Sustainability December 6, 2016
So you’re a fashion analyst, rocking multi-colored hair, platform boots and an ankle-length skirt. You keep a finger on the pulse of what’s hot as you frequent the mall searching for gems.
Well you’re not the only one looking for fast bargains. Fast fashion, a term used to describe the recent trend of compressing the amount of time between creating a design and selling the final product in stores, has become a huge industry recently.
With brands like Zara, H&M and Forever 21 making profits up to billions of dollars every year, it’s obvious Americans love cheap, trendy clothes. Here are five surprising facts about the clothes we buy.
The EPA estimates that Americans discard around 70 pounds of clothing per person every year, which adds up to around 25.5 billion pounds annually. Take Part references a documentary called “The True Cost” which estimates the amount of discarded clothing even higher at around 82 pounds every year. According to the documentary, “we purchase 400 percent more clothing today than we did 20 years ago.”
Because we purchase clothing at such a great rate, we produce more waste now than ever before. In fact, the bulk of our old clothing (around 84 percent, says the EPA) ends up in a landfill or incinerator instead of being donated.
Given the current influx of cheap clothing in the market, it’s almost impossible to wear an item for a year without it falling apart. What do you do with your once-favorite clothes? You don’t feel right donating the armpit-stained blouses or the pants with ragged hems, so you throw them out.
But throwing away those clothes negatively impacts the environment. They eventually end up in a landfill where they will be unable to decompose (since the fibers are synthetic and have been artificially bleached, dyed and printed). Newsweek says, “Those chemicals can leach from the textiles and—in improperly sealed landfills—into groundwater. Burning the items in incinerators can release those toxins into the air.” However, donating your ratty clothes gives them a second life.
But what happens after you make your donation to charities like Goodwill or Salvation Army? Newsweek reports that “Fast fashion is forcing charities to process larger amounts of garments in less time to get the same amount of revenue—like an even more down-market fast-fashion retailer.”
When these charities have too many garments to handle, they package bales of clothing and sell them to smaller vendors. The U.S. leads the world in exporting used clothes to vendors, which can make millions of dollars a year just from selling our unwanted clothes. In fact, there are huge markets in countries like Kenya filled with secondhand items. According to NPR, “The U.S. exports over a billion pounds of used clothing every year — and much of that winds up in used clothing markets in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Apparel and textiles contribute to about 20 percent of Bangladesh’s GDP and 80 percent of its exports, says Ethical Trading Initiative. This makes Bangladesh the leading fast fashion producer behind China. However, the 2013 minimum wage for a garment worker in Bangladesh was around $68 in one month. This is currently the lowest minimum wage for workers in a country that export the highest amount of clothing sold in stores in developed nations.
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According to War On Want, men and women in Bangladeshi sweatshops suffer terrible conditions. They work usually 14-16 hour workdays every day of the week and face cramped and sometimes life-threatening conditions in the workplace. Plenty of tragedies have happened as a result of this lack of oversight, but the terrible work conditions persist so big clothing brands can make and sell more clothes cheaply and increase their profits.
To counteract the multiple negative effects of fast fashion, many environmentally-aware people have taken to YouTube to promote the haulternative movement. Playing on the original “haul” videos (in which YouTubers vlog about the clothes they buy) haulternative videos feature people who have switched clothes with others to spruce up their wardrobe.
In addition, you can make a point to shop at stores that specialize in making good quality, affordable and environmentally-friendly clothing. Some of the more popular brands are also hopping on the eco bandwagon, with places like H&M and Patagonia offering opportunities for consumers to take back their old clothing to be recycled.
No one wants to be the villain destroying the environment or hurting other people. For some shoppers, the human rights abuse and environmental concerns don’t cross our minds – we just want to buy a shirt! But after considering the problems with fast fashion, you can look to other options, such as buying clothing only when necessary, donating and shopping secondhand.
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