A $3 tank top. $8 pants. $10 shoes.
While these affordable pieces might be trendy right now, the ethical and environmental issues that come with fast fashion are harming communities and natural resources.
According to Audrey Robbins, a fashion merchandising and apparel design professor at Ball State, fast fashion is three things: mass produced, made quickly and cheaply, and seen as “disposable.” It also often replicates designer apparel.
Affordable fashion grew in popularity in the 1990s and 2000s, according to Good On You, a company devoted to classifying sustainable fashion brands. Cheap clothing brands were established and online shopping became readily accessible to consumers.
According to sophomore fashion merchandising student Chiara Biddle, the desire to stay on-trend and keep up with the latest catwalk looks for a fraction of the cost might be a key motivator for why consumers shop at fast fashion stores.
“As consumers, we are obsessed with staying on top of the quick-moving trends and doing so at the lowest possible price with the most convenient means,” Chiara says. “This seems great as a consumer, but there is an entire backstory that we are missing.”
That backstory includes a harsh creation process that not only is harmful to the environment, but also the workers making the garment.
Fast fashion puts a strain on various natural resources, one of those being water. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, making one cotton t-shirt can take up to 2,700 liters of water. This amount of water could fulfill the drinking needs of one human for three years.
“The fashion industry is a major consumer of water,” says John Pichtel, a professor of natural resources and environmental management at Ball State. “It uses upwards of 20 trillion gallons of water a year. What’s troubling is they don’t reuse or recycle or treat the water.”
During the production process, various harmful chemicals can get released into freshwater systems. According to Open Access Government, more than 8,000 synthetic chemicals get released into these water systems.
These chemicals are used for dyeing and bleaching garments, for fiber production, and for wet processing clothes.
Not only are chemicals released into water systems, but so are microplastics. According to GreenPeace, microplastics are small synthetic fibers that get released in microscopic doses when someone washes their clothes in the washing machine. A single garment can unleash 700,000 fibers in one wash.
From there, microplastics go down the drain and end up in oceans. Marine life may swallow these toxic fibers, causing the microplastics to end up in the human food chain.
“The fashion industry contributes to one-third of microplastics to oceans, that’s about 190,000 tons a year,” says Pichtel. “The numbers are not good.”
Fast fashion also contributes to global warming. According to Pichtel, fast fashion contributes upwards of 10% of carbon dioxide from fumes. These fumes may be released during manufacturing and transportation of the garments.
Clothing is not always prepared in one location. They might first get prepared in countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, or Pakistan. Then, final dyeing may take place in the European Union or the United States, causing more fuel to be used for transport.
The topic of fast fashion also brings concerns about how ethical the manufacturing process is for workers.
“Often fast fashion uses cheap labor in countries where fair working laws are looked over so cheap clothing can be made fast,” Robbins says.
Low wages is one issue of many when it comes to ethical workmanship.
The 2019 Ethical Fashion Report surveyed 130 fast fashion companies and looked at their policies, transparency and traceability, auditing and supplier relationships, environmental management, and worker empowerment.
Out of the 130 companies surveyed, only 5% could show they were paying their workers a living wage.
Pichtel says there are also concerns about the environment for workers, as they might be breathing in hazardous chemicals and begin to feel carpal tunnel-like symptoms due to using their hands as they work.
The buildings that the workers use as they work have also been proven to be in poor condition.
In 2013, an eight-story building in Dhaka, Bangladesh crashed down on its workers. The collapse killed 1,132 clothing workers.
“It would be really good for people to realize how our clothing is being prepared, especially fast fashion,” Pichtel says.
There are efforts being made to repair the effects of fast fashion. One example is the Better Cotton Initiative, an organization that works with farmers to find unique ways to grow cotton with less water.
The organization has seen success, with 75,000 Pakistanian farmers lowering their water usage by 39%. Not only this, but those same farmers decreased their pesticide use by 47% and their chemical fertilizer use by 39%.
Chiara is working to bring awareness on Ball State’s campus by creating the Green Fashion Society, a sustainable fashion club.
“I had thought about wanting to join some sort of sustainable fashion club when I started getting involved on campus, but the idea really came to fruition after helping organize a climate strike at Ball State this past September,” Chiara says.
Chiara, who is a member of the Community & Environmental Affairs Committee within the Student Government Association, says her committee paired with Ball State’s Green Theatre Society to host the event.
“I was really inspired by the members of the group and what they were doing to make an impact in their industry,” Biddle says. “I had this moment where I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t we have that for fashion?’”
Biddle hasn’t officially started the organization yet, but aims to finalize her plans over the summer and bring the club to campus in fall 2021. She hopes to host educational meetings and have events on campus and in the community to encourage sustainable fashion habits for everyone.
As far as what consumers can do to stray away from fast fashion, Robbins, Pichtel, and Chiara all encourage consumers to shop and live sustainably.
Chiara recommends shopping at thrift stores or shopping secondhand through different online shops like ThredUp, Curtsy, Poshmark, and even Facebook Marketplace.
“As consumers, we need to remember that we have the power because brands cannot exist without us,” Chiara says. “Be a conscious consumer and encourage your friends to do the same.”
Pichtel also recommends researching for sustainable solutions around the house or even when purchasing a car.
“It’s easy for us to point a finger at some large corporation, but ultimately you and I are the consumers of the vast majority of these products,” Pichtel says. “If we start becoming aware, we can change our purchasing habits. In order to make change we start with education. We have to understand what the problem is and then we can start looking for solutions.”