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The Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion

Far from a fluffy subject, the connection between fast fashion and the environment is an increasingly painful one. David Attenborough’s ‘A Life on our Planet’, and the new studies that are coming out have given many of us hope that we can turn things around for our beautiful earth. 

We can make little changes in our everyday lives that could have real impacts and influences on our future. So let’s run with that thought, and consider how we could become more ethical consumers, to help build a good, sustainable and lasting world.

Fast fashion is more affordable, simply because the companies that produce these garments cut corners and turn a blind eye on their many impacts, environmental, social and otherwise. Read on to turn a light on the dark side of the fashion industry.

What is Fast Fashion?

In the past, clothing brands would put out two collections a year – one for summer, and one for winter. These days, brands put out anywhere between five and twenty-four new collections a year. You’ll notice that, almost every time you go into a store or scroll through a brand’s website, there’s something new to be bought.

This is fast fashion. The quick turning out of the new, and the changing of styles and fashions on a constant basis. We name some items “staple pieces”, and the rest is allowed in our cupboards and on our bodies until the next ‘best’ thing is produced, which is often in no time at all.

Nowadays, the fashion industry, at its core, is based on the continual consumption of the new while discarding the old. The idea that something can go out of fashion, or be from the previous year or season’s trend, is what keeps the industry churning and burning.

Fashion Industry Pollution

The fashion industry is one of the most highly polluting industries in the world. Textiles alone are the second-largest polluter of freshwater sources. The most beautiful industry in the world has major negative environmental and social impacts, particularly on those at the bottom of the supply chain.

You might be asking: why is the fashion industry such a pollutant? That would be, in part, because we have so much more than we need. Parts of our cupboards are seldom explored. Even if, when we bought the dress, we adored it and thought it would make us shine brighter than ever.

We buy too much. And when we need to make space for more garments in our cupboard, we throw out things that have hardly been worn. Things that, a few decades ago, would have been worn until it was worn through, and then used as rags to clean, instead of adding to fashion pollution.

Even washing clothing is a huge pollutant. 500 000 tons of microfibers are released into the oceans each year. Much of the microfibers are made up of polyester, and don’t degrade in the water.

So even this seemingly innocent act associated with an irresponsible material like polyester, adds to the trouble. It’s estimated that 35% of the microplastic in the ocean come from textiles.

And then there’s the dyeing. After fabrics have been dyed, the water is often dumped in nearby rivers. Besides polluting one of the worlds most important natural resources, this also makes life more difficult for the struggling communities where these factories are generally based, as it contaminates their water source.

Fast Fashion Waste and Pollution

The environmental impacts of the production and use of apparel throughout its lifespan include wastewater, carbon emissions and solid waste. There is also the issue of depletion of finite natural resources, like water, minerals, fossil fuels, and energy.

That’s a whole lot of negative for the clothes on our backs. Especially when they don’t get worn much before they add to landfills and garbage heaps. In 2014, people bought 60% more garments than they did in 2000. But they kept the items for half as long. 

Basically one garbage truck of garments is thrown into a landfill, or burned, every second. So clothing pollution either goes into the air, or to the huge piles of rubbish that are growing all over the world.

Fast Fashion’s Consequences in Communities

Because of low cost production and less strict standards, production of fast fashion clothing items has moved more and more to developing countries. So the problematic ways of creating our clothing have moved out of sight, and out of mind for many.

Negatively affecting the most vulnerable communities, these jobs, instead of lifting people out of poverty, furthers inequality. Particularly as the production lines for the fashion industry is largely made of women. 

As we’ve learnt over the years, the upliftment and education of women is a crucial step in improving and helping impoverished communities. With many girls in these situations leaving school at a young age in order to work, they never gain the education that could lift them up and out of poverty.

Women typically invest more of their income in their families than men do. And since, with an extra year of school past elementary, their lifetime income increases by 15%, it is very much worth keeping girls in school, and out of clothing factories. 

Last Words on Fast Fashion’s Environmental Impact

There’s no denying it, we all love beautiful clothing. Soft textures, gorgeous patterns, flattering cuts. There’s something deeply exciting about finding a piece of clothing that suits you. That makes you feel more yourself than you were without it. And that expresses who you are to the world.

But more and more, we want that expression to reflect that we’re good people. People who care about the world, the environment, and those who are less fortunate than ourselves. 

As ethical consumers, we want to move away from mass production and sweatshops. The world needs to make an intentional choice to stop turning a blind eye to the impact of clothing industry pollution and fast fashion. 

And to improve and lessen the impact that it has on all spheres, from the supply chain to the ozone layer. Which is what we’re all about here at Balance.

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