How often do you think about the clothes you wear? Sure, one may question their fashion choices in regards to aesthetics: Does this shirt match these pants? Does black or brown go better with denim? Are these shoes trendy right now? Personally, I find myself asking these sorts of questions on a regular basis. However, I have concluded that what I do not question is how my fashion choices—from where and how often I buy clothes—affect a grander scheme of issues.
In recent years, the fashion industry has adopted a model known as “fast fashion,” which “refers to designs that move swiftly from runway to stores to capture the latest trends” (Cortez). This rapid rate of clothing production results from a shift in consumer behavior—one that is driven by fast-changing trend cycles (Kozlowski 2). With this consumer mindset of “continual consumption of the ‘new’ and the discard of the ‘old’” (2), competition within fashion companies has dramatically increased in order to keep up with the ever-changing trend cycle. This rise in competition has resulted in an increase in clothing production on a global scale, as well as a need for access to cheap labor to sustain said production. However, these conditions do not come without consequence. The amount of resources needed to fuel the fast fashion industry—as well as the waste produced from overconsumption—negatively affects the environment. Moreover, garment workers of major fast fashion corporations’ supply chains are subject to poor working conditions and unsustainably low wages.
The sheer volume of garments produced in the fast fashion model requires an immense amount of energy. To produce just a single cotton t-shirt requires 2,700 liters of water. That is about the same volume an average person drinks over the span of two and a half years (Reichart). With increased consumption comes increased production: if this trend of consumer behavior continues, the more water that is going to be required to maintain the fast fashion industry. Moreover, the amount of water used in the life-cycle of a cotton t-shirt does not end with production. A major phase of the fast fashion industry that heavily impacts the environment—but is often overlooked—is the consumer-use phase (Kozlowski 6). Once an item of clothing—for example, a cotton t-shirt—has been purchased and integrated into someone’s wardrobe, that given item of clothing then has to be washed and dried on a regular basis (6). These two processes also require immense amounts of water and energy, especially when applied on a large scale. For further context, “machine washing, tumble drying and ironing results in 47 percent of the eco-damage caused by an ’average’ pair of jeans that is worn one day a week for four years and washed every third wear at 40°C. This is the equivalent of burning 4,000 light bulbs for an hour” (Crewe 4-5). Thus, apparel cleaning and maintenance that is associated with consumer use is significantly potent in fast fashion’s impact on the environment.
It is not just the production and maintenance of clothing items that affects the well-being of the environment, but also the way and rate in which they are discarded after use. The increased rate at which trend cycles evolve has dramatically changed the way the consumer population purchases clothes. “The average consumer bought 60 percent more clothes in 2014 than in 2000, but kept each garment for half as long” (Reichart). With certain clothing items going out of style faster in comparison to previous decades, Americans are now more inclined to clear out garments to make room for new items that fit the current trend cycle. Unfortunately, the majority of these discarded clothes end up in landfills—and those made from non-biodegradable materials can remain without deteriorating for up to two hundred years. On average, humans produce enough clothing waste to fill up 1½ Empire State Buildings per day (Reichart). That equates to roughly 548 Empire State Buildings worth of clothing accumulating in landfills each year.
However, many fast fashion companies claim that they are taking measures to address these issues. Some corporations have started to adopt CSR (corporate social responsibility) policies that are designed to limit the environmental impacts of their products. However, these policies have become somewhat performative because they often fail to be implemented effectively in actual practice (Kozlowski 4). An example of one of these policies is life-cycle assessments (LCAs), which serves as a means of assessing the environmental impact of a given item (3). However, this type of assessment only provides the designer with the implications of the environmental effect of a given material or garment, but not an actual solution on how to reduce this impact. One could argue that although LCAs do not directly create better conditions for the environment within the fashion industry, the data gathered from them can be interpreted and applied to real-life solutions (7). However, in order for this to be effective, one would have to calculate an LCA on every given material within the industry—something that is not feasible within the dynamics of the current fast fashion industry. This is because fast fashion companies rely solely on the “speed-to-market production of the latest styles” (6-7), given the rate at which trend cycles change currently. For example, clothing companies such as Zara take as little as two weeks for a design to be conceptualized until it is displayed in store (7). Therefore, conducting enough LCAs to generate meaningful environmental change would require too much time for a given company to stay competitive with its rival stores.
A solution to this issue is to shift the collective notion of consumerism to one that is less centered around keeping up with trends and more focused around bettering our environment—a shift that would lower rates of consumption and allow companies more time to enact the use of LCAs in a way that is actually beneficial to the environment. The solution starts with educating consumers on the impacts of the fast fashion industry. Social media platforms serve as an effective and widely accessible means to educate, given that an estimated 3.6 billion people use social media globally (Jacobson). A key aspect to the culture of social media is the concept of the “influencer,” or a person with a significant following who advertises their various lifestyle choices. These individuals “have influence due to their extensive reach and power over consumer choices,” which makes them great candidates for exposing and encouraging the consumer population to make more sustainable fashion choices (Jacobson).
Within the social media universe, there are many influencers—most commonly referred to as sustainability influencers—who run their platforms with the sole purpose of promoting this change within the fashion industry. For example, Jazmine Rogers—known as @thatcurlytop on Instagram—is a sustainability influencer with a following upwards of 100,000, who uses her platform to show her followers “ethical outfits and tips on how to quit fast fashion” (”11 Sustainability Influencers”). In an interview with Nylon Magazine, Rogers states:
I think what people really like about my content is that it brings hope and joy into the space because I know sustainability can be really doom and gloom and just intense in general, but I want my content to bring people back to the reason why we are advocating for these changes because we all deserve a joyful future. (Roby)
Rogers uses her platform to educate and encourage her followers to seek a brighter future for our environment by making sustainable choices in regards to fashion.
There are many other influencers alongside Rogers who promote the same ideals. Collectively, they have helped shift the consumer mindset to think more sustainably, and thus have encouraged many clothing companies to adopt environmentally ethical practices in order to win over consumers looking for sustainable options. Another way individuals can make their fashion choices sustainable is the process by which they upkeep their garments. By washing at a lower temperature and eliminating tumble drying and ironing, one can reduce one’s environmental impact—in regards to clothing—by fifty percent (Allwood 42). Some companies have started encouraging their consumers to implement practices such as these. For example, “Nudie raw denim jeans have instructions for use printed on the inside pocket. They challenge the wearer to avoid laundering for the first six months to create personalised, unique wear and tear characteristics to their denim” (Kozlowski 15). Doubling as a branding strategy, this technique simultaneously encourages the consumer to make environmentally friendly choices. More brands have also started to switch to sustainable fashion to appeal to the consumer’s shifting mindset: the sustainable fashion industry’s rapid growth rate is estimated to reach $8.25 billion by the year 2031 (Jacobson).
However, the problems of fast fashion do not end with the environment: countless garment workers are mistreated at the hands of the fashion industry. Within the supply chains of major fast fashion corporations, “delocalised production in developing nations has become a prevalent choice because of the low-cost labour and less stringent standards and regulations surrounding social and environmental issues” (Kozlowski 2). Some of these lax standards and regulations include inadequate minimum wage, workers’ denied right to unionize, and exposure to unsafe conditions posed by the threat of hazardous chemicals and the inhalation of fiber dust that can cause respiratory illness (Allwood 16).
A specific example in which these injustices are prevalent is the case of the Bangladesh Garment District. Bangladesh is considered one of the leading countries in garment exports in the world: its garment production totals seventy-six percent of export income (61), and they sell to major companies such as Zara and H&M (Warrick-Schkolnik). However, while the market itself is quite prosperous, the workers fueling the success of this market are treated with little to no regard for their well-being. While Bangladesh’s national monthly minimum wage is twenty dollars, garment workers are only paid fourteen dollars a month, as a result of an overall low standard of living coupled with surplus available “unskilled” labor. Additionally, workers are expected to work fourteen to sixteen hours per day, seven days a week, and are often not paid on time (Allwood 61). Many Bangladeshi garment workers are women who provide for multiple family members and survive on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis (Warrick-Schlkolnik). Thus, not receiving a paycheck on time can have dire consequences. In addition to grueling work hours and economic hardship, Bangladesh’s garment workers are subject to frequent accidents as a result of structurally unsafe factories.
An example of the consequences that arise from these structural issues is the Rana Plaza incident. On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza building of Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed. This building contained five garment factories, and its collapse resulted in the deaths of 1,132 garment workers and injury for upwards of 2,500 (”Rana Plaza Accident”). However, in the case of many corporations that associated themselves with these factories, “no compensation was paid … on employer liability” (The Rana Plaza Accident). The giant retail corporation JCPenney was one of these companies. Just a few months prior to the Rana Plaza incident, 112 Bangladeshi workers had died in the Tazreen Fashions Factory fires because of fire escapes that were either blocked or too narrow (Prentice).
Following these incidents, many global corporations signed a safety pact coined the 2013 Accord on Fire and Building Safety. The pact’s goal was to take the initiative in making global clothing companies more accountable for safety measures within factories of their supply chains. Some of the measures taken include building inspections and the closures of factories considered inadequate in terms of safety. However, these measures are somewhat performative and have not done enough to protect the well-being of workers. “Codes of conduct, continually used by apparel companies to monitor the working conditions of their suppliers, narrowly focus on building safety and physical infrastructure with a bias towards what can be seen and audited” (Prentice). So although the safety measures exist on paper, they are poorly implemented in reality, allowing accidents to continue. Also, companies fail to address the conditions of factories unrelated to structural issues that put factory workers at risk: grueling work schedules, unfair treatment from employers, and denied access to rights, to name a few. Overall, “the fast fashion industry needs to realise that for garment workers, health means more than just the absence of injury” (Prentice).
A more holistic approach needs to be enacted, in which injustices within the fast fashion industry are addressed from their roots. This starts with the amount garment workers are paid. As of right now, “only 2 percent of the price of an article of clothing that a person purchases in Australia go[es] to the worker who made it” (Warrick-Schkolnik). Clothing companies need to create policies that guarantee garment workers a fair percentage of profit for the clothes they produce. However, companies will not make changes without a push from consumers. An effective way to initiate this push is to boycott brands that buy from the Bangladesh Garment District— including Zara and H&M—until they have guaranteed that garment workers have received fair pay. This change would then have an overall positive effect on the given country where the garment factory is located. The increase in pay helps raise the standard of living internally, allowing for working conditions and minimum wage to increase in the future.
So instead of asking questions like: Does this shirt match these pants? Does black or brown go better with denim? Are these shoes trendy right now? We should be asking ourselves: Is this item ethically produced? Do I really need new shoes, or do I just want them because they are trendy? How can I limit my clothing consumption? We as the consumer population need to do our part to shift the narrative of fast fashion: to focus less on consumption and more on the well-being of our planet, for both the environment and its inhabitants.
“11 Sustainability Influencers Inspiring Us to Do a Little Better Every Day.” The Good Trade, 18 Feb. 2022, https://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/sustainability-influencers.
Allwood, Julian M. Well Dressed?: The Present and Future Sustainability of Clothing and Textiles in the United Kingdom. University of Cambridge, Institute of Manufacturing, 2006.
Cortez, Michael Angelo, et al. “Fast Fashion Quadrangle: An Analysis.” Academy Of Marketing Studies Journal 18.1 (2014): 1-18.
Crewe, Louise. “Ugly Beautiful?: Counting the Cost of the Global Fashion Industry.” Geography 93.1 (2008): 25-33.
Jacobson, Jenna, and Brooke Harrison. “Sustainable Fashion Social Media Influencers and Content Creation Calibration.” International Journal of Advertising 41.1 (2022): 150-77.
Kozlowski, Anika, Michal Bardecki, and C. Searcy. “Environmental Impacts in the Fashion Industry: A Life-Cycle and Stakeholder Framework.” Journal of Corporate Citizenship 42 (2012): 15-34.
Prentice, Rebecca, and Geert De Neve. “Five Years after Deadly Factory Fire, Bangladesh’s Garment Workers Are Still Vulnerable.” The Conversation, 18 May 2019, https://theconversation.com/five-years-after-deadly-factory-fire-bangladeshs-garment-workers-are-still-vulnerable-88027.
“The Rana Plaza Accident and Its Aftermath.“ International Labour Organization, 21 Dec. 2017, https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/geip/WCMS_614394/lang–en/index.htm.
Reichart, Elizabeth, and Deborah Drew. “By the Numbers: The Economic, Social and Environmental Impacts of ‘Fast Fashion.’” World Resources Institute, 10 Jan. 2019, https://www.wri.org/insights/numbers-economic-social-and-environmental-impacts-fast-fashion.
Roby, India. “Meet Jazmine Rogers, the ‘Sustainable Baddie’ Who Has Hope for the Fashion Industry.” Nylon, 23 Feb. 2022, https://www.nylon.com/fashion/jazmine-rogers-thatcurlytop-sustainable-fashion-content.
Warrick-Schkolnik, Caroline. “Garment Industry in Bangladesh.” The Borgen Project, 20 Aug. 2020, https://borgenproject.org/garment-industry-in-bangladesh/.
About the Author
Emma Ehl is a first-year student at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. She plans on majoring in English and minoring in Anthropology. Her passion for both environmental and social justice, coupled with her love for fashion, inspired her to write on this topic. Along with writing, Emma also enjoys playing the guitar, walking in Central Park, and creating playlists.