Fall is in the air, and you know what that means – Black Friday shopping! Americans today are buying more clothes than ever, with the fashion industry reaching global sales of $1.8 billion in 2015.
But although this ‘fast fashion’ may come for a low price on the racks of H&M and Forever 21, the environmental and social costs are monumental.
The problem starts with what these cheap clothes are made of. Polyster has recently surpassed cotton to be the most commonly used textile; this synthetic fiber is petroleum-based and is therefore carbon intensive to produce. Once polyster clothing reaches the consumer, a garment can shed up to 1900 fibers every time it is washed, polluting aquatic systems as treatment facilities are not designed to address microplastics.
Cotton, although natural, is not much better in terms of environmental costs. In addition to being a highly water intensive crop, over 80% of the cotton produced is the U.S. is genetically modified to be “Round-Up Ready”, which means extremely high quantities of this pesticide are sprayed across millions of acres of crops in the southern United States. Although a recycling process for cotton fibers exists, it is expensive and tends to produce subpar textile quality. Cotton fibers are also treated with many chemicals during the manufacturing process, many of which end up polluting drinking water sources in developing areas where clothing is produced.
Which brings us to the actual production of cheap clothes. The global apparel industry produced 150 billion garments in 2010, enough to provide 20 new articles of clothing for every person on the planet. Compared to 15 years ago, we are buying 60% more clothing and keeping it for half as long. Fashion companies have changed their marketing models from winter, summer, spring, and fall lines to introducing 52 microseasons so there’s something new and trendy on the shelves every week. This rapid growth has come hand in hand with deteriorating working conditions in factories in countries like India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia and others. Pushed by the demand for more clothes faster, countries avoid enforcement of their own labor laws and worker safety policies in order to stay competitive.
Even aside from the obvious human rights violations associated with worker conditions in the fashion industry, the environmental costs to the communities in which these clothes are produced are significant. The fashion industry is considered the second most polluting industry in the world, behind only the oil industry. The energy used to run factories and to transport clothes around the world, the toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process, the land and water intensive agriculture practices – these costs add up. Maybe we should think twice about what that $5 dollar price tag really means.
I would also highly recommend the documentary The True Cost if you are interested in this topic.