Exposing the World of Fast Fashion
We are living in a time of crisis. Social, political, and environmental. It seems that not a day goes by when our world isn’t off-kilter. As we scramble to fight climate change, address social injustices, and protest the wrongdoings of corrupt leaders, one can easily become overwhelmed with the current zeitgeist.
We do what we can. We recycle, we reuse, we buy bikes; yet there are times when we simply can’t avoid the environmental price tag of living in this high-tech, fast-paced society. For some, driving a car is the only way to get to work, others may have to travel by plane to see an ill family member, and not everyone has the means to grow their own food. Just simply living day to day has environmental repercussions, an unfortunate side effect of being human.
As we struggle to tread lightly on our planet, we must first look to the industries that have been leading us down the path of destruction and expose them for what they are. The first industry that may come to mind when you think of environmental damage might be the automotive industry and transportation. Or maybe images of nuclear power plants and fracking fill your mind. But did you ever consider the shoes on your feet or that cute skirt with the tags still attached hanging in your closet?
The fashion industry often slinks by our radar unnoticed and undetected, distracting us with shiny things and expressionless runway models. They fill our brains with the latest summer swimsuit must-haves and create clutch purse envy, one glossy magazine ad at a time. And we fall for it. We buy the clutch purse and the skirt and shimmy our feet into pointy triangles and call them shoes. We feel good. We look good. And wow, what a bargain! But despite the honeymoon phase with our latest ensemble, we leave the store in complete ignorance of the despair we have just funded.
Chances are we will only wear these so-called “must-haves” - a few times or maybe even not at all. The skirt will tear after one wash, the shoes will become scuffed and uncomfortable after one evening out; and our miniature purse is now considered "so last season". Into the landfill, they go.
This is the cycle of fast fashion, one of the biggest industries leading our planet down the path of environmental and social injustice.
A Brief History of Fast Fashion.
The birth of fast fashion began during the Industrial Revolution with new technologies like the sewing machine being introduced. Prior to this, fashion was slow; extra slow. Making an outfit before the 1800s was a bit, well, complicated. You couldn’t just walk into a store and grab the perfect little black dress. If you wanted to be the belle of the ball, you would first have to source all the materials needed, prepare the materials, weave them in a suitable fabric, and then sew them. Yay.
Fast forward to the 1900s. Dress shops were on the rise and began to cater to the middle class eventually paving the way for sweatshops which were disguised under the name "garment factory".
In 1911 a fire broke out in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory claiming the lives of 146 garment workers, most of them young, immigrant women. This catastrophe was unfortunately the first of many more to come.
The counterculture youth of the '60s and '70s developed their own unique styles in order to express themselves as individuals creating a demand for affordable fashion that was easily accessible. In order for the fashion industry to keep up with the demand, textile mills began opening across the developing world allowing the U.S. and European companies to save millions of dollars by outsourcing their labour.
The late '90s and early 2000s gave birth to retailers such as Forever21 and H&M along with online retailers allowing teens to shop with the click of a button. This is when fast fashion reached its peak and wove itself snuggly into society.
A focus on affordable and trendy clothing seems innocent enough but as with many things in life, there is more than meets the eye and your $7 t-shirt comes with hidden costs.
Most of us are aware that cars cause pollution. We also know that plastics litter our ocean floors, but only a few are concerned about the environmental impact of a pair of yoga pants or boyfriend's old jeans. But we should be.
According to greenamerica.org, 43 million tonnes of chemicals alone are used to dye and treat our clothing, and over 8,000 chemicals are used in the process of turning raw materials into textiles. These chemicals all make their way into our water supply holding the fashion industry accountable for 20% of our industrial water pollution as well as taking home the not so admirable award for the world’s second-largest water polluter and water consumer using nearly 700 gallons of water just to make one cotton t-shirt and 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans.
The trail of textile pollution doesn’t stop at our water supply. Business Insider reported that 10% of global carbon emissions are produced entirely from fashion. And the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change predicts that these emissions will climb to a staggering 60% by 2030. Alongside this frightening statistic, synthetic fibers such as polyester, acrylic, and nylon are all contributing to the ever-growing microplastics pollution problem.
You’re Wearing and Eating Plastic.
The first fully synthetic fabric was born in the 1930s when an American researcher named Wallace Carothers discovered a miracle fabric now known as nylon and in 1951 polyester made its way down American runways boasting a wrinkle-free wardrobe and lasting durability.
As decades passed these synthetics are now part of our lives and unfortunately, part of our oceans and inside the stomachs of sea turtles, fish and other marine life. According to Environment Journal, 35% of microplastics found in our oceans come from clothing. And that figure is nothing to ignore.
Microplastics are not a specific type of plastic, but rather small plastic pieces less than five millimeters in length. These microfibers are the teeny-tiny pieces of particles that are released from your synthetic clothes when they go through your washing machine- and just a single load of laundry can potentially release hundreds of thousands of fibers into the water supply. And running your yoga pants on the gentle cycle won’t help fight off these plastic runaways either. Microplastics can be released into the atmosphere just by merely brushing cookie crumbs off your pant leg.
Microplastic pollution is a growing concern. When you take into consideration how many people are washing their clothes and brushing off pant legs every day, it can be quite overwhelming. In fact, more and more microplastics are being discovered in sediment around the beaches, in mangrove groves, and in Arctic ice— even in products that we eat and drink. A recent paper published in PLOS discovered that the average person ingests over 5,800 particles of synthetic debris a year with the majority of the debris being plastic fibers. Definitely not appetizing.
Besides your unintentional side dish of polyester, synthetic fabrics are irritating to your skin often exacerbating skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis. According to ScienceDaily, man-made fabrics like acrylic, polyester, rayon, acetate, and nylon are treated with thousands of harmful toxic chemicals. A recent study from Stockholm University concluded that "Exposure to these chemicals increases the risk of allergic dermatitis, but more severe health effects for humans as well as the environment could possibly be related to these chemicals. Some of them are suspected or proved carcinogens and some have aquatic toxicity."
But itchiness and skin flare-ups aside, the worst fabric for your skin is polyester. Not only is it loaded with chemicals, but polyester doesn’t breathe. Sure, it may be wrinkle-resistant but every time you sweat these synthetic fibers are unable to absorb the moisture thus creating the perfect environment for unhealthy bacteria. No thanks.
While fast fashion is clearly taking its toll on our environment and our health, it is the untold stories of the women and men behind your five dollar tank top that must be brought to the attention of every consumer.
In 2014 a woman in Northern Ireland found a handwritten note in the pocket of a pair of unworn jeans she had purchased from European retailer Primark. The note was wrapped around what appeared to be a Chinese prison identification card and said:
The jeans were purchased for only £10 ($16 CAD) in 2011 in preparation for a vacation to Belfast and hadn’t been worn since. Primark denied sourcing from Chinese prisons, but sadly these types of incidents are common among the deceitful world of fast fashion.
On April 24th, 2013, the Rana Plaza located in Bangladesh collapsed - killing 1,134 people and injuring over 2,500 others, making it the deadliest garment factory accident to date. The Rana Plaza was a garment factory that manufactured for multiple retailers including Benetton, Bonmarché, The Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, Monsoon, Accessorize, Mango, Matalan, Primark, Walmart, and Zara. This tragedy made international headlines and began to shed light on the horrific human rights violations hidden by corporate fast fashion brands and the literal blood, sweat and tears behind an outfit that will be thrown away a year later.
So Last Season.
According to the United Nations Alliance on Sustainable Fashion, clothing production has more than doubled since 2000; consumers now buy 60% more clothing items than before, but keep them for only half as long. Alongside this statistic, the EPA estimates that the average American throws away about 81 pounds of clothing every year. While 95% of used textiles can be recycled, 85% land in the trash.
This disposable mindset is becoming a problem. Due to the surge of fast fashion, people are less likely to want to repair and mend their clothes. When clothes are so freely and cheaply available, why not just get a new shirt? And quite often clothing is tossed in the trash bin as a result of an impulse purchase or the item is considered "last season" and no longer trendy.
All these statistics may seem overwhelming or discouraging but please know that there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel.
We Can Do Better.
As more and more people become educated about the true cost of fast fashion, a demand for change is taking place. Ethical fashion brands and sustainable clothing lines are on the rise. Journalists and filmmakers are beginning to document unethical practices within the fashion industry and bringing big corporations into question and asking them to step up and take social responsibility for their actions.
A paradigm shift is taking place and the conscious consumer is taking note to make sure their spending habits align with their ethics and morals. Terms like "transparency" and "fair trade" are taking over and a new world of fashion is ready to emerge.
In our next post, we will examine the death of fast fashion, learn about sustainable manufacturing processes, and discover why the "slow fashion" movement is here to stay and help to save the world - one t-shirt at a time.