The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, second only to the fossil fuel industry. We live in the era of fast fashion, a business that encourages consumption of low-quality items for low prices. Marketing these clothing items to consumers allows companies to make more money because of how short a life-span these items have. Think of your latest trip to the mall; stores like Forever 21, American Eagle and Zara change their inventory every week, maybe even every day. Each time you enter a store like this, it is never the same: they are constantly bringing in new items of clothing deemed “trendy.”
The reality of this fast fashion method is jarring. In order to keep up with the latest trend, companies deplete natural resources, release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, degrade natural habitats, pollute the air and water and violate human rights. These are steep prices to pay in order to have a new outfit every week.
If we think about fashion, it is inherently unsustainable. The idea that an item of clothing is either “in” or “out” creates insiders and outsiders: those who can afford to fit in and those who cannot. By making fast fashion cheap and accessible to the average consumer, it makes everyone feel like an outsider if they don’t buy the newest trend. This leads to more production, more consumption and more pollution: a feedback loop that causes more harm and degradation to the environment.
While many issues related to the environment feel as though the consumer is powerless, fashion is not one of them. Fashion is an industry that responds to consumer interest. If an item is suddenly deemed fashionable or “in,” suddenly we can find that item everywhere. Once that item is “out,” though, it mostly goes into landfills. There are currently 13 million tons of clothing in U.S. landfills.
The fashion industry is constantly changing and adapting. If consumers suddenly stopped buying new clothes, companies would be scrambling to change their methods in order to sell again. By using consumer power to advocate for improved recycling processes and more humane factories, companies would have to change their methods. This industry is a highly reactive one, and the consumer needs to make a change so that the companies will change as well. By supporting sustainable brands and buying used clothes, many more clothing companies may follow their lead to begin changing their practices as well.
As consumers, we do not need to succumb to fast fashion in order to be fashionable. There are really two options for a consumer that wants to shop for sustainable clothes: buying from sustainable brands or thrift shopping. There are different tools on the internet that consumers can use to determine if a clothing brand is sustainable or not, such as Good On You and Done Good. Additionally, vintage and thrift shopping are becoming increasingly popular, especially among young people. More people now consider it “trendy” to have unique, recycled items that they know no one else will have. Some of my favorite items of clothing I own include a brown suede jacket, a green wool sweater and a pair of Levi’s jeans: all from thrift shops and all under $30. Sustainable doesn’t need to mean expensive. Anyone can participate in sustainable shopping.
It is undeniable that an individual can only do so much. One person vowing to never buy a new article of clothing will not change much; however, if everyone becomes more aware of the companies to which they give their money, it will prompt fast fashion companies to rethink their decisions. The problem is a vast one, but the solution has an easy catalyst: stop buying new clothes from unsustainable brands.
In order to make the fashion industry more sustainable, we need to think about the choices we make. Every morning when you put on your clothes, think about the ecosystems sacrificed and people impacted just to make that item. If you saw the impact in front of your eyes, maybe you would not have bought that t-shirt you will probably wear once and never think about again.
I was watching a TED Talk with a friend recently about creative ways to make the fashion industry more sustainable. The man giving the talk made many suggestions: changing the stitching to recycle easier, using natural dyes on your clothes, composting old items, you name it. My friend reacted with, “or you could just buy less clothes.” While not everybody can just give up buying new clothes altogether, becoming conscious about buying clothes that you don’t need can change the entire fashion industry.
Jillian Kenny, FCRH ’21, is an international studies and environmental studies major from Bridgewater, N.J.