Picture this. You are walking through your local mall (in pre-pandemic times), and you pop into any one of the popular anchor stores. A $15 sweater catches your eye on a rack not too far from the store entrance. You think it’s cute, and that it will pair well with that skirt you’ve never worn. Or those jeans in the back of your closet with the tags still on them. You buy the sweater, wear it once or twice, and it is never seen again. Sound familiar? As common as this scenario is, one may think shopping in this manner is perfectly fine. In actuality, the world’s obsession with fast fashion is sending it down a dangerous path of devastation and destruction.
We’ve all been there
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the temptation. I’ve been there too! Walking into a fast fashion store with so many options and possibilities at an unbeatable price point would make anyone want to shop there. However, if we think about the $15 sweater again, there were most likely ten or more of that same item on the rack you pulled from.
Statistically speaking, more than half of those sweaters will never be worn. According to Clean Clothes Campaign, three out of five fast fashion items end up in a landfill. As cluttered as our landfills already are with single-use plastics, trash and other debris, it’s unsettling to think of unused clothing ending up there just as frequently, if not more. Considering the cheap and toxic materials many of these sweaters are made with (hello, polyester, etc.), the bulk of them rotting in the landfill takes a heavy toll on the environment in the long run.
The environmental impacts of fast fashion
Speaking of toxic materials and the environment, it does not just affect the finished fast fashion products in the landfill. The entire manufacturing process is contaminated from the beginning. The process your $15 sweater undertook to reach your hands took a lot of washing and dyeing. McKinsey and Company’s The State of Fashion article states that “washing, solvents and dyes used in manufacturing are responsible for one-fifth of industrial water pollution”.
“Washing, solvents and dyes used in manufacturing are responsible for one-fifth of industrial water pollution.”
In America, we are all too familiar with the importance of having clean water for our communities, and the cost of not having it (just look at the Flint, Michigan water crisis that’s still ongoing years later). However, fast fashion companies only prioritize their profit margins, so wastewater is most often dumped right back into the environments where people live and need access to quality water for cooking, cleaning and drinking.
Is it worth it?
If we revisit the rack with plenty of $15 sweaters, a new question comes to mind, is it worth it? If more than half of them end up in the landfill, that means they’re not being sold. More than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilization and the overall lack of recycling.
Fast fashion brands have it built into their business models to overproduce the amount of clothing needed for any given season. If your favorite retailer has altogether 100 of those $15 sweaters, and only sells 40 of them, the other 60 are just left to sit. There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re brand new and in excellent condition, but they will be sent to the landfill. Not repurposed or donated to secondhand retailers and other communities in need, just discarded as trash.
The fast fashion business model is built to accept losses on this large of a scale, because their profits are in the trillions. $500 billion in unused merchandise is a drop in the bucket for them. That $15 sweater doesn’t sound so good anymore, does it?
Look, I am not trying to shame anyone who buys this $15 sweater, like I said, we have all been there. My goal for this article is to tell you the story behind it and spread awareness around the impacts of the fast fashion industry in hopes that if/when this sweater is bought, it is utilized to its fullest.
So now what?
So now that we have a better understanding of fast fashion, what can be done with this information? I have a few suggestions.
First things first, becoming aware. Every week, I spend 30 minutes browsing the web on my Lenovo Yoga laptop to learn more about sustainable fashion. Always remember, knowledge is power!
Secondly, make sure that this $15 sweater gets worn in countless different ways, so that its useful life cycle is fulfilled despite it being a fast fashion piece. For example, if it gets holes in it, find ways to mend it. If it shrinks after you wash and can no longer fit, donate to a secondhand retailer where the sweater can be found by someone new and continue to be utilized.
And most importantly, when you buy more sweaters, buy them secondhand, to limit your contribution to the fast fashion cycle and its impact on the world.