By Georgia Carter
Clothing has become a necessity in society. Unclothed, we are deemed as highly inappropriate. But more than what is simply expected, dressing up is a form of one’s identity, a concept of expression, and certain items can become part of a widespread trend.
Different styles make their way into the public eye, gain popularity, and cause a spike in consumer demands. But then the trend is tossed, and while most of us forget about the existence of the faze, the products themselves continue on. In fact, the influx of clothing items thrown away means that 85% ends up in landfills, laying waste to the Earth and further polluting it with harmful dyes and chemicals.
Caption: The fast fashion industry contributes to 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions.
Credit: Becca Mchaffie, Unsplash
But even before our clothes make their way to the landfill, they cause tremendous harm. The resources required to produce an item of clothing can prove detrimental to the environment. To date, clothing and fast fashion contribute to 20% of the world’s wastewater and a whopping 10% of global carbon emissions.
While it’s important to understand how fashion is produced, transported, and disposed of, it’s equally as significant to start taking the relevant steps to mitigate the dangerous impacts clothing can have. One of these ways is to shop second-hand.
How Fast Fashion Pollutes
Let’s start from the very beginning. Clothes require a combination of different materials to create. These resources come from numerous places, either grown, shaved from an animal, or synthesised from other extractable materials. Harvesting any of these requires fuel, land, and water - all of which are precious, limited resources.
Moving on to the next phase, clothes then need energy and water to produce. Once the basic item has been created, harmful chemicals in the form of synthetic dyes are utilised for aesthetic purposes, which later seep back into our waterways. Then, when the clothing has reached its final form, it’s transported to many different locations before ending up on the shelves. Ships, trucks, and cars are often used for this job and the Earth pays an extremely heavy toll for this as carbon emissions are continuously released into the atmosphere.
Finally, once the clothing item is purchased, worn, and then discarded, it most likely ends up in a landfill. Here, it wastes valuable space and further pollutes the environment. It will remain here for years to come. In fact, most of all clothing ever made still exists today.
Caption: Fast fashion and the clothing produced from the industry pollutes the Earth and uses up vital resources at every step of the production line. More often than not, clothing is made in harmful work environments too.
Credit: Rio Lecatompessy, Unsplash
If you’d like to learn more about the effects of fast fashion, read our article here.
There are myriad benefits to vintage shopping, both for the planet and your wallet. Firstly, and most obviously, you are reducing waste. If there were no demand for already-used clothing items, all would end up in a landfill and take up a large area of space. In addition, when clothes slowly biodegrade, they release microplastics - and we all know how detrimental those are to the planet and animals who call it home. In the same breath, second-hand shopping preserves vital resources. It’s estimated that 600 kilograms of used clothes on the market equates to saving 220 kilograms of carbon emissions, nearly 150 trees, and over 3.5 billion litres of water. Now imagine what we could collectively save if we all made second-hand shopping a priority.
Secondly, when you decide to purchase clothing second-hand, you’re giving that item a new lease on life. Just because someone was finished with the product, doesn’t mean the product itself is just going to disappear. It could end up being your new favourite sweater, dress, or jacket. And this works both ways. If you no longer want an item of clothing, don’t throw it out! You can either sell it off to a second-hand clothing store to continue the cycle or donate it to those in need.
Finally, second-hand clothing is more affordable than brand-spanking-new clothing items. If you turn second-hand shopping into your own trend, you’re guaranteed to save some money. If we continue to purchase clothes that are byproducts of the fast fashion industry, we’re constantly contributing to the increased demand and supply chain, further spurring the rapid production of harmful clothing products. This, in turn, deeply costs both wallets, our planet, and the entire population.
Caption: Second-hand shopping is one of the most effective yet easiest ways to reduce the negative impacts of the fast fashion industry and reduce clothing pollution.
Credit: Samuel Ramos, Unsplash
Additional Ways to Reduce the Impact of Fast Fashion
As we can see, purchasing second-hand clothing is one of the simplest and most effective ways to mitigate the harmful effects of the fast fashion industry. But there are a few more healthy habits we can all adopt today that will aid in the battle to end this pollution:
- Buy Less: We really don’t need that much, and it will save more than you ever expected if you abstain from giving in to those consumer cravings.
- Support local and sustainable brands: Clothes will always be created and produced, so why not increase the demand for clothes made from sustainable only materials? This not only helps the local economy and the environment as a whole but also shifts the reliance from fast fashion to sustainable trends.
- Repair: Instead of tossing out that torn T-shirt, mend it! This will save money and the environment and you can still keep the clothing!
- Donate: With the global population continuously rising, so too is the unemployment and homeless rate. There will always be someone in need. The landfill does not need that item of clothing, but a person does. Don’t toss, DONATE.
- Recycle: Some materials and textiles can be recycled. While this should be a last resort, it’s important to consider recycling before ever throwing away your clothes.
Caption: One way to reduce the emissions and overuse of resources from the fast fashion industry is to simply consume less.
Credits: The Blowup, Unsplash
Eva. (2020, August 19). How Second-Hand Shopping Can Save The Planet. Green with Less. https://greenwithless.com/second-hand-shopping-planet/
How can we reduce our Fashion Environmental Impact — SustainYourStyle. (2014). SustainYourStyle. SustainYourStyle. https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/reducing-our-impact
Kellogg, A. K. (2016, April 5). Is it better to buy second hand or new and sustainable? Going Zero Waste. https://www.goingzerowaste.com/blog/is-it-better-to-buy-second-hand-or-new-and-sustainable/
Vincenti, P. (n.d.). Second-hand clothes are good for the environment and economy | SmartGreen Post | news from the environment. https://www.smartgreenpost.com/2019/10/19/second-hand-clothes-are-good-for-the-environment-and-economy/
Clothes are an everyday necessity and, for many people, the most salient aspect of self expression. We all wear them - at least in public - yet, many of us don’t give a second thought to where they come from, how they are made and what impact they have on our environment. Given that the fast fashion industry is second only to oil as the world’s largest polluter, we say it's about time for us to wake from our ignorant slumber so that we may take a long hard look at the true cost of the clothing we buy.
Fast Fashion is typically defined as the process of designing, creating and marketing clothes with the intention of making fashion trends quickly and affordably available to consumers. With low prices and high availability, fast fashion brands like H&M and ZARA are a common go-to when picking out new threads. These brands, who are at the very peak of the fast fashion industry, are responsible for an increasing hoard of both social and environmental destruction. Companies like these thrive by operating in countries that have poor environmental and labour regulations, employing desperate people to work in unsafe conditions for minimum wages. In this way, leaders of the industry are able to produce large quantities of clothes for cheap, all the while slyly avoiding the repercussions of their destructive production processes.
While fast fashion might seem like a good bargain at a superficial level, the reality is that it imparts a hefty cost on the environment. The industry directly causes immense waste water production, high carbon emissions and large amounts of landfill waste. In fact, fast fashion is responsible for the contamination of oceans, rivers, freshwater sources and soil, and is the source of approximately 20% of global waste water.
It’s not uncommon for clothes to be perceived as easily disposable, or at least reusable. What we don’t see is that when clothes are used until they are unusable, they ultimately become trash. Many garments are made from petrochemical-based materials, i.e. plastic polymers, meaning that they do not biodegrade over time. Instead, they break down into tiny pieces called microfibres - microplastic’s equally evil twin. During washes between use, microfibres go down the drain, which does not take them into an endless abyss never to be seen again. Unfortunately, these microfibres end up in the ocean, alongside dyes and other harmful synthetic materials that come from our clothes.
Furthermore, around 85% of the clothes we throw out end up as waste in a landfill, leaching harmful dyes and chemicals into the soil and contaminating the surrounding areas. Recycling might seem like an appropriate solution to this problem, but that would mean breaking each garment down into its base fibres so that they can be used to make new clothes. The problem with this plan is that modern clothes are made from blended fibres, making recycling time-consuming, costly and inefficient. Even with today’s advanced technology, it would take close to twelve years to recycle what the fast fashion industry creates in just two days. Because we make so much of our clothing from synthetic materials, most of our clothes continue to exist on Earth long after we dispose of them.
The way clothes are made and used today is wasteful of and destructive to the Earth’s resources, but it’s not too late to make a difference. Our hope is for clothes to be made from environmentally considerate and renewable materials, but also for old clothes to be made new. By applying the principles of a circular economy to the fashion industry, clothes, fabric and fibres could reenter the economy after use instead of ending up at the bottom of a landfill. This can only be a reality if we, as consumers, demand sustainable products. Each investment we make is a vote for the future, what future will you choose?
How Fast Fashion Affects the Environment: By Emma Hanly
Resources and Additional Reading:
Time Out for Fast Fashion - Greenpeace
The High Environmental Cost of Fast Fashion
Fast Fashion Facts: What you need to know
A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion's future – download the report infographics
Environmental impact of textile reuse and recycling – A review