How the fast fashion industry affects people and the planet
By Veronica Warner
From its creation to its destruction, clothing has both an environmental and social impact. Since the 1990s, fast fashion has quickly become the dominant method for clothing production, manufacturing, distribution, and disposal (Wang, 2022). An approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashion, fast fashion provides poor quality clothing that is cheaply made and sold in large quantities in short periods of time (Bick et al 2018). While fast fashion temporarily satisfies our craving to wear the latest trendy clothes, it comes at the expense of the environment and people’s health.
Fast fashion has become a monster of an industry, polluting our air and water. The processing and refining parts of the industry take place in factories and sweatshops located in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). Due to globalization, cheaper labor, and a lack of environmental regulations, a majority of the world’s clothing is produced in LMICs, specifically Bangladesh and China (Claudio, 2007). There, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulate matter, and acid gasses, like Hydrogen Chloride, are released into the atmosphere. High, constant exposure to these chemicals can irritate the lungs, causing shortness of breath and constant coughing. In severe cases, these pollutants can cause chronic or fatal diseases such as lung cancer (UN Environment).
The fast-fashion market also uses a lot of water and produces a lot of waste. In one year, the industry uses 80 billion cubic meters of freshwater and produces huge amounts of wastewater with traces of copper, lead, mercury, and dye chemicals (Choi, 2013). This toxic wastewater is then dumped directly into streams and rivers. Eventually, it leaches into the ground, negatively affecting soil productivity and contaminating the drinkable groundwater (Claudio, 2007). If consumed, this carcinogenic toxic water can cause nearby communities to experience many health issues (UN Environment). Air and water pollution are just two of the many environmental consequences caused by the production and manufacturing phase of the fast fashion industry.
Communities in LMICs are directly exposed to the air and water pollution created from the fast fashion industry, making this environmental issue an environmental justice issue as well. According to the EPA, environmental justice is the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies (EPA).” In LMICs, workers must endure dangerous working conditions, suffer long working hours and are paid very little (UN Environment). They are also exposed to extreme temperatures, dangerous chemicals and machines. As a result, they are put at risk of respiratory, occupations and musculoskeletal hazards. Workers are more likely to have lung disease, cancer, problems with their endocrine function, reproductive issues, injuries, and even die.
To reduce the environmental and social impacts that result from fast fashion, there are many things we can do to make a positive impact. By reducing our consumption of fast fashion clothing and, instead, thrift, mend, or exchange clothes, we can reduce the amount of clothing consumed. Even more, shopping at companies that practice sustainability and do not succumb to greenwashing tactics are key.
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Bick, R., Halsey, E. & Ekenga, C.C. The global environmental injustice of fast fashion. Environ Health 17, 92 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-018-0433-7
Wang, E. (2022, June 22). How fast fashion became faster - and worse for the Earth. The New York Times. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/22/learning/how-fast-fashion-became-faster-and-worse-for-the-earth.html
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