Fast-fashion is a phenomenon that has only existed for about 20 years, but the rise of social media, online shopping and smarter advertising has created the throwaway culture that we live in today. It’s not uncommon to buy a ‘trendy’ shirt for less than $10 and throw it away next season after just one wear. Suddenly, you can dress like your favourite celebrity or keep up with the latest trends, for just a few dollars. It sounds all too good to be true, and it definitely is … not good that is!
Fast-fashion can be defined as “cheap, trendy clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turn them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed”. It’s characterised by thousands of trendy styles, produced in a very short time, usually manufactured cheaply offshore using low quality materials - and its impact is enormous.
World’s second-largest polluter
The fashion industry is the world’s second-largest polluter and the environmental damage only increases as the trillion-dollar industry grows. Cheap, toxic textile dyes pollute water ways with chemicals such as lead, mercury and arsenic, poisoning aquatic ecosystems and the health of the people living by these waters. While cheap fabrics like polyester, derived from fossil fuels, add to plastic pollution in our water.
The fashion industry is a huge water consumer. It takes a shocking 20,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of cotton, which roughly equals to just one t-shirt and a pair of jeans. While over 780 million people don’t have access to drinking water, the fashion industry uses in excess of 1.5 trillion litres of water each year.
Fast-fashion’s detrimental environmental impact is magnified with many countries facing massive soil degradation due to the overgrazing of pastures through cashmere goats and the massive use of chemicals to grow cotton, while deforestation is caused by wood-based fibres like rayon. The apparel industry now accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions.
What about the human cost?
Environmental impacts are one thing, but what about the human cost? If brands can afford to sell a t-shirt for $5 at a profit with transportation and material costs included, then how much are the workers really getting paid?
The collapse of the Rana Plaza clothing manufacturing complex in Bangladesh in 2013 killed over 1,000 workers, revealing to the world the extent others have to suffer just so we can stay on top of trends and satisfy our never-ending “needs”.
The documentary “The True Cost” highlights the serious ethical issues in the production of fast fashion: the plight of garment workers, dangerous environments, low wages and lack of basic human rights. Further down the supply chain, there are the farmers who may work with toxic chemicals that can have devastating impacts on their physical and mental health. Animals are also affected and animal welfare put at risk, with the mass production of leather and fur.
I suppose all this could be somewhat justified if we actually used all these clothes which, well, we don’t. Because of the rapid speed at which trends come and go, we feel the need to shop more to stay on top of trends, creating a constant dissatisfaction.
Each Australian buys an average of 27 kilograms of new textiles each year… and discard 23 kilograms into landfill! An unbelievable 6,000 kilograms of clothing is dumped in landfill in Australia every 10 minutes and two-thirds of these discards are synthetic fibres that may never break down. And for those of you who donate your clothes, there’s some bad news too - only 10% of donations even make it in store, about 70% is recycled as industrial cleaning cloths, while the remaining 20% is resold internationally, with much of it discarded, because the sheer quantity of clothes greatly surpasses the demand.
All this sounds quite bleak, but thankfully, much can be done about it.
What you can do
While, marketing will never stop, we as consumers have the power to control the extent of their influence. Awareness of the problem of fast-fashion will hopefully influence how you shop for clothes in the future.
There are many more environmentally-friendly alternatives to fast-fashion; the best being recycling and buying second-hand. These completely bypass the manufacturing process and the item is saved from ending up in landfill.
Try looking in thrift shops and vintage markets, swapping with friends and family and browsing through apps and websites like Depop, Carousell and Ebay - you’ll find everything from unique, handmade pieces to brand-new clothes with tags still attached that you can pick up at a reduced price. Also, why not try your luck at selling your own unwanted clothes on these apps too? It’s super easy, and you get money while helping the environment out.
However, it is completely reasonable to still buy fast-fashion brands, they are definitely more convenient, but when doing so, just be mindful of what you’re buying. Ask yourself: do you really need it or are you just buying it impulsively to keep up with a trend?
Ultimately, it is our responsibility as consumers to make well-informed purchases and have an awareness of where our clothes actually come from. We all have to do our own part to minimise the terrible impacts of fast- fashion on our world.
Written by Yige Xu, Danebank Sustainability Committee member.
The Danebank Student Sustainability Committee began at the beginning of 2018. It's main aim is to offer education and awareness on sustainability issues and to provide an opportunity for students, staff and families to improve the impact they have on the environment, in both our school and the greater community.