Fast Fashion is Cheap, But at What Cost?

Adelphi University's Activism Club hosted a 'Wearable Art for a Purpose' fashion show on April 19. Credit: Samantha Rutt

By Samantha Rutt

“Wearable Art For A Purpose,” an event by Adelphi University’s Artivism Club designed to start conversations about consumer trends, fast fashion, and other commercial conversations, brought a crowd on April 19th. The event featured student-made projects, artisan crafted garments and repurposed fashion accessories.

“Over the past 16 years we have put on these ‘Fair Trade’ fashion shows to bring attention to sweatshop conditions, fashion and the environment, labor laws and safety laws,” Stephanie Lake, a staff member of Adelphi University’s Artivism club, said. “[to promote] the idea of taking sustainable fabrics and resources and not throwing anything away, but repurposing what we already have.”

Staying on trend, also in April, East Hampton Library hosted a guest speaker, Mitch Radcliffe, CEO of Earth 911, who spoke to “The High Cost Of Fast Fashion” discussing the environmental impact of fast fashion and what society can do about it.

Fast fashion is the practice of producing inexpensive, low-quality clothing in large quantities, inspired by the latest trends. These clothes are typically worn only a few times before being discarded, with the average lifespan of a fast fashion garment being just seven wears.

“We have to move from sustainability naive to sustainability native,” Mitch Ratcliffe, whose company is designed to facilitate earth-positive consumer decisions, said. “Things like appreciating a well-made item of clothing or the people who take care of their clothing have been lost. That is something we can bring back by thinking and talking about it.”

Affordability, accessibility, trendiness and convenience are leading reasons for shopping fast fashion. Fast fashion brands appeal to a wide range of demographics but are most popular among younger consumers, particularly those aged between 18 and 35 years. This age group is generally more fashion-conscious and trend-driven; fast fashion brands often target students and young adults who are looking for affordable and trendy clothing.

“I tend to shop mainly fast fashion brands, especially SHEIN,” Hannah Sobel, a 22 year-old college student and avid fashion consumer, said. “SHEIN has an extremely wide variety of clothing for every occasion, every type of clothing for every season. Unbeatable prices… I can’t afford other clothing stores.”

Fast fashion has become a popular trend within the fashion industry. But this trend comes at a significant cost to the environment as the clothing industry has become one of the worst contributors to pollution on Earth.

Fast fashion consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping sectors combined, accounting for more than 2% of the world’s energy consumption. The industry is at large responsible for 10% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, as well as 20 % of global wastewater, using 93 billion metric tons of clean water each year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

“The fashion industry is ever evolving and growing but as it does so, with it comes the constant purge of waste and disastrous materials into our once clean environment,” Natalie Bouwmans, a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology said, “the notion of sustainability is no longer a progressive ideology, but a necessary way of life and preservation not solely for our individual future but the planet as a whole.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that Americans produce 16 million tons of textile waste per year. In New York City alone, more than 200,000 tons of clothes are wasted each year.

In addition to the waste generated by discarded clothing, the production of fast fashion has significant environmental impacts, from the use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing to the carbon emissions generated by transportation.

Life cycle of a fast fashion garment. Credit: Samantha Rutt

“There are really four companies that inhabit most of this industry, Zara, H&M, Forever 21 and SHEIN, a Chinese company,” Ratcliffe said. “This has led to poor quality items with a short lifespan being sold and shipped all over the world.”

Over 90 million tons of textile waste is created by the fashion industry annually, according to Sustainable Earth, a team from Arizona State University that provides sustainability information and news. Of the 92 million tons, 85% ends up in landfills, resulting in 21 billion pounds of textile waste in landfills each year.

“There’s no such thing as ‘away’, we talked about throwing away clothes or throwing away something, it goes somewhere, everything does,” Lake said. “So the idea of recycling… we think of going to thrift stores or handing clothing down, which is good.”

Pure, 100% textile materials are the most favorable to the environment as they are made of products found in nature, lending them the ability to decompose. Cotton, for instance, has a higher capability to be reused, whereas blended materials, like cotton and polyester, are the least environmentally friendly as this compound material is unlikely to be decomposed. A blend of cotton and polyester, a natural fiber and a synthetic fiber, makes for the most common fabric in all of apparel, with more than half of fast fashion garments being made of synthetic material.

Inside Island Thrift, a popular Long Island thrift store. Credit: Samantha Rutt

Although easily recyclable, cotton manufacturing is not nearly eco-friendly. The production of cotton requires large amounts of water and pesticides, which can contaminate nearby water sources and harm wildlife, as a third of all ocean plastic pollution comes from microplastics due to the fast fashion industry.

“My goal is to actually be able to shift the industry, to focus within the world of zero waste,” Danielle Elsener, a zero waste focused designer, said. “It’s on production and scalability and making it so that a company like Nike could bring a zero waste garment into their line.” Elsener has been working as a zero waste design consultant for corporate companies since her graduation from the Royal College of Art in London in 2020.

Many designers have begun the shift towards manufacturing zero waste clothing in efforts to make a more sustainable garment.

Microplastics are also of increasing concern as they have been found in waterways, polluting oceans and our drinking water. Microplastics come off of synthetic fibers when put into water, like the washing machine. Fashion production accounts for 20-35% of all microplastics that flow through the ocean – equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles.

The textile dyeing and finishing process also contributes to water pollution, as chemicals are often released into nearby rivers and streams.

Transportation also contributes to carbon emissions, as clothing is often shipped around the world multiple times before reaching the consumer. These emissions add pollutants which have been proven to accelerate climate change, a phenomenon which has far-reaching environmental and social impacts.

“I think a lot of it goes back to consumerism and rethinking what we need, to how much we want to buy. And then just rethinking our whole supply chain and how we want to produce things,” Ann Cantrell, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a sustainability steward/business consultant, said. “So trying to find businesses that are somewhere in between that and can manage to make it work is ideal. I’m a business owner, I understand we need to make money but business models can’t just work for myself… I do think there’s some medium that we can all work towards.”

The fast fashion industry is also notorious for its exploitation of workers in developing countries, who are often paid very low wages and work in unsafe conditions. These workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals and work long hours, often in buildings with poor ventilation, leading to respiratory problems and other health issues.

“The conditions are awful for people working,” Elsener said, “[with] how little everyone’s getting paid, it’s not sustainable.”

Educational pamphlets displayed at Adelphi’s Artivism event. Credit: Samantha Rutt

Consumers have the power to make a difference by choosing to support sustainable fashion brands and opting for high-quality, long-lasting clothing. By reducing consumption of fast fashion and supporting ethical and sustainable fashion practices, the public can help to reduce the impact of the fashion industry on the environment and support a more just and sustainable future.

“We don’t live in an infinite universe or a planet with infinite resources. We have a finite planet with finite resources, and we need to be more cognizant of that if we want to actually… the earth is going to be fine… it’s just humans living on it is going to be the problem going forward,” Lake said.