As a society, we all wear a variety of clothing day to day based on on-going fashion trends, our own personal style and let’s face it, a good clothing sale. Keeping up our wardrobe to the trends, especially for us ladies, is something that has been instilled in us from an early age and is just something that is done for ‘fun’. Just like any other market industry, society has developed an unsustainable consumption pattern to clothing and textiles because of marketing trends that lead us to believe we need the next new fashion item. This increased consumption is largely due to clothing ‘superstores’ creating ‘fast fashion’ choices for consumers. These fast fashion choices are often trendy and considerably cheap price wise, which makes them quite desirable, but really low-quality fabric/longevity wise. Very few of us really consider the environmental impact of clothing or textiles upon purchase, and yet it is one of the most over-consumed items. For something that we all purchase on a regular basis, more thought to the sustainability of clothing and textiles should be better considered. This blog post will dive deeper into the sustainability of the fast fashion industry and solutions to these purchasing patterns.
As mentioned above, fast fashion is largely driven by clothing supermarket giants that monopolize the industry. The garments found at these stores are often sold at very low-price points, allowing you, as a consumer, to purchase more garments to maintain fashion trends and styles. These companies give very little thought to the production, consumption, distribution or end of life of their products – focusing mainly on the bottom line of their company. This industry poses many social and environmental issues that make it extremely unsustainable, and yet, almost unavoidable.
The Impacts of Fast Fashion
If the price point of an item is cheap, there is usually a reason why. Yes, large distributors of clothing garments can make their prices more competitive then those that only have small production lines, but it is more than a distribution issue. The price point of an item generally dictates the quality of the item, including fabric and sewing techniques, which often gives an indication into the longevity of that item. However, with changing market trends and fashion styles, these items are not meant to last long. The whole concept of fast fashion is to meet constant changing trends. These companies are doing what they think is best for their bottom line to meet the needs of consumers and satisfy changing trends, however, there are obvious issues with this industry model.
Firstly, cheap fabrics are not good for you, the consumer, or the environment. Cheap fabrics generally are synthetic fabrics, such as nylon, polyester, rayon, lycra or acrylic. Synthetic fabrics are made of bonded synthesized polymers, chemicals and oils that work together to create these man-made fabrics. These fabrics are widely available, because they are cheap to produce (and use), however, they contribute to a plethora of issues. Firstly, they are resource intensive to produce, utilizing large amounts of water and oil. In addition to their resource use, they release toxins into the environment through their extensive chemical use. Once made, purchased, and brought home, naturally you must wash the garments at some point in their lifecycle. Synthetic fabrics are one of the leading causes of microplastics found in our lakes and waterways. When washed, they release small microplastics into the washing machine, which ends up in our sewer systems. Unfortunately, microplastics are unfilterable during water treatment. This means that we end up drinking and consuming these particles in our water, unknowingly. This is, for obvious reasons, not good for us or the environment. Additionally, given that these materials are unnatural, many people have allergies to these fabrics, because they do not ‘breathe’ on the skin, which traps bacteria and sweat between the skin and fabric. This often causes skin irritations and other allergies that other natural fabrics would not.
After their use, most of the time these garments are overworn (because they are poorly made, and therefore hold no longevity) which renders them unusable for secondhand stores, and therefore destined for the landfill. When these items do end up at a secondhand store, they are often in poor shape because they do not have the structural integrity of other fabrics/brands (think balling, stretched out or loose strings). Because these materials are synthetic, they are often not good candidates to be recycled either (although textile recycling is few and far between, regardless).
Although all of this sounds bad enough, the labour practices that are associated with the fast fashion industry are less than desirable, allowing these supermarket clothing companies to have a lowered price point. In foreign, third-world countries, women and children are often exploited for their sewing talents for little pay. This is often the case when you see stamps on your clothes that state “Made in China” or “Made in Taiwan.” These cheap labour practices are one of the contributing factors as to how these companies can have such a low price point on their garments.
Solutions/Alternatives to Fast Fashion
Although not buying fast fashion seems unavoidable, and in some circumstances, it just may be, there are some alternative ways to shop that might give way to a more environmentally and socially conscious way of purchasing and living.
- Buying from socially/environmentally conscious companies
Although items from companies that have this outlook are often expensive, they are priced that way often because of the quality and longevity you will get from that item. You will likely notice a difference in materials, layers of fabric and sewing techniques. Look for organic cotton, cotton, linen or recycled fabrics and “Made in Canada” or “Made in USA.”
- Buying second-hand
If items from these companies are too expensive brand new, look for good quality clothing second hand. Since these clothing items are well made with longer lasting fabrics, the likelihood that they will still last, even second hand, is high.
- Make a staple closet
I know that it is easy to give in to on-going fashion trends, since clothing is regularly viewed as a societal status symbol. However, buying a mass amount of clothes is not sustainable, as discussed. If you develop a staple wardrobe, with a few items that will generally never go out of style, you will not have to continuously purchase new clothing. These items would generally be a pair of jeans, black or solid coloured t-shirts, and a few sweaters. This way you can purchase more sustainably sourced clothing, without breaking the bank, as you only need to purchase a few garments.
Although seemingly difficult to avoid, fast fashion is something that we, as consumers, need to be able to identify so that we can make purchasing decisions for ourselves. According to Statista, the average Canadian spent nearly $1200.00 on clothing and footwear in 2020. Considering that the year 2020 was largely spent in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this spending number is quite large per person. This number is expected to only increase over the next 5 years, due largely to the lift of the pandemic regulations and citizens gaining more freedoms to go shopping, spend time with their loved ones/friends and actually go places that are not just their backyard. Given this, the demand for clothing and shoes will be on the rise in the coming years, expanding the industry and the number of garments entering the landfill.
Some companies are identifying this issue on their own and are starting their own recycling programs or buy back programs. Companies like The North Face, have a “Clothes the Loop” program, where they accept any of their branded clothing back at any retail location for proper textile recycling. Other companies, like Patagoina, have a website platform for refurbished clothing from their consumers, allowing other consumers to purchase these goods at a discounted price. As companies start this trend, hopefully it will shift other clothing distributors to do the same.
So the next time you are in the market for a new pair of shoes or clothing items, it might be worth looking at the companies you plan to purchase from and see if they fit your values or fall into the fast fashion category. Every dollar you spend (on anything) reinforces the company you are supporting. Now more than ever, consumers have the opportunity to use their purchasing power as a vote towards good and clothing is a great place to practice this vote.