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Fast fashion causes growing concerns over cost to environment, labor ethics

fast fashion illustration

Illustration of the effects of fast fashion. 

With social media spotlighting trends faster than magazines and television ever did, today’s consumers are experimenting with personal expression through a quickly growing phenomenon: fast fashion.

A term surrounding the fast-paced design, creation and marketing of clothing with the goal of circulating maximum income, no matter the cost on the environment, fast fashion’s rise began in 2000.

Since the start of the new millennium, clothing production has doubled according to McKinsey & Company, and while consumers purchased 60 percent more clothing in 2014 compared to 2000, the garments are owned for only half as long.

The appeal of fast fashion ties directly to its trendiness, affordability and accessibility — all traits that interest those on a budget, including students at OU.

Various styles are seen on OU’s campus, and many students, including psychology freshman Chandini Kanderi, have taken advantage of the perks of fast fashion through websites such as Shein, Romwe and Zaful.

“I think fast fashion appeals to students because of the cheap prices,” Kanderi said. “Now on fast fashion websites, you can find clothing for a fourth of the price of something you would find at another store. It’s more of a convenience factor to shop fast fashion.”

Heather Logan, a 2020 OU graduate, is currently pursuing a joint doctorate degree in environmental engineering overseas from the Technical University of Denmark and the University of Ghent. Logan discussed the effects of fast fashion outside of trends and flashiness.

“What happens to the unsold inventories? Even if they’re sold, what do consumers do to their used clothes when they decide to purchase new ones?” Logan said.

The answer is landfills.

In Oklahoma, 37 landfills call the state home, as explained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whereas 2,633 total landfills inhabit the United States and amount to 12 percent of the world’s total municipal solid waste. Across the globe, 92 million tons of clothing textiles end up in landfills annually, meaning one garbage truck of clothing ends up at a landfill every second.

The Environmental Protection Agency reported that 84 percent of clothing ends up in landfills or incinerated, with 70 to 81 pounds of clothing and textiles being thrown away annually, according to the Council for Textile Recycling.

Of that waste, the fashion industry is globally responsible for emitting 2-8 percent of carbon emissions and causing 20 percent of industrial water pollution.

“Clothing fabrics are not good for the environment either,” Logan said. “More water and chemicals are required to process the fabric. All this increases the stress on an already overburdened environment.”

Upon ordering online, consumers receive the package in the mail and likely only wear the garment a few times due to its short lifespan in terms of trendiness and overall quality. After the appeal diminishes, the piece is then donated, recycled or tossed.

“Discarded clothing can be very harmful to the environment, resulting in an increase in fast fashion’s carbon footprint,” Logan said. 

However, the issue of fast fashion does not start with the world’s landfills. The problem begins with the exploitation and mistreatment of workers.

Child labor, defined by the International Labor Organization as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to their physical and/or mental development,” is seeing its first worldwide increase since 2000.

The International Labor Organization explained that from 2000-16, child labor decreased by 96 million children. However, from 2016-20, child labor rose by 8.4 million children, bringing the total child laborers worldwide to 160 million.

Children in fast fashion do more than sew garments. Those employed by the fast fashion industry harvest cotton before spinning, weaving and dyeing the plant until desirable, risking their health in the heat, when operating machinery, and while exposed to the chemicals in dyes.

Following the curation of clothing, advertising and marketing teams appeal to consumers through smartphones and other devices.

“Technology has made it easier to shop multiple sources quickly,” said Ellie Falcone, OU assistant professor of marketing and supply chain management. “(Consumers) enjoy the feelings of scrolling up and down on a website when buying clothes on a mobile phone app.”

Companies, such as Fashion Nova, use social media influencers to advertise their fast fashion, leading consumers to shop the inexpensive items, unaware of the child labor and environmental impacts taking place behind them.

Previously, clothing divided itself into four categories: winter, spring, summer and autumn. Now, consumers shop anywhere via the tips of one’s fingers, resulting in a constantly changing fashion industry and elimination of the traditional seasons of clothing.

“As a consumer, we should resist the temptation to buy these products. Business owners should be aware of the long-term impact of their products,” Falcone said. “I noticed a lot of discussions on social media sites actively promoting the news regarding fast fashion and its impact. I think this is a great approach to educate consumers and business owners.”

With fast fashion showing no sign of decline in popularity, environmentalists will continue to spread awareness about fast fashion’s harm to the environment.

News reporter

Chelsea Rose is a journalism freshman and a news reporter at the Daily. She started at the Daily in the fall of 2022. She is originally from Marlow, Oklahoma.

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