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The Lure Of New and Shiny: How Fast Fashion Is Harming People & The Planet

I was a 12-year-old teenager when I first went shopping with my childhood best friend. I remember the almost overwhelming rush of excitement while entering a huge H&M store. We took out our pocket money, compared the amount with the price tags, and… we went crazy! Looking through discounted piles of clothes, trying on dozens of different dresses, and serving myself a serotonin boost with a new dress soon became a part of my routine. That’s how I would spend time with friends. I mean, that’s what everyone was doing: Buying new, shiny, and obscenely cheap clothing. It was a bit irresistible, to say the least!

What I’m trying to say here is: I get it, I can see why it’s so tempting. The lure of fast fashion brands is a very real thing. In a chaotic world where we’re always on the go, quickly purchasing something saves us time and energy. The price tags also make it a lot harder to resist the urge to treat ourselves with a new piece. Soon we’re in the habit of buying new clothes in order to fit into the latest trends.

Nevertheless, all these reasons shouldn’t blur our moral standards or dull the ability to think with compassion. Sadly, that’s what’s happening with the fast fashion industry.

How come these clothes are so cheap? How is it even possible?

Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere, is paying.

– Lucy Siegle, journalist, and writer on environmental issues.

The real cost, the one behind the price tag, is not only surprising or shocking. It’s truly disturbing. Since so many unethical fashion brands refuse to be transparent, let me do the job for them…

The fast fashion industry is a significant contributor to global pollution by producing 20% of the world’s water waste and emitting 10% of its greenhouse gases. That’s the reality of the supply chain going through too many countries to count and toxic chemicals being dumped into local water sources. In addition to that, “the fashion industry currently relies on 98 million tons of oil to make synthetic fibers”. The environmental impact is just one side of the coin, though.

The issue of total violation of human rights is even more worrying, in my opinion. It is often legal in developing countries to hire garment workers for minimum wage, which is actually a barely liveable wage. These people are not only underpaid and underfed but also they often don’t have another option but to work in a place of horrible mistreatment. The majority (if not all) work without protection while dyeing textiles or tanning leather, and as an effect, they suffer from skin diseases.

The 24th of April 2013 went down in history as the moment when the world could no longer look away from these issues. On that day, a structural failure of an eight-story building called Rana Plaza located in Dhaka, Bangladesh has occurred, causing a collapse. 1138 people died there due to this catastrophe. Around 2500 injured people were trapped and eventually rescued.

This tragedy, which is commonly considered to be the deadliest garment factory disaster in history, could have been avoided. Rana Plaza was a workplace of bankers, with several shops and apartments on the lower floors closed on the 23rd of April 2013 when the cracks were found on the walls and ceilings of the building. Everyone was evacuated. However the following day, on the 24th of April, the clothing factories located on the higher floors were re-opened despite the lack of a safe working environment due to the decision of Sohel Rana, the building owner.

The workers were threatened by their managers with the vision of not being paid for a full month if they wouldn’t come to work. So in the end, they showed up at the workplace, and during the morning rush hours, everything collapsed. Massood Reza, Rana Plaza’s architect, said that the building was not designed to withstand the weight and vibrations of the factory’s machines. Nevertheless, the upper four floors had been built without a permit. The garment workers were trapped and killed inside while sewing clothes for brands like Benetton, Prada, Gucci, Versace, Mango, Primark, Walmart, and many others.

Who was there to blame?

The building owner? Sure.

The big fast fashion and luxury brands? Definitely.

The end consumer? That’s also a yes.

The issue of overconsumption

Fast fashion is the perfect example of the throw-away era, in which people buy cheap and pile high. Famous brands like H&M, Zara, or GAP produce about 52 collections yearly, which means new clothes on a weekly basis! Up to 100 billion new garments are being produced every year in a world inhabited by 7 billion people. It is officially insane and simply no longer acceptable!

The luxury fashion brand Burberry has admitted to burning more than £ 90 million worth of their goods to “prevent them from being stolen or sold cheaply” throughout the last years.

If that isn’t crazy enough for you, here’s one: H&M alone had 4.3$ billion unsold clothes in 2018, according to The New York Times. Their Swedish power plant located in Vasteras “relies partly on burning defective products the retailer cannot sell to create energy”.

Brands have a responsibility to produce less, and consumers have a responsibility to consume less.

– Elizabeth Segran.

With heaps of clothing becoming extremely accessible worldwide over the last decades, consumption behaviors also changed. Since the price of a new jacket is similar to the cost of lunch, why would anyone think twice about purchasing it?

On average, we wear 1 piece of clothing only 7 times before throwing it away, according to Elizabeth L. Cline. That’s not surprising, considering the low quality of clothes combined with our mindless, often impulsive, consumption. And then, the synthetic materials end up being dumped on landfills and emitting greenhouse gases for years.

What can we do to stop fast fashion?

Step 1: Buy less

Patagonia’s chief product officer, Lisa Williams, has said it best:

The most environmentally sustainable jacket is the one that’s already in your closet…

Or in other words: don’t buy new clothes when you can still wear those you already own. I encourage you to take a look at your collection of clothes and count them. I’m sure you will be surprised to learn the number!

I also invite you to learn how to take proper care of your clothes and your shoes. Treat them well, and in turn, they will serve you for years to come!

Step 2: Choose quality over quantity

Even though we’ve been manipulated by the big fast fashion brands to believe we need to chase the trends and always have something new, that’s not true!

Once you realize it, the effects are amazing. Your carbon footprint is lower, your consumer behavior is healthier, even your wallet is happier. To fully understand why buying relatively cheap clothes costs us more over time, feel free to read “Cost Per Wear: The True Cost Of Your Clothes”.

When you buy less, the event of purchase becomes more significant – that’s good. Deciding on new clothing should be a crucial decision. Investing in a sustainable, high-quality piece is always a smart move. It will last longer (thanks to the natural materials) and it will look so much better on you (form-fitting, often handmade with attention to detail, etc.).

I also encourage you to dip your toes in the world of vintage and second-hand clothing. It’s good for the planet, and it’s even better for you! Shopping second-hand or vintage is a gift that keeps on giving since it requires creativity, a sense of determination, and most of all – the courage to find your style and express your unique self.

STEP 3: Give your clothes a second life

If you don’t like your clothes anymore or your style has evolved, no need to worry! Thanks to platforms like Depop or Vinted, it’s more than easy to re-sell your clothes. You can also donate them to a local charity or swap some nice items with your friends.

The main takeaway

It is crucial to understand that each and every individual has an impact on the fashion industry. After all, the fashion industry, just like the food industry, does concern all of us. Just as much as we all need to eat food every day, we also need to dress up each morning. We all vote with our money. We can choose to support either a fast-fashion company that violates fundamental human rights OR an ethical fashion brand that respects and ensures the proper working conditions and production environment.

Make this extra effort for a better future!

Maria Kwiatkowska
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Maria Kwiatkowska is a freelance creative content writer and psychology student. She is a firm believer in sustainable fashion and an eco-friendly lifestyle. Explore her small brand with handmade crochet clothing on Instagram @Floralknot. Her other passion focuses on positive psychology, mindfulness, and personal development. Find her published work on a wellness page Kin North and POSNANIA city publishing house.