By Katessia Robertson

Exploring the Fast Fashion Industry

The fast fashion industry is single-handedly one of the biggest contributors to multiple social problems in our world today. The term ‘fast fashion’ is defined by Rimi Khan as “the accelerated cycle of fashion production and consumption that puts pressure on fashion brands to manufacture garments as quickly and cheaply as possible.” Because of the fast and cheap production of the clothing, unethical practices are very prevalent in the industry, making it partly responsible for multiple social problems on a global scale. These fast fashion companies build their factories in countries that do not have regulations in place to protect the people and environment. Because of this, they are able to maximize profit by mass-producing these items and creating harsh working conditions. In the article “Fast-Fashion wearing out the planet,” researchers showed an industry characterized by harsh working conditions, health hazards, environmental pollution, and violation of basic human rights. 

Fast fashion companies mostly use synthetic fibers to manufacture their clothing, which are produced using fossil fuels. According to Fossil Fashion, an article by Changing Markets Foundation, there is a correlation between the growth of the fast fashion industry and the increased use of synthetic fibers. The fashion industry also uses artificial dyes, leaving the communities where these clothes are being manufactured overwhelmed with pollution. These cheap fossil fuels also provide the financial incentive to ship textiles around the world several times in the production process, causing additional GHG pollution. The cyclical nature of the fast-fashion industry perpetuates overconsumption leading to more textile waste, further polluting the environment. 

The Cyclical & Wasteful Nature of the Fast Fashion Industry

The fast fashion industry perpetuates a cycle that is harmful to the environment. Not only is clothing produced in ways that pollute the environment, but the life cycle of the garment created is brief. This cycle begins in the wasteful production of materials, then moves to the unethical working conditions when the garment is assembled, and finally, the clothing is then sent to the stores using fossil fuel-intensive transport. Since fast fashion companies are constantly putting new styles in their stores, they create the demand for new pieces of clothing to match the new styles. Fast fashion customers attempting to keep up with trends are likely to own too many pieces of clothing, and therefore are more likely to throw their clothes away or donate them. The cycle repeats as more clothing is created to match current trends and the old clothing goes out of style. 

Textile waste is one of the leading contributors to landfill mass. The fashion industry’s trend cycles result in most fast fashion items going out of style quickly. Ten percent of these fast fashion items are thrown away before they’re even purchased to make room for the new, trendier items. The average piece of fast fashion clothing is worn just 7 times before being discarded. And when well-meaning consumers try to extend the life of these items by donating, they’re only fooling themselves. There’s so much excess clothing in circulation that 90% of clothing donated to thrift stores also ends up in landfills.

The assumed cause of this problem is not only the fast fashion industry, but also capitalism and the effects of a capitalist society. Unregulated capitalism, hyper-individualism, and effects of political, economic, and cultural long-term decisions are the cause of the unsustainable practices held by the fast fashion industry. The consequences of our current economic model and systems are that it upholds is an unjust society, environmental degradation, climate destabilization, and resource shortages. Hyper-individualism leads to individuals making decisions for themselves, rather than the collective community.

To solve the problem of rampant, unregulated fast fashion production, we’ll need to do more than make smarter consumer choices. Although making sustainable personal choices is important (and the following paragraphs detail how you can do that), this type of national and global waste must be addressed with legislation and policy change. 350 Colorado’s work to keep fossil fuels in the ground is also a way to curb fast fashion’s negative impacts. Reducing the availability of fossil fuels means fast fashion companies won’t be able to make cheap, disposable clothing out of it, and it will remove their incentive to manufacture clothing that will end up unsold, in a landfill. 

In addition to advocating to keep oil and gas in the ground, you can also support calls for tighter regulations on the fast fashion industry. Another possible intervention is moving from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy. In doing this, we will stop exploiting our workers, natural resources, and environment and can build the community up by shifting the power to the local level. 

How to be a more conscious consumer

Although collective organization is the most important tactic in fighting fast fashion and inspiring large-scale systemic change, it’s also important that your personal purchase decisions align with your values. As with the Three R’s, the first two are the most important – Reduce and Reuse. Reduce the amount you buy, and rewear what you already own. The unethical practices of the fast fashion industry are pervasive, but there are ways to be a more conscious consumer and support sustainable brands. 

Buying secondhand is the most sustainable way to shop! Not sure where to start? Here are some second-hand stores to check out: 
  • Heady Bauer & Apocalypse
    • Local secondhand shops located in Boulder, CO
  • Depop, Poshmark, Curtsy, & thredUp 
    • Online secondhand shops (also have apps)
  • Happy Planet Apparel
    • Sells thrifted and upcycled items on their website and their instagram!
  • Fomeno 
    • This company is in the process of creating an app to make shopping secondhand more accessible. The app is launching in December!! Sign up for their newsletter on their website to get notified when it is released!
  • Local thrift stores, estate sales, and yard sales are also great options for shopping secondhand!
When deciding whether to purchase a new item, refer to Apocalypse’s Conscious Consumer Guide outlined below:
  1. Do you already own a similar piece?
  2. Can you think of 3 outfits that incorporate this piece?
  3. Do you really need this piece?
  4. Can you find this piece second-hand?
  5. Does the price reflect ethical production?
  6. What materials is the piece made of?
  7. Would you buy this piece if it were full price?

Utilizing these guidelines can not only help save your money, but can help support ethical brands and limit the amount of clothing we consume. If you have the privilege of affording ethical brands, consider supporting companies that have strong environmental and social standards. 

Here are some guides that share sustainable shops! 

The good shopping guide for fashion retailers & their ethical rating table

If you are ever unsure of a brand’s ethical rating, you can also use good on you’s brand directory

In conclusion, remember that each purchasing decision made is also a decision to either support or degrade the environment and local communities. Many environmentalists may not realize the impact of clothing choices, and now is the time to make informed decisions and advocate for a more sustainable future. 

About the Author

Katessia Robertson is an Intern with 350 Colorado and student at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver. Katessia has a second internship with fomeno and also owns her own small business selling secondhand clothes. She moved to Colorado from Indianapolis, Indiana about five months ago and spends her free time exploring Colorado, thrifting, playing board games, and spending time with friends. Katessia is very passionate about sustainable fashion and was very happy to write this piece and share their passion with all of you!