Apparently, our clothes could be making both us and our environment sick. By clothes, I am referring mostly to “fast fashion” clothing that marketers, influencers, brands, and fashion bloggers seduce us (with maximum sex appeal) into buying, hauling, using and disposing as frequently as we dispose of toilet paper.
What is Fast Fashion anyway? For many, it’s a dirty word; a pejorative that refers to fashions that are created (cheaply!) in record speed by big fashion conglomerates, following a showing on the catwalk. These fashions go through the production and supply chains at record speed (sometimes every couple of weeks there is new merchandise) to meet consumer demand. They are manufactured to expire ASAP, to keep the cycle going, as compared to slow fashion which is manufactured to last and last.
Fast fashion is often perceived as sexier and shinier than slow fashion because it is always newer, for one thing, and for another, it is infinitely more affordable than slow fashion. Quite often, fast fashion designs imitate more expensive designs from slow fashion designers. So, people are getting the same designer look for a lot less and it makes them feel good, like they are winning. That is why brands like ZARA, H&M, Benetton, Primark, Uniqlo and Topshop are so successful and will continue to be. It is because the products they offer to consumers are very desirable and makes consumers feel good, while at the same time, the prices don’t break the consumers’ bank accounts.
Fast fashion is also fast because (and this is really the kicker) in addition to the speed by which manufactures, retailers and brands get the product to consumer, the consumer also has a speedy Gonzalez role to play in the game. This pivotal role is a bit Pavlonian and involves buying, using and dumping the clothes in record time. Once consumers dispose of the clothes they careen to the stores once again (and just in time for the newest releases) to get their new fix of the newest fashions that have been created – so that they can buy, use, and dump all over again. The cycle is quite vicious.
Who wears fast fashion? Where are these clothes being made? Everybody, pretty much. In every country and on every continent you will find fast fashionistas. Sure, some countries and continents contain a higher number of offenders than others. But let’s be clear: fast fashion consumers exist everywhere. However, while fast fashionistas can be found everywhere, most of these clothing are made in the East, in countries like Bangladesh, China and Uzbekistan. And the working conditions for workers in these locations are often times quite undesirable. But this issue is outside the scope of this particular article which aims to focus on whether, in addition to harming the environment, our clothes could be having negative consequences for our health such as affecting fertility, impacting unborn fetuses, obstructing our bronchial passages, messing with our hormones and straight up giving us cancer.
The voracious consumer appetite for fast fashion (really, this is overconsumption To the hilt) is having a tremendously negative impact on the environment in several different ways according to several different reports on the matter. An article published in 2015 on ecowatch.com – Fast Fashion is the Second Dirtiest Industry in the World next to Big Oil – paints a dismal oeuvre. The quote was attributed to Eileen Fisher who herself is a designer. And in it, the author bewails the environmental costs of fast fashion. Is her outcry hyperbole? It is hard to tell if her assessment is scientifically accurate as far as which industries are indeed dirtiest as far as the environment goes. But no one can question whether the apparel industry pollutes. One only has to look at the composition in the world’s landfills to figure that out.
It’s not just the landfills. The supply chain of fast fashion drains human capital as well as natural resources, like water. Cotton farming seems to be particularly problematic in terms of water. According to various reports, fast fashion has resulted in contaminated rivers and waterways (sometimes it has caused rivers and waterways to completely disappear!) in places like Uzbekistan and Bangladesh.
In addition to the environmental and human cost (labor perspective) there is the question also of health and sanitation. The amount of chemicals used in the textile industry is truly mind-blowing. These include dyes, pesticides and nonylphenols. A lot of consumers never stop to analyze the supply chain of their clothes, or the environmental impact of their buying habits or even whether the clothes they are buying and wearing could be contributing to their health issues. For example, the heavy use of nonylphenols in the apparel industry is highly controversial from a human and animal health perspective. There are other worrisome chemicals in the chain of production such as arsenic, mercury and lead (ecowatch.com). And very concerning is the fact that once these chemicals are put on the clothing, it can take up to 10 washes sometimes for them to wear off. So often, the consumer clothes him/herself in carcinogens and has absolutely no idea.
It is clear for everyone that the current operational model in the apparel industry is unsustainable. But what are the solutions? It would appear that the solution lies with all the players in the game – and this includes consumers (or over-consumers as the case may be), influencers, media, manufacturers and brands. First of all, people need to shop responsibly. Period. When you have thousands of youtubers doing daily and weekly hauls of fast fashion and looking so fabulous in all these outfits that they change every day (and a lot of these same influencers are huge environmentalists, ironically) it could be hard for people to control their impulses. Everybody wants to keep up with the trends and look good and feel good. It is ok to shop, and it is okay to consume. But there is a huge chasm between shopping and over-consumption and that is a personal issue that each individual who cares about the environment needs to think about. Because in the end, these brands and manufacturers are trying to keep up with consumer demand. So logically if you reduce the demand you will reduce the negative impact on the environment.
The media could play a bigger role in educating consumers about not just the dangers that lurk in their apparel, but also the need for greater self-reflection and greater self-control when it comes to fast fashion.
In addition to consumers, brands and manufacturers have a huge responsibility. And many are trying. Brands like H&M and Zara have implemented changes in the way they operate and have pledged to make even more improvements over the next decade, like phasing out the use of certain toxic chemicals, and improving labor related concerns. Hopefully they will continue to expand on that. Because a lot more needs to be done.
Voila. Just my two cents.