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An Unexpected Evil: The Fast-Fashion Industry

Rachel Diotte-Lyles

Photo by Hannah Morgan on Unsplash

Many would be shocked to find out that fast-fashion is the second most destructive industry in the world after oil, with a global supply chain employing 58 million people worldwide. (Sweeny 2015; Moorhouse & Moorhouse 2018) -- I certainly was.

Fast-fashion is able to get the newest trends to customers rapidly and inexpensively. Brands like Zara, Forever21, and Fashion Nova run a business model that distributes quick style to customers in an inexpensive way. When we shop from fast-fashion retailers, it rarely crosses our minds how our clothing is made and the negative consequences of it.

We live in a world governed by capitalism: for companies, making a profit and lowering production costs are their main priorities.

This is often achieved at the expense of our natural environment (“Why do we need a fashion revolution?”). The fast-fashion industry has a vast environmental impact. Production intensively uses water resources and contributes to water pollution too. Cotton, which is used in the production of nearly half of today’s clothing, is amongst one of the most water-intensive crops -- even referred to as the “thirsty crop” (Drew and Yehounme 2017). The production of one cotton based shirt requires at least 2,700 litres of water. Putting this into perspective, 2,700 litres of water is equivalent to what an individual would drink in a period of two and a half years (Drew and Yehounme 2017).

Leather, on your boots or bag, also comes at the cost of environmental destruction. The production of leather requires large amounts of feed, land, water, and fossil fuels just to raise the livestock needed (“Environmental impact”), combine this with the pollution that comes alongside the manufacturing process of leather and the damage is far-reaching.

The pollution arising from fast fashion production has a significant impact on the areas surrounding the factories. Exposure to the chemicals used at all stages of production leave workers' health at risk. In particular, it has been found through studies that leather tannery workers have a 20-50% greater risk for cancer (“Environmental impact”). The quality of water in areas surrounding textile factories also harms the communities that rely on it as a source. Therefore, it is often those who are in the Global South (for example, Bangladesh) producing our clothing that suffers the most drastic environmental and health consequences of our mass consumption.

On the consumption side, the disposability of fast-fashion has led to vast amounts of clothing waste in landfills. An average American citizen will produce 82 pounds of textile waste in a single year, resulting in more than 11 million tons of waste, originating from the United States alone (“Environmental impact”). We are consuming and disposing at a rate faster than ever, and we actually purchase 400% more clothing today than we did only twenty years ago (“Why do we need a fashion revolution?”).

Although the Global North, in particular benefits from fast-fashion and the Global South suffers (in terms of environmental and health consequences). When it comes to consumer goods, consumers, and therefore us, corporations will respond to our actions. Already, as more and more consumers become educated behind the realities of the industry, shifts are being made towards safe practices -- directly contributing to an improvement of conditions for the workers in developed countries themselves. Shifting our habits sends a message to fast-fashion corporations -- Recently, for example, H&M has been moving towards a more sustainable model as consumers become increasingly aware of its impacts.

Making a conscious effort to support sustainable brands, not only for the environment but for the lives of those who produce our clothing, is necessary if we are to get fast-fashion retailers to adapt and move towards more sustainable production models.



Drew, Deborah, and Genevieve Yehounme. “The Apparel Industry's Environmental Impact in 6 Graphics.” World Resources Institute, 16 Jan. 2020, www.wri.org/blog/2017/07/apparel-industrys-environmental-impact-6-graphics.

“Environmental Impact.” The True Cost, truecostmovie.com/learn-more/environmental-impact/.

Glynis, Sweeny. “Fast Fashion Is the Second Dirtiest Industry in the World, Next to Big Oil.” EcoWatch, EcoWatch, 1 Apr. 2019, www.ecowatch.com/fast-fashion-is-the-second-dirtiest-industry-in-the-world-next-to-big--1882083445.html.

Goldsmith, David. "The Worn, the torn, the wearable: Textile recycling in union square." Nordic Textile Journal 1 (2012).

Moorhouse, Debbie, and Danielle Moorhouse. "Designing a sustainable brand strategy for the fashion industry." Clothing Cultures 5.1 (2018): 7-18.

Samaha, Barry. “How H&M Is Striving to Become a Sustainable Fashion Brand.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 8 June 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/barrysamaha/2018/03/26/hm-conscious-exclusive-collection-2018-sustainable-fashion-anna-gedda-interview/#36caf8ce74f0.

“WHY DO WE NEED A FASHION REVOLUTION.” Fashion Revolution, www.fashionrevolution.org/about/why-do-we-need-a-fashion-revolution/.

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