unwanted clothing is thrown out. According to the RCO, the average Canadian disposes of about 81 pounds of clothing each year. Only 15% is reused, the rest ends up in landfills. When clothing arrives in landfills, it slowly decomposes and releases a body of air pollutants that include greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. Once clothing starts decomposing, its chemicals leach into the ground, infecting the soil. Much like pesticides, chemicals can pollute the soil, which then emits toxic gas into the air. Once in the air, it can travel to nearby communities. It can cause long-term health effects, namely lung cancer and asthma attacks. 

Due to the presence of certain chemicals in clothing, its presence in water can cause contamination. 17-20% of all industrial water pollution comes from the production of clothing. These chemicals are often dumped by factories and find their way into freshwater sources. The Citarum River in Indonesia, which has almost 200 clothing manufacturers in its surrounding area, is the most polluted river in the world. These factories dump a variety of chemicals including lead, mercury, and arsenic. This can heavily impact nearby communities who need this stream to have access to water. Clean water is crucial for healthy ecosystems, food production, and for the development of a human life. Because this water source is contaminated, maintaining good health will be affected and can especially stunt the growth of a child. 

The contaminated water we see in uncontrolled environments not only contain harmful toxins, but also contain microfibres. Clothes that contain microfibers can be easily shed when washed and are released into our water systems. Microfibers are microscopic strands of plastic found in synthetic materials, such as polyester, rayon, and nylon. When these fibers enter our oceans, small fish such as sea anemones or plankton, assume that they are food and consume them. Microfibres break down, expose toxins and create blockages in the digestive systems of many animals. Not only are microfibres creating health dangers at the bottom of the food chain, they’re also causing the same problems at the top. Bigger fish containing these microfibres eventually go into market, exposing humans. The toxins in microfibres may build up over time, causing damage to the intestines.

Patsy Perry, a senior lecturer in fashion marketing at the University of Manchester, who is involved in reducing the effects of fast fashion, says, “It would be unrealistic to expect consumers to stop shopping on a large scale, so going forward, I would expect to see more development and wider adoption of more sustainable production methods such as waterless dyeing, using waste as a raw material, and development of innovative solutions to the textile waste problem.”

Rising concern over these issues has encouraged more corporations to take action. Patagonia, an outdoor apparel brand, is putting an effort in ending microfibers and plastics in oceans by incorporating recycled plastics sourced from regional recycling centres into their clothing and reclaiming polyester from the factory floor. Companies such as Dycoo and Airdye have designed waterless dyes to reduce the chemicals and water used during production. This technology is now being used by some clothing brands to dye their clothing. If integrated in the process of colouring clothes, it can reduce manufacturing costs; annually saving 15 million litres of water and 6,500 kilograms of chemicals. Adidas have partnered with Evrnu, who specializes in innovative ways to achieve sustainability. The textile innovation company developed NyCycle, a new technology in order to reuse materials from old clothing and raw materials to create new clothing. It breaks down materials sourced from raw fabrics or disposed clothing to their polymer form and builds them back. 

Organizations are sharing their concerns regarding the sustainability of clothing and are taking action. One prominent organization is the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. They have encouraged policy makers to adopt a circular economy, slowly transitioning away from a linear economy. A linear economy consists of a ‘take, make, and waste’ method. This means that after unwanted materials are finished, they are disposed, presumably in landfills, instead of recycled and reused. Whereas, a circular economy comprises of avoiding the use of using new materials by utilizing scrapped materials. New technologies can transform waste from clothing to avoid waste and pollution. For this system to emerge and operate, this foundation have engaged in talks with the regional and national governments. They have put their focus in North America, Europe, Latin America and China.

To have knowledge about the methods that companies are using and the consequences that are being created, paints a different picture for what happens behind our wardrobe. It instills meaning and purpose that flies in the face of those of consumption trends that make our apparel feel as it is disposable. It’s highly unlikely that the people who have chosen to discontinue shopping at large apparel companies will have a large impact. To have a significant change on the industry’s sustainability problem, we must have regulations in place. Placing taxes on the materials used have been considered, but not yet committed. If we want to promote a sustainable fashion industry, governments need to step in with policies that could result in real change.

Image Credit: Alexcaban/wikimedia

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