“50% off everything!” “Buy one get one free!” A quick walk through the mall and you’ll be inundated with signs advertising the latest and greatest. New seasons, updated prints, Sales! Sales! More Sales! — it’s all a part of the fast fashion movement the fashion industry relies (and thrives) on.
To keep up in the cutthroat world of retail, major powerhouses like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 have went from putting out a new line of goods every season to restocking their designs on a weekly basis, and sometimes even twice weekly. To put things simply, that top you just had to have last week is now outdated and you’ll be needing a new one, stat! Fast fashion makes it so we need to keep buying to stay current.
But the cost is far more than the charges on our bank statements.
The quantities of materials used to create these garments have reached catastrophic numbers and the actual textiles are literally poisoning our earth.
Discarded clothes are being dumped into landfills where they decompose — similar to food waste — by producing gases like toxic methane as they decay.
Additionally, synthetic fibers such as nylon, polyester, and acrylic can take hundreds, if not thousands of years to biodegrade. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the US ended up in a landfill or incinerator in 2012. The article “Fast Fashion is Creating an Environmental Crisis” written by Alden Wicker and published in Newsweek in late 2016, states that in the past 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans toss per year has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons (which averages to about 80 pounds per person).
Retailers are taking notice. And they have to — it’s a global crisis our greed has created, and one that is affecting us all, no matter where we live, rich or poor. The giants (and some of the biggest culprits) are taking steps to right their wrongs and have created programs like H&M’s Conscious Collection to help give these garments second lives. While this is a well-meaning gesture, it’s not actually making that big of a difference.
Inexpensive clothing that is low quality and mass produced has low resell value and just isn’t made to last. The discarded apparel that ends up at places like H&M’s collective, Goodwill, or the Salvation Army are sorted for items that are in good condition and that can be recycled or resold. What is then deemed unusable or unsalvageable (most of it) is either dumped in landfills or incinerators or sent to sorting facilities where it is divided by material, condition, and style and then shipped to third world countries.
While this sounds like a benevolent way of mitigating the problem, it’s actually causing more complications because they now, also, have the plight of millions of pounds of unwanted clothing. It’s a chain reaction that just keeps going.
Celine Semaan, founder of the socially responsible companies, Slow Factory and The Library, believes that the future of fashion starts with us shifting our perspective.
“We need to not just switch our mindsets towards fast fashion, but towards our environment,” she says. “Unless we are truly inclusive — not only of minorities and oppressed people, but of environmental rights and preserving our resources — we won’t be leaving much of the world for our children or their children. To change the world for the better is to understand ecology, science, and nature enough to create ethical, peaceful, and circulatory systems so that whatever we design doesn’t turn into poison.”
Slow Factory, known for printing high-resolution digital images from NASA on the highest quality natural Italian silks, uses 100% clean and fair trade practices. The label strives to create meaningful products that are meant to last. “The idea of printing images of the earth on something that would eventually destroy it or that was made by people not being paid a decent wage to survive was obscene to me,” she shares. Semaan wants her products to have the right energy — everything from the thread they are made from to the image chosen to be archived on it. “We want to know it will return to the earth or be passed down. Good circularity feels good.”
Additionally, what Semaan is doing with The Library is also a form of, what she has dubbed, “fashion activism.” An initiative aimed at fostering partnerships within the fashion industry to help efforts towards a sustainable future, it teams up with brands and groups to create advocacy campaigns, conferences, and product collaborations that actually make a difference. Rooted in apparel, they aim for their consumers to “wear their values” and have revived the classics with sustainable material. She explains, “It’s the first miniskirt, the first pair of pants women wore, the idea of the jumpsuit and what it represents (women entering the workforce, sending the first human to space, etc.). These are the classics that have outlived the trends and altered the course of history.” With their archive of timeless pieces a case is made for consumers to have just a few core staples in their wardrobes — those that hold meaning and aren’t lost in the over-excessiveness we are so accustomed to.
We live in a society that has been programmed to consume, to need, to want. And until we make respecting our environment what is truly fashionable, we’re on the fast track to letting fast fashion win.
Lindsay DeLong is the Managing Editor of The Fullest. She lived in a landfill of H&M clothes all of high school, but now she lives in Long Beach… in much more sustainable items.