Many young women think of low cost fashion retailers like H&M, Zara, Forever 21, and Top Shop, as places to get trendy clothing at affordable prices. I used to be one of them. As someone in the fashion industry working towards a Masters in Sustainable Management at Columbia University I now have a different view of these retailers. I now see cheap clothing made under harsh working conditions in unsustainable ways, that won’t last more than a few wears before being disposed of and replaced with more of the same.
Fast-fashion retailers make millions by knocking off runway designs and marketing them to the masses at the expense of the environment among other things. In the last five years the hidden environmental costs of fast fashion, also known as throw-away fashion, have surfaced, revealing the extensive damages and unsustainable systems ten dollar shirts and twenty dollar pants have created.
An estimated 80 billion garments are made from virgin resources every year worldwide, propelling a slew of environmental problems. In one year the industry produces 2 million tons of pre-consumer waste and 3.1 million tons of CO2. According to the World Bank, seventeen to twenty percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment. In 2010 the textile industry in China, the biggest in the world, discharged 2.5 billion metric tons of sewage in its waters.
Five percent of all landfill production is textile waste.
Polyester, the often preferred fabric for cheap clothing, is made of non-renewable petrochemicals derived from oil, driving demand for oil production and adding to environmental damage. Nylon, another synthetic fiber creates nitrous oxide in its production, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
But women, myself included, are hungry for fashion. According to Lucy Siegle, environmental journalist and author of the book “To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?” we now demand roughly four times the number of clothes than we did in 1980. In one year we accumulate around sixty pounds of clothing, most of which is thrown away. Our insatiable appetites for the latest trends, coupled with retailers’ thirst for profits leaves the survival of the environment at odds.
One of the main culprits in feeding the fast fashion addiction has been Spanish based retailer Zara. Having perfected the notion of fashion scarcity, it has taught customers to buy immediately or risk never getting that certain designer knock-off piece. By producing limited amounts of about 12,000 styles, Zara is able to rack up high demand and sell out at full price. With an astounding two-week production time period, from design to retail floor, Zara is able to accurately deliver the trends customers are actually purchasing.
In a March article in the Economist on Zara’s global expansion, founder Amancio Ortega compared fashion to selling fish, saying “fresh fish, like a freshly cut jacket in the latest color, sells quickly and at a high price. Yesterday’s catch must be discounted and may not sell at all.”
And there lies the problem. Fashion is not like fish to be consumed immediately. Fashion should be savored. It should be about an experience- the story behind the purchase, the places it took you, the people you met, and the memories you made while wearing it. I once bought a loose fitting no brand name checkered cardigan from a thrift store on a trip to Los Angeles. Every time I wear it I think of that trip. I don’t recall fond memories of anything I bought at H&M and the like.
Trends are fleeting. I almost cringe when I think back to the rainbow colored velour Juicy Couture track suits that were so popular ten years ago and knocked off incessantly, or pants with logos plastered across the back, or the more recent leggings as pants trend.
Style however lasts. The little black dress has been around for decades and it’s not going anywhere.
Throw-away clothing is like a drug. You feel good for a moment but the feeling wears off fast leaving you wanting more. It fills you with neediness, to feel better, to belong, to be cool and to keep up.
As consumers we have the power to derail the fast fashion train– with every dollar we spend- before it destroys the environment and us. Fashion should be enjoyed, but without becoming a slave to it. If we vote with our wallets and say no to fast fashion it will subside. So don’t dictate your fashion choices by what these retailers are offering. Choose your clothing wisely. Buy a piece because you really love it, not because you feel you have to wear something new every weekend. Choose classic pieces instead of passing trends. And don’t be afraid to spend a little extra on quality- it’s worth it in the end, in more ways than you might know.