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The Reality of Fast Fashion

Can you think of a couple clothing stores or online brands you frequent regularly that you think are trendy? Do these fashion brands always seem to have the newest fad or the perfect addition to your Pinterest-inspired outfit? Are you ever surprised by how cheap brand new clothing items are at these stores? If yes, then have you ever considered that the companies checking all of these boxes are too good to be true?

Fast fashion can be defined as “ approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.” In other words, brands such as SheIn, Zara, Forever 21, and UNIQLO attempt to create profit off of a specific fashion trend by making those clothing products quickly and cheaply while selling them for marginally lower than their competitors. Some examples of fast fashion items and trends in the past have been marble prints, tennis skirts, galaxy print, black plastic chokers, and teddy bear jackets just to name a few. While fast fashion is convenient for the consumer, there is not much thought put into how it might affect the environment.

Portrays the mentality behind fast fashion consumption. Photo by NAUMD.

The effects of fast fashion can be felt across many different sectors of the environment. One of these sectors includes our water supply. In order to make one cotton shirt, approximately 3,000 liters of water is needed and the dyes used to color the shirt contain toxic chemicals that eventually end up in our oceans. Additionally, this process currently contributes to about 20% of the world’s industrial wastewater supply. Industrial wastewater is water that has become a source of contamination generated from a variety of industrial processes like manufacturing operations, mineral extraction, or power generation. Unfortunately, the wastewater created from this process is extremely toxic, so much so that it may not be able to be treated to become safe again (Wikipedia). 

Another aspect of the environment the fast fashion industry affects is plastic pollution. This industry is the primary culprit of the immense amount of microfibers that remain in our oceans. A microfiber is characterized as a synthetic fiber that is finer than one thread, having a diameter of less than ten micrometers (Wikipedia). To lower the price of clothing pieces, companies use cheaper materials such as polyester that contain these microfibers in their clothing. These microfibers eventually end up in our oceans, typically from washing machines, and take an extremely long time to dissolve. Unfortunately, when they finally do dissolve, they release a toxic substance that has a harmful impact on our ocean ecosystems. Since microfibers cannot be removed, they can also pose many human health issues through the consumption of seafood. 

Another area of concern involves the massive consumption of clothing. Due to the affordability of clothes manufactured this way, fashion culture pushes consumers to constantly buy the newest clothing trends. The large clothing companies that use this form of marketing also enforce this culture on their customers in order to maximize their profit margins. Unfortunately, the majority of these clothes are only worn for a short amount of time and then discarded. When discarded, the clothes typically end up in landfills and incinerated, both causing adverse environmental effects. Once the landfills pile up, the clothing is incinerated, releasing toxic chemicals into the air, posing harmful effects to the environment and for people who live close to these areas. There have also been issues that have arisen from the usage of a material called viscose that has been manufactured as a cheaper alternative to cotton. Being derived from wood pulp, wood that is cooked in a variety of different chemicals, it poses many threats to the environment because of the use of harmful chemicals and also contributes to issues connected to deforestation (Cut The Wood). It also emits a large amount of greenhouse gasses and can pose health effects to the workers who manufacture wood pulp as well as viscose (Princeton Student Climate Initiative).

Microscopic view of microplastics found in our oceans. Photo by 1 Million Women.

In light of these many environmental risks surrounding the fast fashion industry, it is important for the general public to take a second look at where they are purchasing their clothes from, search for possible alternatives, and even try to reduce frequency of consumption. One huge alternative to fast fashion is to change where you shop. Thrift stores have become a popular alternative to fast fashion for several reasons. Thrifting is typically cheaper and allows shoppers to find more unique or even vintage pieces that have stood the test of time because they are made with long-lasting, durable materials. It also gives customers the opportunity to donate their clothes to keep fashionable items in their stores. Well-known thrift stores such as Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and Savers offer coupons or tax write-off forms for their donations. One downfall with thrift stores is that it does take more time to find a piece you like. However, there are several other chain thrift stores such as Buffalo Exchange, Plato's Closet, and 2nd Street that offer a better selection of second-hand clothing items for just a slight price increase. These thrift stores will also offer either in-store credit or cash for pieces that customers would like to sell to the establishment. The prominence of online thrift stores has also contributed to the popularity of thrifting. Some popular online thrift stores include ThredUp, Depop, and Poshmark. While these types of thrift stores are unable to allow the customer to see the piece in person, the ease of using an app saves time and allows customers to search for exactly what they want. 

Another way to change where you purchase clothing items from is to search for environmentally friendly businesses that responsibly source their materials or contribute to the betterment of the environment. Thankfully, there are several different websites that provide a list of environmentally friendly businesses over a wide variety of industries. Some of these database websites include,, and While these sites do list several clothing companies that sell clothes with the environment and labor standards in mind, they also include many businesses that expand over several different industries such as food, energy, furniture, and more!

This photo shows the inside of a Goodwill thrift store. Photo by Goodwill.

As sustainability in the fashion industry has become increasingly important to consumers, many companies have unfortunately maintained their similar production standards while marketing their clothing products as being fully sustainable, a marketing tactic called greenwashing. Luckily, there are some ways for consumers to determine if a company is attempting to greenwash consumers or if they are truly sustainable. One way is to look for numbers and statistics, instead of words in a company's statement about sustainability. Companies that do have quantifiable data are actually measuring their impact on the environment. It’s also important to remember that some marketed natural products such as viscose and bamboo are not always eco-friendly because it really depends on how they were sourced. Additionally, vegan products are not the same as eco-friendly products. Usually oil-based synthetic materials are used as a replacement for leather and fur. Another way to verify sustainability is to check for certifications. Some notable certifications are Bluesign which denotes environmental health and safety in the manufacturing of textiles and the Cradle to Cradle certification which signifies products that are fully biodegradable or can be used repeatedly. While greenwashing makes it increasingly difficult for consumers to identify whether companies are as sustainable as they say they are, spending a little more time researching these identifiers makes all the difference (British Vogue).

One fast fashion company that is taking small steps towards sustainability is H&M. H&M has faced a lot of controversy in the past regarding their sourcing of labor as well as their fast fashion business model. However, they have been implementing some small changes over time to try to improve their environmental impact. In 2013, they launched their Garment Collecting campaign where customers can now turn in clothing items of any material or brand and receive a coupon that they can use for their next purchase. These items are then separated into three categories by H&M’s business partner which are rewear, reuse, and recycle. The rewear clothes are marketed as secondhand, the reusable clothes are turned into other products such as remake collections or cleaning cloths, and the recycled clothing is shredded into textile fibers and used in other components such as insulation materials (H&M). This can help counteract the environmental effects of the non eco-friendly materials they use in their clothing. Additionally, H&M is working on improving the production of their own branded denim by reducing the amount of water used in their manufacturing. For printed styles, they have shifted towards using laser technology instead of a traditional chemical-intensive printing processes (H&M). Even though H&M has been pushing for more sustainability in their business model, they are far from perfect as they have repeatedly not delivered on certain sustainability objectives, but their current practices are a start to bringing more environmental consciousness into the fashion industry (Good On You).

It is easy to see how big of an impact the fashion industry has on the environmental status of our world and how quickly the fashion industry can change. The good news is that consumers have the ability to change the effects of the fashion industry by making small changes in where they shop as well as in how they consume and dispose of clothing. Even though it is difficult for companies to be completely sustainable, many fast fashion companies need to be held accountable for the environmental harms they elicit just to make a quick buck. By taking a little bit more time to find options for sustainable fashion that are practical for one’s lifestyle, consumers have the power to redefine the mark the fashion industry leaves on our world.

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