The lure of fast fashion is hard to resist — it’s hard to say no to super affordable, super trendy clothes that you know will get you all of the likes on Instagram and all of the compliments on the sidewalk. I’ve shopped fast fashion for a number of reasons: being broke enough that spending more than $20 on a piece of clothing feels like a luxury; coveting a pricey designer style and finding an affordable knockoff; and simply enjoying being able to walk into a brick-and-mortar store instead of searching online and paying shipping and making sure I’m home to sign for delivery.
But fast fashion also has numerous costs, in terms of both environmental damage and human rights abuse. In the past few years, I’ve learned a lot about the harmful impact of fast fashion from initiatives like Zady's the Future Of Fashion events and the Fashion Revolution Day campaign, documentaries like The True Cost, and in-depth reporting like “The True Price Of Fast Fashion” from the April/May 2014 issue of BUST.
This Earth Day, we’re bringing you a list of six ways that your fast fashion habit is hurting the earth — and another list of six things that you can do to reduce that impact.
1. Fast fashion causes pollution.
The textile industry causes more pollution than any other industry besides oil. Cotton farming depletes water resources; clothing dye pollutes rivers; shipping clothes from where they are manufactured to where they are sold causes air pollution and wastes natural resources; materials used in fast fashion, such as polyester, are non-biodegradable and simply sit in landfills forever...and that’s just the tip of the quickly-melting iceberg.
2. Fast fashion causes climate change.
All this pollution has a direct result on climate change. At the Fashion Revolution awards earlier this week, Industry Titan award winner Rick Ridgeway — who is a mountaineer and adventurer as well as the Vice President of Environmental Affairs at outdoor clothing brand Patagonia — described how he has seen his former favorite climbing range, the Ice Window and Diamond on Mount Kenya, disappear as a result of global warming.
3. Fast fashion uses child labor.
According to the International Labor Organisation, many of the 170 million children forced into labor worldwide are employed by the fashion industry, particularly in cotton picking and harvesting, yarn spinning and garment factories. This happen mostly in countries including India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Pakistan — because there are so many stages involved in making clothing, it’s easy for big brands to hide this side of their company from shoppers in the US and Europe.
4. Fast fashion pays its employees low wages.
Both children and adults who work in the garment industry are paid unconscionably low wages, because many fast fashion brands manufacture clothing in countries with nonexistent or extremely low minimum wage laws in order to drive production costs down. As Livia Firth — CEO of sustainability brand consultancy firm EcoAge and wife of Colin Firth — explained, "In Bangladesh you see women who work 12 to 16 hours a day to produce our clothes in factories which have bars on the windows and guards at the doors. They are paid very little. Even if it's the national minimum wage, it's really a poverty wage."
5. Fast fashion is made in unsafe factories.
Many fast fashion labels make textiles in factories that are unsafe — and not just because of the physical buildings. The documentary The True Cost Of Fashion shows that one Bangladesh garment factory beat women who tried to unionize for higher wages. “I don’t want anyone wearing anything that is produced by our blood,” one woman said.
6. Fast fashion kills people.
In April 2013, a Bangladeshi factory collapse killed over 1,100 people. That’s right: People died for your H&M T-shirt.
Here’s what you can to reduce the effects of fast fashion:
1. Commit to 30 wears.
At Zady’s Fashion Revolution awards, Industry Advocate winner Sarah Slutsky, who is a stylist for stars including Emma Watson, said that everyone should commit to wearing each item of clothing they own at least 30 times.
2. Pay “so much that it hurts.”
Also at the Fashion Revolution awards, Media + Research winner Marc Bain said that he advises shoppers to “pay so much that it hurts” on their next purchase. If you pay more, psychologically you’ll be less likely to throw out an item of clothing before you absolutely have to. Since committing to spending at least $150 per clothing purchase, “I buy less, but I better,” Bain said.
3. Shop at thrift stores.
Don’t have the budget to pay a lot for clothing? Shopping at thrift stores and consignment stores also cuts down on pollution. Bonus: If an item of clothing has made it to the resale stage, it’s proved its durability.
4. Pay attention to how you throw away your clothes.
Clothing made out of polyester is nonbiodegradable, and even clothing made out of degradable materials like cotton usually cannot decompose in landfill conditions. Think about more ethical ways to dispose of clothing, including giving it away to friends, donating it, turning it into rags or composting it.
5. Shop ethically.
Simply asking yourself where a piece of clothing comes from and if it’s worth it before you make a purchase will help you cut down on your fast fashion habit — and the effect will be even greater if you spend five minutes on Google.
6. Ask companies where your clothes come from, and demand better.
As part of Fashion Revolution Week — this year, April 18 through 24 — consumers are asked to take a selfie, tag a clothing brand and ask #whomademyclothes.
Photos via The True Cost and Fashion Revolution Day
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Erika W. Smith is BUST's digital editorial director. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @erikawynn and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.