So called “fast fashion” is the driving force behind big name fashion retailers such as Zara, H&M, and Forever 21. With up to 52 “microseasons” per year it’s obvious to understand why these large corporations love it; they want to make you feel out of season as soon as you buy something. Now, I imagine that most of you reading this aren’t so clothing crazy that you’re buying a new wardrobe each week, but the fashion industry has plenty of other tricks up their sleeves to get you to buy more. Even more disturbing, they have plenty of methods to trick the conscious consumer into thinking their products are better for the environment than they really are.
Here are three reasons the fashion industry is worse for the environment than you think it is, and how to avoid those pitfalls.
You know that shopping less is better for the environment, but you still need new clothing. So you walk into your favorite outlet store wanting to look good on a budget. You hunt around the discount racks until you find it: that perfectly new, cute floral top that’s 50% off or more because it’s just a little out of season. It’s a win-win for everyone. You’re buying from a top quality name brand so it’ll last you a while before hitting the landfill, you’re grabbing clothing that was on its way out the door ‘cause you’re too smart for that out of season nonsense, and plus grabbing that discount just feels good. As silly as it is, you even imagine that blouse was sitting forgotten on the rack waiting for you with the keen eyes to come along and rescue it.
That’s nice and all, but it’s a lie.
The truth is, much of the clothing you buy on discount was never sold at “full price” in the first place, and was always designed to sit on the discount rack from the beginning. Worse yet, those clothes aren’t good quality clothing on sale, they’re simply cheap. Basically, according to Buzzfeed News, the discount rack at Gap, Saks Off 5th and other outlet stores is a way to trick you into buying low-quality clothing as a form of planned obsolescence. They know that consumers want to buy good quality clothing cheap, so the name brands will sell licensing rights to factories making cheap knockoff versions of the famous brands. Unfortunately, that nice floral top you got for a steal wasn't ever much of a steal to begin with.
An Alternative? Limit your clothes shopping. Remember that the first and simplest step towards sustainability is reduction. Think about how much clothing you buy in a month. Now buy one or two less pieces, but at a little higher quality so it lasts longer. You’re already off to a good start. Every single choice we make has an impact. Our society is built to hide away the consequences of many of our choices, but those consequences still exist.
For those people who are worried that limited shopping means boring wardrobes, check out the blogs The Everyday Minimalist and Miss Minimalist. Both of those sites are run by women dedicated to living minimalist lives, but it’s not like either of them wear nothing but plain white T-shirts. Look at their timeless wardrobe ideas, learn exciting ways of mixing and matching to make a small amount of clothing go further, and read about their experiences living with less. While going completely minimal might not be for you, you’ll get plenty of tips and ideas to steer you away from shopping new.
Let's say now that you know about the dangers of the discount rack, you want to make an extra effort to shop more ecologically friendly. You’ve heard about how some larger brands like H&M are making strides toward sustainable production practices, such as using more organic cotton, and so you decide to choose them over other brands. So you get to have your fast fashion cake and eat it too, right? Not quite.
First of all, even though H&M is the leader of purchasing organic cotton, organic cotton still only makes up about 13% of it’s garment production. But more to the point, purchasing organic cotton from a fast fashion company is a little like the fashion equivalent of “clean coal” power plants. Is organic cotton better for the environment than standard cotton? Yes. Organic cotton does greatly reduce the number of pesticides used in cotton production. But at the end of the day cotton is still a hugely water intensive plant, and organic cotton may even lead to increases in water consumption in the long run. More importantly, organic cotton from a fast fashion company still has all the problems associated with it that fast fashion does. Your clothes will still be the planned obsolescence, ready-for-landfill clothing. The entire business model of fast fashion is the problem, and making it slightly less harmful is not a permanent solution.
An Alternative? When you have to buy new, buy from companies that source sustainably as much as possible. Some suggestions are:
Reformation: You may know of Reformation as one of the premier LA cool girl clothing lines, worn by it celebrities such as Rihanna and Olivia Wilde. What you might not know is how environmentally friendly they are. They attempt to source their textiles from vintage and deadstock (new but unsold) whenever possible, and also source from a wood-pulp based fabric called Tencel that, while not perfect, can be made with closed-loop production. In addition, they work toward sustainability at every step of production and even rate everything they make by sustainability.
Rust and Fray: A New York City based brand, Rust and Fray is focused on fashionable bags and accessories made through Upcycling. They source their leather, denim, vegan leather, and other materials by visiting factories and handpicking raw, unprocessed cuttings that were otherwise going to be thrown out as scraps. Every bag is then designed and crafted around whichever textiles they were able to source, turning what would’ve been landfill filler into top quality and unique, “few of a kind” products.
Everlane: A San Francisco based retailer that has established an extremely large following with their focus on staple clothing produced with “radical transparency.” Going past textile production for a second, Everlane’s commitment to engineering sustainable manufacturing and processing has had ingenious results, particularly their denim processing. Most denim is dyed a deep blue then washed until it’s the blue jean color we’re familiar with; a method that pollutes thousands of gallons of water. Everlane takes that washing process and re-filters almost all of the water back clean again, to the point of drinkability. The leftover toxic sludge is then mixed with a cement to produce a cheap building material for houses that doesn’t create toxic runoff. All this for only $68 a pair.
At least there is one trend in the world of big brand fashion that’s helpful. As the need for more sustainable production grows ever more pressing, large name brands are starting to heavily push recycling initiatives. H&M has even turned their stores into pseudo-recycling centers, allowing you to give away any textile from any brand to them for recycling in return for—well—in return for a discount on their fast fashion clothes. But at least the old clothing is getting recycled, and recycling is great for the environment. Right?
As it turns out, even though recycling is better than just throwing out the clothing, there are a couple problems with it. One major issue with recycling is that most of it can better be described as downcycling. When fabrics, especially blended fabrics, are broken down to be reused, they lose quality and often cannot be made into more clothing again. This material then can only be used as a worse quality product, such as stuffing. According to CBC News, approximately 35% of H&M’s dropped off materials get downcycled this way. Downcycling is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for new virgin materials nor does it actually prevent that material going to the landfill eventually. And keep in mind that breaking down clothing to be recycled uses energy, contributing to its carbon footprint. Furthermore, a lot of clothing donated to recycling centers is simply shipped abroad and resold. In addition to the ethical issues at play, sometimes resold clothing still doesn’t sell. Can you guess what happens to the clothing then?
This all isn’t meant to discourage people from recycling, but rather it’s meant to invoke the environmentalist truism “recycling is a good place to start but a bad place to stop.” Don’t let recycling be an excuse to avoid other forms waste reduction, and understand that recycling is the last-chance step and not the first option you should take.
An Alternative: Reduce your overall waste to begin with. A popular new idea called the Zero Waste Movement aims to convince you to make small, simple changes to your everyday choices to drastically reduce and even eliminate your waste output. The blogs Ethical Unicorn, The Rogue Ginger, and Zero Waste Home are three sites filled with waste reduction tips for you to get started on. While much of the focus is on reducing plastic use, each of those blogs still gives you fashion ideas, such as inventive ways to extend your clothing’s lifespan and DIY guides for upcycling your worn down clothing articles.
There is no one perfect environmentalist solution for the fashion industry, nor any other industry in our current society. True closed-loop production is still a long way away, and as the demand for a greener world grows there has been a massive effort by big corporations to brand themselves as environmental without putting in the effort to actually be environmental. At the end of the day, these problems will persist until there's a radical change in our worldwide methods of production and an overall shift away from consumer culture occurs. But in the meantime, we as individuals can change our consumption habits for the better. While not a replacement for activism, we can choose to steer away from the destructive fast fashion industry and instead reduce our overall consumption, support smaller environmentally focused brands, and reduce our personal waste output, so we can live and embody some of the changes we wish to see in the world.