Despite the cheap price tags that tempt us to fast fashion, over a longer period the world has to pay a heavy cost.
Where are you shopping for your new spring clothes? If you are one of the online shoppers who know where to find unbelievably cheap clothes, people around you might call you a savvy consumer. If not that, and instead you are one of the fashionable people on too tight a budget to buy from designer brands, you might go to fast fashion retail stores. If you’re either of these two types, I’m sure you’re gleeful that you can afford a trendy and fresh look every new season without breaking the bank. You know the prices you are paying for your clothes, or at least you think you do.
The true price of your clothes starts to build from the textile production, with a devastating environmental cost. Every year, the textile industry produces 53 million tons of textiles for clothing, resulting in more than 100 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The textile industry uses fossil fuels such as crude oil to synthesize its most popular textile, polyester. Often, textile factories discharge an obscene amount of water containing toxic and harmful chemicals directly into bodies of water with impunity. The dyeing and treating textiles accounts for 20% of global industrial water pollution.
Sewing, seaming, and tailoring these textiles into trendy clothes that people want come with an immense humanitarian price. Poor working conditions and safety measures in garment factories supplying for fast fashion retailers take the lives of numerous workers. An unsustainable fast fashion business scheme requires garment factories to produce new clothes in a ridiculously fast manner, putting extreme pressure on their workers. Factory workers often work overtime unpaid and sleep in factories. On top of this, prevalent harassment and violence against female workers make their working conditions even worse.
Lastly, a gigantic economic burden can be added to the true cost of fast fashion. Consumers waste around 420 billion USD per year because they stop wearing clothes after only a few wears. Unwanted clothes are either recycled, donated to charity, or thrown away. There has been an uptick in clothes donations in recent years. However, donated cheap clothes are so undesirable that thrift shops can only sell about 20% of them — they send the rest to textile recyclers or to developing countries as exports. Once exported, these clothes sell well in developing countries in Africa. To make matters worse, the clothes exported to developing nations has hugely contributed to hindering the growth of local clothing industries. In the 80s and 90s, cheaply-sold donated clothes exported to African countries appealed to the masses. This gave no room for the recently liberated nations to develop their own clothing market. This ironic phenomenon of charity harming its receivers continues even now.
After all, a meager 1% of all clothes in the world are recycled into new clothes, as effective textile-recycling technology is not available yet, and 12% are recycled for other purposes. A staggering 73% end up in landfills or go up in smoke in incinerators.
Hidden behind the cheap price tags of your clothes are huge environmental, humanitarian, and economic prices to pay. Textile producers make nature pay the price to manufacture cheap textiles. Fast fashion companies make garment workers and especially female workers pay the price for their unsustainable business scheme. Consumers make developing countries pay the price for their excessive purchasing of fast fashion clothing. But consumers are still blinkered and choose to believe there is only a small price to pay when buying brand new clothes at retail stores.
I call for consumers to take immediate action to lower the expensive prices the world actually pays. Consumers must commit to persistent and sustainable solutions; they must stop purchasing excessively in order to reduce the amount of clothes landfilled and incinerated and stop undermining economies of developing countries. The fast fashion scheme utilizes consumers’ desire to keep up with high-end fashion or trends. Instead, we should be purchasing clothes that are truly meaningful and appealing, rather than clothes with ephemeral attraction, to engender a market in which consumers keep wearing the same clothes for a long time. Shopping at thrift stores is not only an effective way to prolong the lifetimes of clothes, but also frees you from the shackles of conforming to new season trends.
Consumers and watchdogs must demand clothing companies run more sustainable and ethical models, too. Such models should guarantee protection for their workers’ rights, the safety of their outsourced factories, and hold them responsible for the environmental impact of their production. This would be a complete change in the standard business model of the industry, and would of course bring about a great leap in prices of clothes. But consumers must concede cheap prices to stop further exploitation and suffering in developing countries.
When you are shopping for your new spring clothes this season, I want you to think about your next spring’s clothes, and all the world’s next springs too.