by Matan Josephy, Opinions Editor
photo by Eva Shimkus
On August 9, people across the world woke up to concerning headlines.The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body charged with providing objective information on the state of climate change around the world, issued a report proclaiming a ‘code red’ for global heating. Due to the lack of action from global policymakers and worsening trends around the world, the IPCC declared that humanity is now locked into three decades of extreme climate and weather impacts no matter what we do.
To many, the IPCC’s assessment comes as no surprise. It doesn’t take much effort to realize that evidence of humanity fueling climate change exists on every level of global society. From sweeping policies dictated by governments and actions by multinational corporations to unending aspects of our lives such as our consumption of food, energy and material goods like clothes, elements of contribution to what has become the greatest threat humanity faces are everywhere.
However, there is one crucial caveat to point out: the IPCC report is broadly focused, and the blame for global emissions should not be distributed equally between individuals and corporations.
As has long been the consensus, it is modern power-brokers, corporate giants and economic systems who are the most responsible for the imminent climate-driven floods, droughts, cyclones and population displacements that scientists have been describing for years.
While an explanation of each specific industrial decision that led to this is impossible, what can be examined is how the products of these actions are seen in our daily lives. There is no better example of how the most fundamental aspects of our lives can be used to prop up industries that profit at the expense of our environment than the very clothes that we wear.
Enter fast fashion.
Coined in the late 1990s, the term ‘fast fashion’ refers to the large and ever-growing industry of fashion brands renowned for rapidly adapting and mass producing clothes thought to be currently fashionable. Whether corporate behemoths such as Inditex (Zara’s parent company), Benetton, H&M or today’s Shein dominate the industry, the bottom line stays the same: no matter how much labor exploitation involved or environmental damage caused, the only priority of fast fashion brands is to churn out clothes from catwalks to buyers as rapidly as possible.
With a business model so heavily centered around catering to the clothing considered ‘trendy’ at the moment, fast fashion brands exploit what many market analysts have deemed ‘micro-trends’: rapid weeks to months long cycles of what is popular or not. As clothes continue to rise and sink in popularity more frequently, fast fashion brands are required to mass produce more clothing at a quicker pace, only for it to be thrown out just months after hitting shelves in favor of something new.
The cycle only perpetuates itself, faster and faster. Consumers can now move between styles at an unprecedented pace due to a recurring expectation that suppliers will meet their demands immediately — as suppliers move faster, so do consumers, leading to the immortality of micro-trends.
The result is an overconsumption of clothes unlike anything ever seen in fashion history.
To keep up with the changing trends, consumers have begun buying more clothes even as their actual need stays stagnant. The current global population amounts to just under 133% of that in the year 2000, yet as the World Economic Forum explained in a report just last year, global clothing production has doubled over the past two decades, vastly outpacing population growth. At the same time that clothing production has exploded, the time that people keep the clothes has been cut in half.
However, the ramifications of the rise in fast fashion are far worse than just an increase in waste; the excessive consumption culture that fast fashion promotes has led to extreme consequences for the planet.
The environmental effects of fast fashion are present in virtually every aspect of our planet. Clothing production, even for inexpensive brands, is notoriously resource intensive. As a result, greater consumption of clothes caused by fast fashion leads to critical overuse of vital resources at the planet’s expense.
Take water, for example. An article from the Princeton Student Climate Initiative explains that due to the large volumes needed to produce just a few kilograms of cotton, a key clothing material, the fashion industry consumes nearly a tenth of all industrial-purpose water and produces nearly a fifth of wastewater around the globe. Most of this consumption comes from cloth production alongside textile dyeing, which in turn spills into oceans. With most companies utilizing cheap, outsourced labor in nations with relaxed environmental regulations and Victorian-era working conditions, governments have done little to fix the problem.
Beyond the problem with resource consumption, the worst effects of fast fashion come from the actual clothes themselves. To keep costs low and profit margins high, brands like Shein or Zara often resort to the usage of synthetic fibers. These fibers, including polyester and rayon, can be mass produced for very cheap, proving to be ideal for fast fashion brands keen to cut “unnecessary” spending.
Yet, there lies a persistent issue: synthetic fibers are almost entirely made from fossil fuels and contain large quantities of microplastics. Consequently, brands’ gargantuan demand for synthetic fibers causes billions of tons of greenhouse gases released into the air as these materials are produced. Their ever-shortening life spans result in trillions of microplastics in landfills every year, taking hundreds of years to degrade.
Fast fashion is an industry that has dominated the world of clothing for decades. For many, its brand of cheap clothing that can conform to the ever-shifting demands of modern trends as quickly as they come has become a staple. But behind the glossy logos and constant sales lies a perfect case study in the dangers of putting profits over planet.