Before the 1990s, nobody had heard of the term “fast fashion.”

The New York Times first used it to describe the clothing brand Zara and the company’s mission to take clothing from the design table to stores in just 15 days.

As society becomes more aware of sustainability practices and taking care of the environment, the term carries negative connotations.

Good On You defines fast fashion as, “Cheap, trendy clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand.”

To understand the depth of the term, Su Yun Bae, a professor in the Apparel Merchandising and Product Development department said, that in order for a store to be considered fast fashion, it has to quickly produce apparel products, frequently change the product assortments, and sell trendy products at very cheap prices in order to get more frequent consumers.

“The prime example is Zara,” Bae said. “The other ones would be H&M, Forever 21. They all struggle to be sustainable economically and environmentally. Those and many other stores are considered fast fashion.”

In theory, fast fashion sounds like a good idea, at least in terms of pleasing the customer. One of the negative effects of fast fashion; however, is its overwhelming presence in landfills.

Andrea Gutierrez, another professor in Apparel Merchandising and Product Development, said that about 55 billion tons of fibers that make clothing are filling landfills, and that it’s the second largest landfill polluter.

“It’s the second leading industry next to oil that’s causing this much damage to the environment. That’s pretty alarming,” she said. “There’s just no sustainability. Right now, we are very conscious of sustaining and reusing and recycling or at least we should be. And that would not be purchasing fast fashion.”

Aside from polluting landfills, fast fashion is also polluting the air. In countries where this fast fashion is produced, the air around and inside these factories is very poor, according to Holly Meyers, a professor in the Earth Environment and Society.

“Both cotton and polyester, which are the two textiles used most in fast fashion, they both create dust in the air, which can be taken into the lungs,” she said. “It’s bad. It’s really bad for your respiration. It’s called White Lung Disease.”

She said fast fashion is actually an environmental injustice because it’s effects are mainly felt in low to middle income countries.

“In many of these lower to middle income countries, they don’t have the kind of wastewater treatment facilities that we have, so the dyes end up in the water system,” Myers said. Many of the dyes also contain heavy metals and other contaminants.

According to Myers, the textiles themselves also end up in the water, and make up for an alarming percentage of 35% of micro plastics in our water.

Microplastics in Water Graph

To clean up the environment, humans need to make a change in terms of how they consume, sustain, and dispose of clothing. For this, Professor Gutierrez offers multiple ways consumers can start to make that change.

Gutierrez said a website called “The Good Trade,” lists numerous stores people can shop from to buy ethical and sustainable clothing. The website also gives other information to shop more sustainably.

Gutierrez also explained the “30 Wear Rule.” She said, “If you don’t think you’re going to wear an item at least 30 times, don’t buy it.”

This rule promotes the concept of buying more clothing with a much greater wearing longevity rather than quick trends and clothing that will only be worn a handful of times.

As for disposing of clothes, Gutierrez said to always opt for thrift stores such as Goodwill or Salvation Army as donation sites, rather than just throwing clothes away. This way, others can utilize unwanted clothing and the pieces don’t end up in a landfill or the water. 

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