Fast fashion may appear unassuming, but behind the scenes, the garments necessitate perpetually overworked fields and the mass transformation of crude oil into market-ready forms that leak toxic chemicals into the air we breath and the water we drink.
While often unrecognized by consumers, the environmental repercussions of our consumption are tied to all of us. These consequences are quite literally caused by the shirts on our backs. Fast fashion — rapidly produced and trend-driven clothing — has taken over our modern garment industry, and its insatiable consumption of resources and wasteful production tendencies involve businesses, nations and continents. The climate crisis looms, and fighting back requires our active participation in a sustainable fashion industry.
Low-cost clothing can seem beneficial to your wallet, but it takes a hefty environmental toll. Eighty-five percent of textiles end up in landfills each year, according to a 2019 Business Insider report. Clothing manufacturers incinerate or dump a garbage truck’s worth of clothing every second, and the clothing customers keep, rewear and rewash release 500,000 tons, or about 50 billion plastic bottles’ worth, of synthetic microfibers into the ocean annually. Overall, the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimated in 2019 that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean were once spun in our washing machines.
Unfortunately, the true cost of fast fashion includes more than just staggering garment waste. The carbon output of the fashion industry accounts for 10% of global emissions, totaling more than all international flights and global maritime shipping combined, according to The World Bank. If these trends continue, the fashion industry will be responsible for over 25% of global carbon emissions by 2050, contributing to a ripple effect that puts our food, health, housing and political systems in jeopardy.
The fashion industry also extensively drains our resources. The sector is the second-largest consumer and the second-largest polluter of water globally. Making just one pair of jeans requires 2,000 gallons of water, enough for a person to drink eight cups per day for 10 years. Over time, that kind of consumption adds up.
The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, once one of the world’s four largest lakes, dried up almost entirely because of water overextraction to produce cotton garments. After the materials are grown and processed, dyeing the clothing uses another 2 million Olympic swimming pools worth of water annually.
The prevailing consequences of fast fashion should disturb you, but the future appears even more grim. By 2050, scientists estimate the fashion industry will consume 300 million tons of oil annually, will spew billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and will release 22 million additional tons of microfibers into the ocean, which bioaccumulate in marine animals.
The question here is obvious: What are we, as consumers, supposed to do about these ramifications?
Important steps consumers can take are buying less clothing and wearing the items they already have. A fast-fashion item, which is typically kept for 35 days and worn five times, produces over 400% more carbon emissions than garments that are kept for a year and worn over 50 times, according to Forbes. When the time comes to buy new items, consumers can shop secondhand. Thrifting, organizing clothing swaps with friends and renting clothing can all extend the lifetime of a garment, thereby reducing overall resource consumption and carbon emissions.
When consumers are unable to shop secondhand, they can explore increasingly popular slow fashion companies. One particular company, For Days, sets the bar high. For Days makes its clothes with organic cotton, which uses significantly less water than nonorganic cotton. The company prides itself on being the “original closed-loop clothing brand,” as each item is completely recyclable in a system that produces almost no greenhouse gases, requires no water and eliminates textile waste. For Days reported that it has saved over 300,000 gallons of water, 19,000 pounds of carbon emissions and 73,000 pounds of waste. For Days’ model serves as a blueprint for sustainable clothing production; once an equilibrium of new versus recycled materials is reached, the system avoids all the key environmental costs of fast fashion: unsustainable land use, resource consumption, emissions, waste and long-term pollution.
There is no doubt that we need more sustainable clothing. Supporting businesses with regenerative and sustainable systems can help consumers refrain from committing the faux pas of fast fashion.
Annabelle Pukas is a sophomore in the College. What’s in a Wardrobe appears online every other Thursday.