What Is Fast Fashion And How Does It Impact The Environment?

A beginner's guide to understanding the impact our clothes have on the planet.


May 31 2019, Updated 10:51 a.m. ET

Source: Stocksnap

When you're grabbing a $20 dress from Forever 21 to wear on a night out with friends or few outfits from H&M for the new job you just started, it's easy to just go with whatever looks the best on you for the lowest price, especially when you're shopping on a budget. 

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Yet too often the clothes purchased because of the cheap price tag turn out to be cheaply made as well, and end up in the trash when you realize they can't be worn any longer. As you can guess, not only is this not great for your wallet (and wardrobe!) when you need to buy more clothes but it's not great for the planet, either.

What does the term "fast fashion" mean?

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"Fast fashion” is simply a term used by fashion retailers to describe clothes that are inspired by recent style trends seen on celebrities and on the runway for an affordable price for the average consumer. Because of how fast retailers need to keep up with demands for these styles, they often cut costs that increase their carbon footprint.

Source: Stocksnap
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Why is fast fashion harmful to the planet?

The apparel industry accounts for 10 percent of global carbon emissions and remains the second largest industrial polluter, second only to oil. Fast fashion items are often worn less than 5 times, kept for roughly 35 days, and produce over 400 percent more carbon emissions per item per year than garments worn 50 times and kept for a full year.

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One of the most common fabrics used to make fast fashion is polyester due to its low-cost, versatility, and wrinkle-free properties. But it's also a synthetic petroleum-based fiber, meaning it is made from a carbon-intensive non-renewable resource. 

More than 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester each year. And not only does making polyester negatively impact the environment in a huge way, but the fabric isn't biodegradable, meaning when it gets thrown out, it ends up in landfills where it takes over 200 years to decompose.

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When we buy clothes made from synthetic materials, plastic microfibers shed from these garments with every wash where they then enter into the water supply and later end up harming everything from the food we eat to marine life. According to new research from Plymouth University, washing clothes made of these materials releases 700,000 tiny plastic fibers into the environment for each 13 pound load of laundry washed. 

Other studies have shown fish absorb toxic chemicals from microplastics and are known to eat the plastic instead of food leading them to starve. And in some cases, the microplastics stunt the growth of fish or kill them before they reach reproductive age, impacting their populations and mortality rates. Plastic doesn't just harm fish though. It's known to build up in sperm whales, sea turtles, and other marine life, ultimately contributing to their deaths.

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What you can do

The fashion industry has been in the spotlight in recent years as more people call out major retailers for unfavorable practices, including selling fast fashion. The 2015 Netflix documentary "True Cost" highlighted issues surrounding the clothes we buy, how they're made, and the impact fast fashion has on the environment. 

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As more people become aware of the issues surrounding the fashion industry, more retailers and brands have started announcing their pledges to embrace more eco-friendly business practices to keep customers. H&M pledged to be 100 percent sustainable by 2040 by transitioning the types of textiles and fabrics they use. Levi's just set a goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions in their global supply chain by 40 percent. 

But instead of waiting around for popular brands and stores to embrace eco-friendly practices, consumers can reduce the environmental cost of fast fashion by opting for recycled clothing at consignment shops or choosing eco-friendly fabric made from natural and organic fibers. Some brands, like Patagonia, offer customers the chance to buy and trade-in gently used gear. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that, in terms of carbon emissions, the amount of clothing already recycled each year is equivalent to taking one million cars off the road. 

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Source: Stocksnap

Maxine Bédat, CEO and cofounder of Zady, a clothing and consumer goods e-commerce company that emphasizes ethical consumerism, told Forbes that shoppers can make an impact by making intentional purchases. 

"The clothing we choose to wear everyday has an enormous impact on the planet and its people. Our clothing can either continue to be a major part of the problem, or it can be an enormous part of getting our planet on track. The choice is ultimately ours. We can vote at the ballot box for strong climate measures and vote at the cash register for clean clothes," she said.

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