It’s January and the post-holiday sales have begun - 70% off at H&M, 74% off at Zara, and a whopping 85% off at Shein. They’re practically giving it away! What do all these companies have in common? They are the top-selling brands marketing Fast Fashion, the term used for inexpensive clothes produced quickly to meet the latest trends. Unfortunately, the hidden cost of fast fashion falls on wildlife, habitats, and natural resources.
As with many products, today’s consumers own much more clothing than they have historically. Consider this statistic: “In 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits. Today, that figure is 30 outfits.” Maybe that’s not a fair comparison, though, since most clothing came from small workshops and local tailors until about the 1940’s. It wasn’t until after WWII that the clothing industry adopted a universal sizing system and more efficient clothing production practices, making clothes more available and affordable. Still, compared to twenty years ago, worldwide consumption of clothing has increased by a factor of four. Paradoxically we are buying more clothes, but we are spending less on them. Stephanie Vatz of KQED found,
“In 1960, an average American household spent over 10 percent of its income on clothing and shoes - equivalent to roughly $4,000 today. The average person bought fewer than 25 garments each year. And about 95 percent of those clothes were made in the United States.
Fast forward half a century.
Today, the average American household spends less than 3.5 percent of its budget on clothing and shoes - under $1,800. Yet, we buy more clothing than ever before: nearly 20 billion garments a year, close to 70 pieces of clothing per person, or more than one clothing purchase per week.
Oh, and guess how much of that is made in the U.S.: about 2 percent.”
The acceleration of production is tied directly to the trade policies of the 1990’s, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 which allowed companies to outsource production to other countries where they could take advantage of lower labor costs and tax breaks. This enabled companies like Zara to reach their goal of moving a garment from the design phase to the storefront in just 2 weeks, a practice for which the New York Times coined the term “fast fashion”.
Instead of introducing new styles once or twice a year, these companies are putting out new trends on a weekly basis. And the word “fast” doesn’t only apply to production; it also describes the lifespan of these clothes. Where once we were offered durable clothes, fast fashion’s strategy depends on rapid turnover. The average lifespan of fast fashion is 2.2 years, compared to the decade or so our grandparents had to enjoy their clothing. Disposal of fast fashion accounts for over 11 million tons of landfill waste per year in the United States.
The weight of all that fashion is being borne by degraded ecosystems, waterways, and our oceans. 10% of total global carbon emissions come from the fashion industry. Dyeing, finishing, and preparing yarns and fiber produces 20% of the world’s water pollution. One cotton t-shirt uses 700 gallons of water alone! Synthetics used in clothing such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic degrade over time and enter waterways through laundering, eventually reaching the oceans where they represent 35% of all microplastic pollution. Land for cotton agriculture and sheep grazing contributes to habitat loss and deforestation. Read more at earth.org.
Happily, there are plenty of ways to get your style on sustainably! January’s resolution is to Slow Your Fashion Down and here’s how:
• Buy high quality clothing:
As fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent once said, “Fashions fade. Style is eternal.” Treat yourself to quality clothing that you love from companies that adhere to sustainable manufacturing and fair trade practices.
You can use the GoodOnYou app or ReMake to find ethical clothing companies. Another good screening tool can be found at B Corp. I used the GoodOnYou app and searched “t-shirt”/“United States” to find Pact, an online clothing store right here in Colorado. Their organic cotton/linen blend classic t-shirt cost $26, marked down from $44. I could pick up the fast fashion equivalent for about $7, but I wouldn’t be paying the true cost of the shirt or buying a quality item. I didn’t buy this shirt because I didn’t need it. That’s the most sustainable option of all!
• Buy used clothing :
There are lots of online used clothing stores – ThredUp and Poshmark are two examples – where you can pick up quality clothes for a fraction of the cost of buying new. You will also be saving these clothes from the landfill. Leaders in the sustainable fashion industry are now offering used clothing at their own websites, like Patagonia Wornwear and Cotopaxi Resale. Or you can just visit your local resale shop!
• Rent your clothes:
Does that sound crazy? Not really if you like to change your wardrobe frequently or if you need clothes for a special occasion. Clothing rental subscriptions allow you to indulge your love of fashion for about $50 - $100 per month. Most services let you buy items you really like at the end of the month at a substantial discount. Elle Magazine has done the research on the top rental services here: The Eight Best Rental Services Out There by Meg Donohue, Trang Trinh And Ashley Achenbach.
• Mend your clothes or bring them to a tailor:
Mending clothes is a lost art, but it’s not difficult if you give it a try. It can even be a creative outlet that results in clothes that are not only as good as new, but even better than new! ReMake offers a short mending tutorial and there’s another one from NPR.
• Always check the label for fiber content:
Try to avoid synthetic materials like polyester, acrylic and nylon. Check to see that natural fibers were organically grown. The best choices for low-impact materials are linen, hemp, organic cotton, and sustainably grazed wool. Manufacturers are developing exciting new fibers from banana plants, eucalyptus trees, and used plastics. Check them out at biologicaldiversity.org.
You’ll be looking good in the new year if you stick to ethical fashion choices, and you can wear those stylish clothes to visit your nearest outdoor recreation area where local wildlife will appreciate your thoughtfulness.