Fast fashion: the cost of looking good

Mass clothing producers use methods that are resulting in widespread environmental degradation

H&M and zara are widely known and loved for their trendy, relatively accessible clothing, but that convenience is having an increasingly negative impact on the environment. Madeleine Hansen/Argosy

Picture this: You go to the mall, telling yourself you won’t buy anything today. At H&M, you see a top on a window mannequin and fall in love. You tell yourself, “I’ll sleep on it. If I still love it tomorrow, I’ll come back and get it.”

The next day you come back for the top, but H&M has changed their inventory, and the mannequins are dressed in completely different clothing. Sound familiar? What you’ve just experienced is fast fashion, one of the most polluting industries on the planet.

Fast fashion is the production of clothing fabricated quickly and inexpensively, following trends to get clothes in storefronts as quickly as possible. Zara and H&M are usually pinned as the face of the fast fashion industry. Previously believed to be the second-most polluting industry after big oil, numbers are finally showing up to debunk that myth. While its ranking as a world polluter is still being debated, there is no question that this industry has a hugely negative impact on the environment, and in more ways than one.

Look in your wardrobe, and the dominating fabric you’ll most likely find is cotton. A principle fabric in clothing production, cotton production is remarkably harmful to the planet. Normally a perennial plant, cotton is grown as an annual plant to satisfy industry needs. This process relies heavily on water, a growing issue in the face of shrinking water resources around the world. Cotton growth also contributes to heavy emissions of pesticides and other harmful chemicals dumped directly into freshwater sources.

Moreover, the fashion community has recently been talking about “closing the loop”: an idea emerging that there is enough fabric on the planet to clothe its entire population, so much so that there is no longer a need to farm and cultivate new materials for clothing. It suggests that clothes that are no longer being used should be broken down and re-purposed.

H&M has even come out with a sustainability campaign, growing larger year by year. However, their clothing rotation – the addition of new clothes on storefronts while swapping out older items – still remains one of the most frequent ones in the industry, begging the question of whether they really are walking their talk. What’s more, finding data on big companies like H&M, Zara, and Walmart and their environmental impact is impossible. Companies simply aren’t keeping track or are not publishing this data at all. Can you imagine why?

Thankfully, there are alternatives, such as thrift stores – if you can find one that isn’t rampantly problematic – and a new industry cropping up to face the problem. Often referred to as “slow fashion”, or eco-friendly brands; these brands focus on using sustainable materials and processes . However, one can already guess that this kind of production doesn’t use the cheap tools or labour that fast fashion does, thus ramping up prices (upwards of $50 for a sustainable top). This suggests issues of classism regarding sustainable fashion and the sad reality that fast fashion offers accessible, fashionable clothing for relatively no expense to penny-pinching young people.

This article has barely scratched the surface of this environmental problem. Not included in this piece are the environmental impacts of shipping, unethical human labor (like the 2013 Savar building collapse in Bangladesh, killing 1,134 people, the majority probably garment workers), and how the production of clothing items designed to break down after a few wears might be a symptom of a larger system – capitalism-induced materialism and consumerism, anyone? Alternatives are possible for those who can afford it, leaving environmentally-conscious students and lower-class workers in the dust. Fast fashion provides trendy clothing for cheap financially, but with a high ethical price.

Gabrielle Gagnon
Gabrielle Gagnon is a contributor to the Argosy.