That cute top you purchased for less than your morning coffee, wore twice, washed once, and threw away because it fell apart as soon as it hit the washing machine agitator will sit in a landfill, leeching pollutants for up to 200 years.
To put that in context, if fast fashion (and polyester) existed during Susan B. Anthony's lifetime, the dresses she would have worn advocating for women's rights would still be lingering in a Rochester landfill today. It is doubtful Anthony would have supported the murky ethics surrounding fast fashion, but that's beside the point.
In vogue, fast, and ultra-fast fashion—terms referring to the production speed—appeal to consumers because of their low price tags. To the individual, the financial burden is negligible. It may even feel like the responsible choice to buy from sites like Shein, Fashion Nova, or Zara. But in almost every other aspect, this type of clothing comes with a steep price to the planet. The fashion industry accounts for up to 10% of global carbon dioxide output, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
Stacker referenced news and fashion industry reports to break down the general life cycle of fast fashion. Before a polyester blouse is a blouse, it is a nonrenewable, petroleum-based synthetic that is resource-intensive to extract and produce. Garment workers around the world then manufacture it, often working in unsafe conditions and earning well below a living wage. After arriving at its destination via carbon-heavy international shipping, a blouse may serve its intended purpose for a year before spending the vast majority of its life as trash.
Primarily driven by consumers favoring quantity over quality and the rise of online shopping, the fashion industry is responsible for roughly 92 million tonnes of waste a year, the majority of which is either incinerated, dumped in landfills, or worse yet, polluting land, waterways, and coastlines around the world. Americans alone generate 12 times as much clothing waste today as they did in 1960, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Some estimates put the amount of clothing produced yearly to be 14 garments for each person on the planet.
The concept of recycling clothing, which many fast fashion companies have championed to help remedy the industry's wasteful reputation, is largely a myth. Only 1% of discarded garments are reused or recycled into new clothing. The technology and infrastructure necessary to process textile waste do not exist on a scale that can effectively keep up with the pace at which the world generates it.
Fast fashion companies turn tremendous profits despite low prices, low quality, and environmental detriment. Shein was valued at $100 billion in April 2022—more than Zara and H&M combined. Just two years ago, the online retailer was valued at $15 billion—a testament to consumer values that don't necessarily extend beyond their wallets.
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