I can remember the excitement that came over me when I was a little girl as I stepped into a bright and flashy shopping mall. With my nose consumed by the fumes from Yankee Candle and Bath and Body Works, I felt as though no one could come between me and the next deal I would find at Claire’s, Justice or Aéropostale. My friends and I filled our nine-year-old hands with colorful plastic bags from each shop. I remember how we used to equate more bags with a more successful shopping trip. Upon returning home, we ripped off the tags, we wore the clothes and accessories a handful of times at best and then the items would take their place at the back of our dresser drawers until they made their inevitable passage to the local Goodwill or the dump. Ah, the life of a garment.
As I got older, constant endorsements for the coolest and sexiest styles on social media caused my 14-year-old self with self-esteem issues to turn to online shopping. Brands such as Fashion Nova, Zaful and Shein kept me scrolling until I found just the thing that would keep me with the times but would not break the bank. Who would have thought that their business model was to have cheap enough prices that even an unemployed freshman in high school could fill her Instagram account with skimpy bikini pictures?
It was not until my junior year of high school that I started to learn about the adverse effects the fast fashion industry had on the environment. I then realized the hand-me-downs and thrift store deals I once feared wearing in front of my peers were the only chance we had at not completely destroying the planet for our fashion choices.
Fast fashion is built on the near instantaneous production of garments that are sold at extremely low prices — a great idea for a business mogul that completely disregards the repercussions of this production strategy. Beneath the inviting websites filled with “BOGO” deals and links to the most trendy looks, there is a huge detrimental environmental footprint carved into the Earth. Despite the consumer’s desire to keep purchasing items due to the captivating marketing strategies these industries pose on our attention, 20% of surplus production of clothing has proven to sit in stores unpurchased until it is taken to a landfill. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the fast fashion industry has a 10% contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. The amount of water it takes to make just one t-shirt is roughly 700 gallons.
The most damaging part about the fast fashion industry is that nearly all of the garments are fabricated with non-biodegradable synthetic materials such as rayon, polyester and nylon. This leaves fashion fast to produce, fast to build up and fast to pollute the Earth. Not only does fabric waste take up precious space on our Earth that could be used for forestry, but the synthetic materials are often composed of toxic materials like petroleum that pollute water bodies and the atmosphere. Consumer complacency has to stop if there is any hope of reversing the effects of climate change.
Maybe you have already caught onto the case against fast fashion. Perhaps you promised to only buy from brands that promote sustainability or use recycled materials in their items. You, unfortunately, have fallen victim to greenwashing: the facade brands use to seem more environmentally friendly to customers. The brand H&M received criticism for this when they marketed their clothing as “sustainable,” but gave no specification of what elements of the garments were sustainable. It is not required to include what percent of a garment is made of recycled material, but customers have the right to know if it is 2% or 75%. Companies often throw out environmentally friendly terms with no change in fabrication of their goods at all. Do not let the words “eco,” “natural” and “recycled” fool you. They can be just as evil as any other marketing buzzwords.
Some products can appear to be sustainable, but upon further investigation, it is clear that long-term environmental impact is not always taken into consideration. Though not clothing in particular, the metal straw movement proves this point. Ever since the crushing video of someone removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nostril, reusable straws have been a necessity for everyone. However, the first solution to decreasing the environmental impact of an industry is not always the best one. While they are not as likely to puncture a sea turtle’s nasal cavity, aluminum and titanium metals can still take roughly 500 years to decompose.
So what do we do as consumers? How can our outfits pass the vibe check in this day and age without destroying our planet?
The answer is easy. Every time you purchase an item, think about where it has been. If you find a garment at a second-hand shop or perhaps you are fortunate enough to know the person who made it, you have already cut a huge part of your environmental footprint. Then think about where it is going. If you know the piece of clothing is biodegradable (i.e. cotton, wool or hemp) trust that when you stop wearing the item, the Earth will eventually stop wearing it too. It may be hard to be a mindful consumer, but the world is desperately calling on us to be. Thrift away.