April 8, 2022 | OPINION | By Maddie Mollerus | Photo by Patil Khakhamian

Zara and H&M’s prices may be good for your wallet, but they’re not good for the Earth. Thanks to TikTok and Instagram, trends spread faster than Kanye’s Yeezys sell out online. If you see a viral style on social media, chances are you’ll see it in stores a week or two later (it only takes Zara 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores). For fashion-obsessed Gen-Zers, it’s the perfect situation. But there’s a dark side to fast fashion that people don’t realize, one that undermines many of the environmental problems that Gen-Zers are trying to fix.

Let me give you some standalone facts, just to put the problem of fast fashion into perspective:

  • In 2019, the world consumed 62 million metric tons of apparel.
  • 57% of discarded clothing ends up in landfills.
  • It takes approximately 3,000 liters of water to make one cotton shirt.
  • The fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.
  • The fashion industry contributes more greenhouse gases than international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Enter the culprit of the problem: the Cycle of Fast Fashion. New trends arise every few months, and global fashion corporations flood the market with cheap, trendy clothes to attract consumers. Trends fade, brands produce new styles, and consumers once again rush to buy the hottest clothing. In this cycle, three big things happen. 1) Consumers go through several wardrobes a year and throw away clothes every time a trend changes, 2) To lower the cost of goods, fashion corporations source inexpensive materials, and 3) In order to meet rising demand, corporations outsource their labor to countries with no worker protections and no environmental regulations.

These three components of the cycle have huge consequences for the environment. When consumers throw away clothes, they either pile up in a landfill, or they get incinerated. Incineration sounds like a quick and easy solution, right? No! In comparison to coal plants, incinerating clothing releases 28 times more carcinogens, five times as much carbon monoxide, and over six times more mercury and lead. The byproducts of incineration either contribute to GHGs in the atmosphere or contaminate the groundwater and pose serious health hazards to surrounding communities.

The second big part of the cycle of fast fashion is the inexpensive materials that corporations use. Garments made of cheap materials are low quality and don’t last very long. Even if a consumer wanted to wear an item of clothing past its season, it wouldn’t survive many washes. The low quality materials used in production only exacerbate consumers’ habits of buying lots of clothes every few months, driving the Cycle of Fast Fashion forward.

Finally, one of the biggest issues is corporations’ choice to outsource their labor to countries with relaxed labor laws and few environmental regulations. The process of dyeing textiles, washing clothes, and operating factories harms both the Earth and workers’ communities. The water leftover from textile dyeing is often toxic and is dumped in rivers and streams, contaminating entire regions and eventually reaching the ocean. Washing fabric to achieve a desired color dumps 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year—that’s 50 billion plastic bottles! And unregulated factories have emission levels that are unheard of and are estimated to increase 60% in the next 10 years.

I’ll admit, I order things online at least twice a month, and I’ve bought clothes from H&M and Urban Outfitters. We are all part of the problem, but there are many things that we can do to offset the impact of buying clothes.

  • Donate your old clothes instead of throwing them away
  • Go thrifting!
  • Buy from stores that have higher-quality clothes, reducing your need to go shopping as often
  • Shop from sustainable brands who use recycled materials in their clothing production
  • Look for “waterless” brands when shopping for jeans, and fabrics such as wild silk, linen, hemp, and lyocell

As Gen-Zers, one of our main concerns is preventing climate change. If you really want to save the turtles, think twice before you click “place order” on that Zara haul.

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