Fast fashion brands cause environmental issues, study says

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Fast fashion is characterized by trendy clothing and affordable prices. However, fast fashion has greatly contributed to environmental issues related to the construction and discarding of mass amounts of clothing. (Made in Canva by Aubree B. Jennings)

Fast fashion has dramatically increased the textiles produced, purchased and discarded over the past two decades causing environmental and social issues.

According to a textile workshop facilitated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, companies produce nearly 2x the amount of apparel that they did prior to 2000, with nearly 50 billion items being discarded within a year of being made. The publication also reported that a piece of clothing was worn seven times on average in the United States before being discarded.

This increase is openly attributed by the NIST to the rise of fast fashion. Fast fashion is characterized by its trendy clothing and affordable prices that are possible through cheap materials and poor construction.

Dawna Baugh, a BYU professor of fashion textiles and clothing construction, said that the fast fashion clothing is estimated to have a life-cycle of three months, drawing in customers to purchase and discard in a matter of months. This leads to massive amounts of waste in landfills along with unsustainable water, chemical and labor processes in the making of the apparel, according to the NIST.

“Consumers are all on board with environmentally safe products that are better for our environment, but they’re not on board with paying the extra money,” Baugh said.

The environmental and social problems of fast fashion rose to the top of public conversation in 2013 with the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh. This catastrophe killed over 1,100 factory workers, according to the NIST publication.

In recent years, the clothing company “Shein” has been under social scrutiny for their illegal labor practices in China.

“When we talk about sustainability, we’re not just talking about sustainability of the earth, we’re talking about sustainability of labor. When these companies go into these countries and get really cheap labor, and then they expect these people to work six, seven days a week, 12, 14 hour days, that is not socially sustainable,” Baugh explained.

While these issues remain prevalent, Baugh said there is a movement in the fashion industry and among consumers towards eco-friendly apparel.

“Right now the big buzzword in fashion is ‘sustainable,’” Baugh said.

The trend is positive, she said, however she cautioned about marketing ploys, called “greenwashing,” that manipulate customers into purchasing items labeled as eco-friendly that in reality are not.

The International Textile and Apparel Association held a conference last week, attended by Baugh, where professor Mercan Derafshi from the University of Tennessee at Martin presented on greenwashing’s effects on college students.

In the study, according to Baugh, college students rated three products based on their sustainability. The one that was most sustainable received the worst rating by the students because it did not have eco-friendly terminology on the advertisement. 

In July of this year, H&M was sued for misleading customers with their eco-friendly advertisements when an independent study proved that it was in fact highly unsustainable. This included a dress marketed as having used 20% less water on average when in reality it had used 20% more water.

Rather than relying on brands to disclose their sustainability practices, Baugh suggested supporting slow fashion, thrifting and donating clothing as environmentally conscious measures.

Slow fashion is described as apparel that, while more expensive, is higher quality that will last a long time.

Amanda Bartholomew, a BYU family consumer science major, said that although slow fashion is initially more expensive, it could save money in the long run by lasting significantly longer.

She related it to buying kitchenware and said “I don’t want to buy a bunch of non-stick pans that are gonna last me a year,” she said. “I would way rather drop like 300 dollars on a stainless steel ‘All-Clad’ pan because that’s going to last me forever, like it’s so much more worth it.”

Reusing clothing is another popular way to support sustainable practices.

Provo resident Lexie Burningham started her own business this summer called “Orange Thrift,” selling thrifted items in pop-up shops in the Provo area. She said she wants to promote the reuse of clothing, saying, “It’s not just for the unique pieces but it’s also tied with helping the world in a way and letting those pieces of clothing have another life. That’s what I want to stand for.”

Both Burningham and Baugh shared that donating clothing is infinitely better than throwing it away. Baugh explained that even apparel that is not suited for resale, such as donating only one shoe, can be repurposed and recycled.

The NIST publication stated that 85% of textiles end up incinerated or discarded in the landfill, with only 15% being recycled or repurposed.

“I would say my best advice to help our landfill is to not let your clothes end up in the landfill,” Baugh said.

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