Fast fashion contributes to climate change

Image courtesy of Stefan Müller via Wikimedia Creative Commons.

It is no secret that we are currently in the middle of a climate crisis, one that scientists say will become irreversible if we do not slash greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, according to The New York Times. Global temperatures have been rising and will continue to do so if we do not act fast. While some causes of global warming are extremely obvious, such as fossil fuel emissions from transportation, deforestation and power generation, some of the more ignored contributors to climate change include manufacturing and consumption of goods, specifically textiles, according to the United Nations.

Per BBC, the fashion industry accounts for about eight to 10 percent of global carbon emissions and 20 percent of wastewater production, a byproduct of dyeing processes in garment manufacturing. The fashion industry is known to consume more energy than aviation and shipping do, according to the United Nations. Clearly, some change needs to be made in the fashion industry if we are to reach our global goals regarding halting global warming. This begs the question of how we, as consumers, can contribute to this effort. 

One significant problem in any effort to tackle climate change is the distinction between personal and large-scale actions. Many people look at the grand scale of global warming and find it hard to believe that their personal actions could have any significant impact on reducing climate change. It is well known that the vast majority of global warming is caused by large corporations, with just 100 corporations responsible for 71 percent of carbon emissions, according to The Guardian. With numbers like this, the effectiveness of personal actions seems dubious. 

Another problem is the seeming necessity of many of the biggest contributors to climate change. In a country as spread out and public transport-averse as the United States, it is nearly impossible to travel around without a car, which contributes to carbon emissions. Although one car may not create a noticeable effect on carbon emissions, this is a country of 330 million people. We also need power and electricity, and many of us have very little ability to contend with deforestation. But one of the areas in which individual choices may have a noticeable effect on carbon emissions is in consumption, specifically of clothing.

I am not contesting the fact that we need clothes. Clothes are undoubtedly an integral part of human life, and fashion can be a beautiful, expressive art form. The clothes that people wear are often an expression of their own personalities and artistic flair. But do we really need so many clothes? According to a 2016 survey by ClosetMaid, the average American woman has 103 pieces of clothing in her wardrobe. On the other hand, researchers have found that around 74 pieces of clothing are sufficient, per Vogue

A definition of a “sufficient” amount of clothing seems a little bit hard to pin down, as clothing and fashion styles can be very different, but it is still undeniable that we are consuming clothing at a rate much higher than ever before. According to The Wall Street Journal, we are consuming five times more clothing than we did in 1980. Correspondingly, the amount of waste generated in the production of increased amounts of clothing is also increasing. 

One important event has contributed to the rise in garment waste since the 1990s: the rise of fast fashion. Fast fashion, according to Ecowatch, is mass-produced clothing which is made quickly, made cheaply and attempts to follow the latest fashion trends, which change faster and faster, thanks to social media. Fast fashion has made clothing more accessible and affordable, but at the cost of quality and workers’ rights. It is no secret that many fast fashion brands use exploitative methods of labor, such as sweatshops in some Asian countries where workers are paid inhumane wages, often working in unsafe conditions, according to Forbes. This tradeoff between affordability and quality also means that clothes last for a lot less time than they did when the majority of clothes were made in the United States. This means that consumers are forced to throw out clothing a lot faster than before the rise of fast fashion, and must subsequently buy more pieces, which generates even more waste. According to The Washington Post, the average piece of clothing will only be worn seven times before being thrown out. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, textile waste has increased 811 percent since 1960, and much of it is not recyclable, meaning that it ends up in landfills. 

The effects that fast fashion is having on the climate are horrifying. The more pieces of clothing that are produced, the more textile waste, and the more workers that are exploited. The faster clothing is made, the faster we buy it.

One particularly heinous example is Shein. According to Time Magazine, Shein is well known for its accessibility, affordability and adherence to internet trends. The company quickly produces cheap, trendy clothing. But the true cost of this model is the well-being of our planet. In 2021, Shein produced 6.3 million tons of carbon dioxide, the same as 180 coal-fired power plants. The clothes are well-documented to be of poor quality, hardly lasting a long time, and the conditions under which many of Shein’s factory workers have been documented to work are unconscionable, according to Medium. All of this is contributing to climate change, and the realization that the Earth may soon become unlivable is only confirmed by the prevalence and popularity of retailers like Shein. This kind of overconsumption, and the consequent pollution and carbon emissions, must be put to a stop if there is any hope to reverse the negative effects of climate change. 

This begs the question of what to do without fast fashion. For all of its ills, fast fashion has made art through personal style much more accessible for people to whom it was not previously available. Designer brands and styles are wholly unaffordable for the average person, and fast fashion may make artistic expression through clothing much more possible. To this I say that the key is not to completely eliminate consumption of textiles and clothing—that is impossible in the world we live in today. The key is instead to be more mindful about our clothing choices. We must ask ourselves why we need 20 new pieces of clothing every year. Is it possible to dig through your wardrobe and find something appropriate for the occasion that you may have forgotten about? Can you find an alternative to a brand new item of clothing at a thrift store? We can’t completely reduce consumption, but we can lessen it. This requires us to be more mindful about where we are buying from, what we are buying and how often we are buying. It is all too easy to punch in the numbers of your credit card online and have a new item of clothing at your doorstep in two days. It takes more work to think about how to sustainably shop for clothing. But the price we may one day pay for our current way of viewing and consuming fashion and clothing is the safety and well-being of our planet, and that is a price we should all be unwilling to pay. 

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