Fast Fashion is Out of Fashion

From 9.9th until October 3rdapprox, the biannual major fashion shows will be held in New York, London, Milan and Paris in succession. Top designer brands will wow the world with the latest styles for next year’s spring and summer wardrobe. The wheels of the $2.4 trillion industry will turn again. But as fast as dreams are filmed on the catwalks of the world’s fashion capitals, an alternate reality as dark as the fashion shows are bright and glittery will continue to feed on glamor and hype.

As next year’s luxury designs glide up and down the catwalk, behind the curtain lies an enormous contradiction. Unfortunately, most people don’t know what it really means.

In a 2020 survey in the UK, over half of Gen Z — the most eco-conscious demographic — said they buy “the majority of their clothes” from fast fashion brands. With a focus on Instagram and TikTok, price and convenience are key to their shopping habits. Fast fashion companies shadow them, scouring the web through “search engine optimization” for indicators of trending by the second (many of them inspired by the catwalks), and then releasing new styles as quickly as possible – in the case of fast fashion brand Shein, thousands every day – and deliver them at breakneck speed to the front door of their “Zoomer” customers.

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People associate fashion with beauty, creativity, self-expression and social desirability. But the average shopper doesn’t realize that with every purchase they contribute to 4% of all greenhouse gas emissions, or that nearly all of their purchases eventually end up in an incinerator or landfill, where they smolder and pollute the air. Or that of the 100 billion pieces of clothing produced annually, only 1% is actually recycled.

The majority of shoppers are unaware that their clothing is made with highly toxic dyes and heavy metals that are washed into clean water streams, rivers and aquifers, where they sicken people and animals, damage ecosystems and lead to biodiversity loss. Or that growing non-organic cotton severely depletes and degrades soil and uses more pesticides than any other crop.

Little does the average person know that the industry cuts down 150 million trees for cellulose fabrics, or that cattle grazing is a cause of deforestation in the Amazon, and that the leather produced in this region can be traced back to the shoes and bags of global fashion brands.

Little do they know that their synthetic fabrics are made from oil and contribute to over a third of all microplastics in the sea through washing, or that these microplastics end up in their own bloodstream – as reported in a March 2022 study at the University of Vrije in the Netherlands, where researchers found plastic polymers in the bloodstreams of the majority of people tested, half of whom were PET, the polymer found in clothing.

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Shoppers may not even realize why their clothes are so incredibly cheap – namely, because the cost is borne by the textile industry’s factory workers, who are paid less than minimum wage in the Global South, which is nowhere near a “living wage”. Buyers unknowingly support an industry that is the second largest contributor to modern slavery, including child labor.

Unfortunately, the fast fashion industry is expected to continue growing due to a changing population and consumption patterns. By one estimate, clothing consumption will increase by 63% by 2030 as 3 billion people join the global middle class, and a recent report estimates the world is on track to triple clothing production by 2050.

Most major industries are regulated. The automotive industry, for example, is regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the US Environmental Protection Agency, as well as local jurisdictions such as the California Air Resource Board. Agriculture and the food industry are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But the fashion industry, one of the largest manufacturing industries in the world, is almost complete unregulated.

With the fashion industry lacking in regulation, brands have had no real incentive to change. But fast fashion comes at too high a price. Accountability and systemic change are critical to reducing the irreversible footprint this industry is leaving on the planet.

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Hopefully that will happen soon.

EARTHDAY.ORG and its Fashion for the Earth campaign are part of the Act on Fashion Coalition, which supports the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act (the Fashion Act), which was introduced into the New York State Legislature in January of this year. Emerging from the regulatory vacuum, the fashion industry will, for the first time, be forced to account for its emissions, water and plastic use, chemical management, supply chain mapping and social due diligence. The Fashion Law will create a coherent framework and vision for the transition to a sustainable economic sector with legally binding environmental standards.

It’s time to send a message that fast fashion is out of fashion.