By Julia Roos
It’s no secret that fashion holds a high position as one of the most polluting industries in the world; but how often does that stop us from shopping for clothes every season? This dilemma is especially pertinent while shopping at affordable brands like Zara and H&M, which seem to always carry clothes in style for a low price. The environmentally conscious consumer will search for “green” products, which often lead them back to fast fashion brands. Almost every fast fashion retailer promotes a line that appears dedicated to the sustainable process of making clothes, yet none of these supposed “efforts” could offset the damage that they continue to cause. Fast fashion bears the responsibility of toxic behavior on both the production and consumer side: the environmental damage, the unethical labor practices, and the perpetuation of overconsumption.
The environment faces problems like extensive water consumption and waste accumulation due to the fast fashion industry. An abundant amount of freshwater goes into the process of dyeing and finishing clothing, as well as growing the most popular fabric, cotton. Although cotton is a natural fiber that can biodegrade, it still prevails as one of the most environmentally demanding crops. Cotton is the most widely used textile, accounting for 75 percent of the world’s clothing products, but the even more staggering statistic relates to its environmental harm. In fact, it takes 20,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans. Water scarcity extends past fashion, as it will lead to detrimental world effects. The United Nations estimates that 700 million people worldwide could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030. In addition to draining resources, growing cotton requires a heavy use of pesticides that contain harmful chemicals. World WildLife proposes that the pesticides risk damage to water quality and biodiversity in and downstream from the fields. Current cotton production methods are not environmentally sustainable. Moreover, fashion physically pollutes the Earth as 85% of all textiles end up in a landfill. Even worse, synthetic fibers, such as polyester, are made of plastic and therefore non-biodegradable. Polyester is the driving fabric of fast fashion development since the cost of production is exceptionally inexpensive, and it is projected that the global population will consume 102 million tons of clothing by 2030, with 70 percent containing polyester.
In order to keep the cost of clothing inexpensive, brands will outsource their labor, or produce clothing in countries where the federal minimum wage is low. The fast fashion industry remains notorious for exploiting underpaid and mistreated workers at the bottom of the supply chain. Workers in these supplier factories do not make a high enough wage to support themselves. If the price of a piece of clothing retails at $19.99, the person who made it was paid 19 cents. The labor policy hub, Global Labor Justice, conducted a report on the exploitation of Asian female garment workers in Gap and H&M supplier factories and documented acts of harassment, dangerous working conditions, and forced overtime. These brands don’t technically hold any legal obligation to keep these workers safe because they are not directly affiliated with the supplier firms. For reference, brands that have more transparency about their production process are more likely to be producing clothing ethically.
Fast fashion brands also maintain the pattern of overconsumption by appealing to the consumer through style and affordability. For example, Zara puts out at least 20 collections a year, which produces millions of garments that align to the most recent fashion trends. In comparison, most designer brands only show around five collections throughout the year. Fast fashion brands have made it so that every few weeks, new clothes are being sold while others become old and discounted. Furthermore, these clothes were not made to last. Since fast fashion uses cheap materials and labor, they can sell their clothes with a low price tag, which allows consumers to spend more money on garments they don’t need, and only end up wearing a few times.
In short, you buy what you pay for: cheap labor and cheap materials that won’t last long and eventually will be thrown away. To avoid the negative publicity that comes with damaging the environment, permitting poor labor conditions, and encouraging overconsumption, fast fashion retailers invest in simpler and less expensive ways to revive their images through greenwashing. Among the numerous collections fast fashion brands produce, they often present an “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” line. They inflate their marketing with vague phrases that don’t have a legal definition to carry out. H&M’s “Conscious Collection” and Zara’s “Join Life” are perfect examples of PR campaigns for brands to be seen more favorably by consumers. The information presented on H&M’s website does not do a subsequent job of explaining the range of their products. The only justification they give for their “Conscious Collection” is that they at least 50% recycled, organic or, TENCEL material, with the exception of only 20% of recycled cotton in a garment. These statistics do not relay significant information, like the method in which the materials are recycled or produced, or why they are a better alternative. Accompanied with the description, the campaign photos appeal to the environment by using grass, plants, and other symbols of nature. Similarly, Zara’s “Join Life” campaign claims to commit to sustainable fashion, but “sustainability” does not have a standardized definition to uphold, so brands continue to abuse sustainable advertising. Greenwashing is simply a short-term marketing ploy to reap the benefits of “going green”: more consumer interest and higher stock prices, without actually acting on it. These brands spend more time and money trying to convince the public that they are environmentally friendly instead of taking steps to actually reduce their impact on the environment and society.
Sustainable fast fashion is an oxymoronic phrase; the industry cannot truly be “green” when the foundation of its business plan is based on mass production for low prices. Greenwashing practices mislead the customer that values sustainability and that wants to shop ethically. As customers, we carry a large role in the political system of consumerism. While the consumer should not be to blame for the consequences of the actions of large corporations, we have the power to stand up against them by not supporting fast fashion brands and their unethical practices.