Runaway waste: The consequences of fast fashion


It’s one of the first things people notice about each other. From the color to the pattern to every stitch in between, clothing serves not only a practical purpose but an informative one as well. Simply put, what you wear says something about you. 

Nowadays, however, clothing is discarded at an alarmingly fast rate and after only a short amount of use, largely due to the practice of fast fashion: the use of unsustainable materials and cheap labor. The ramifications of a clothing industry built on fast, cheap fashion affect not only real people but contribute to the already declining condition of our planet.

According to fashion and culture journalist Dana Thomas in her book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, synthetic fabric fibers derived from fossil fuels make up more than 60% of the material used in making clothes, and about 85% of these clothes end up in landfills where they might never decompose. According to Newsweek, the average American throws away 80 pounds of clothes a year. Much like single-use plastics, the speed with which the average American buys clothing and discards it is polluting our planet’s freshwater and seas in a very preventable way. 

The fast fashion business model is defined by practices heavily reliant on short fashion cycles and cheap production costs in order to expeditiously translate looks seen on runways to storefronts at half their actual price. Fast fashion thrives by emulating high fashion at a price more appealing to average consumers and at a speed unmatched by any other industry. You might think this practice of rapidity is illegal, but many major companies, such as Zara and H&M, model their marketing strategies through this exact process and have seen immense growth in doing so.  

And although the average American might find a sweater they saw on the runway for a fraction of the price in a retail store, the frequent practice of discarding these clothes simply due to the fact that they’re cheap and that there’s always more coming isn’t a sustainable or practical use of clothing at all. 

The Foundation for Economic Education reported that fast fashion businesses have 52 micro seasons of new clothing a year compared to the traditional two. Topshop launches 400 new styles a week. By constantly pumping out new products, the demand never seems to die.

Fast fashion as well as the rapid increase in consumerism are large contributors to the increased rate of purchase and production America has seen in the past decade. The rapid disposal of clothing, coupled with the unsustainable ways in which said clothes are made for the sake of speedy production output, has devastating consequences for the environment and our planet’s resources.

According to Business Insider, more carbon emissions are released by the fashion industry than by international flights and maritime shipping combined. Eighty-five percent of the clothing made ends up in landfills each year, further contributing to the declining condition of the environment.  According to the Council of Fashion Designers of America, fabrics like polyester use up more than 300 million barrels of oil a year. Sequins in clothing, often times when washed, will fall out and end up in our oceans along with the 16 billion pounds of plastic that end up in the same place annually, according to National Geographic. 

Now, companies are aware of the harsh environmental consequences that their business practices have brought forth and have taken initiatives to appear more environmentally conscious. H&M started what they call their Garment Collecting Program, and Zara has a clothing line dedicated to producing clothes from renewed plastic and cotton, but such attempts aren’t as effective as they’re marketed out to be. Companies such as these advertise themselves as being less eco-friendly than they lead consumers on to be. Through a process called Greenwashing, brands mislead consumers about the environmental soundness of their practices by making vague and deceiving claims. These claims almost always aim to preserve their trusted fast fashion business model.

In a world fueled by social media, where every aspect of who you are is recorded, where every swipe of a finger brings something new and desirable, it’s important to understand the valuable role consumers play in the world of fashion. Forever 21’s bankruptcy in September of 2019 ultimately signaled a change in consumer outlook on the way they viewed the practices of fast fashion brands and the power that lies in consumers when it comes to tackling the unsustainable business practices of many of these giant companies. It signaled a generation saying enough to companies who disregarded the wellbeing of our planet in the pursuit of money. The fashion industry is a prime example of the weight individuals and consumers hold in making a profound difference. 

So hold on to your clothes a little longer and don’t fall into the never-ending cycle that’s fast fashion. It will truly make a difference.