Fast fashion. Just another one of those things that we know is bad, but keep on doing anyways. Nobody needs a new outfit every week, yet we still find ourselves browsing the stores weekly trying to find the best and cheapest deals. Besides the negative impact that fast fashion has on our environment, it also has a human downside that is usually kept behind closed doors. Maybe you already know exactly what I'm talking about, or maybe this is the first time that you'll read about it. I hope that by the end of this article you will start questioning your shopping habits and be more aware of the consequences of your fashion choices. I hope that this will inspire you to do better. Because we can do so much better. There are more and more alternatives to fast fashion and more brands that are showing us that there is a way to do things the right way. I hope that in the future we can look back and think 'How the hell did we let it get this far?'.
About twenty years ago the fashion industry underwent a major development. Clothes became much more affordable and trends were copied in no time from the biggest runways to your local shopping street. Shopping started to become a kind of hobby. Now fast fashion stores like Primark, H&M, Zara, Forever 21 and Topshop dominate our shopping streets all over the world and a life without online shopping is almost unimaginable. But what is fast fashion exactly? And what kind of effects does it really have on our planet and the people that produce it?
The world got a big wake up call in 2013 when the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, which lead to the deaths of more than 1100 garment workers and left more than 2500 wounded, mostly women and girls. It was then that consumers first started questioning under what circumstances these women worked. What is the real human cost behind our $5 t-shirts?
Under the term fast fashion we understand cheap clothes which are 'on trend', inspired by pieces that are seen on the runway or on celebrities. These trends are then copied as fast as possible and produced at minimum cost. That helps fast fashion companies get these trends in store as fast as possible and for the lowest prices.
Here are a few quick and easy ways to spot fast fashion brands:
Hundreds of new trends each week in store or online
Prices that are too good to be true
Clothing that doesn't look or feel nice after just a few wears/washes
Curious to see how well you're doing on your fashion journey? Check out these quizzes to see how sustainable or ethical you are already shopping!
"You can predict the coming trends of Paris and New York by looking at the color of the rivers in Bangladesh."
Children running around barefoot, swishing chemical wastewater between their toes. Men that work in baths of chemical dyes all day long, without any form of protection for their skin or airways. Cowhides that are processed into leather with strong chemicals, by men with bare hands. Purple wastewater that flows out of the factories into the local rivers and streams. This is the dark reality of the fast fashion industry, where our cheap clothing is ruining our planet. All because we want to hop on the latest trends and refuse to pay more for the clothes we wear daily.
The fast fashion industry is currently the second most polluting industry in the world, right behind the oil industry. I was pretty shocked when I first heard that. From the sourcing of materials such as cotton, to the processing of fabrics, the dyeing and treating of the garments. But also the process that happens after the clothes have been made and used. Mountains of textile waste can lay around for tens of years before it finally decomposes, if not burnt immediately.
In the Dutch documentary-series 'Genaaid', five beginning fashion designers get a look behind the scenes and experience for themselves what happens in the fashion industry. During their confronting trip to Myanmar, they experience the dark side of the fashion world. They get a look into all steps of the process, from cotton picking to working as a seamstress in a sweatshop — and they even spend a day at a leather tannery. Click here to watch the six episodes.
Dyeing fabrics is one of the most polluting processes during the production of a garment. Let's take the Ganges river in India for example. The iconic, historic and religious waterway is now a dead river. Excess paint and dyes from the factories are disposed into this river, which half a billion people rely on every day. Rivers are supposed to be able to regenerate themselves, but it is said that the Ganges is so polluted that it cannot save itself anymore.
A large percentage of all clothing ever made is coloured. A lot of toxic, chemical dyes are used for this step in the process. Studies have shown that these chemicals have even been found as far as the North Pole. Similar toxins have been found in polar bears, who live thousands of miles away from these factories. If polar bears have toxic water, then so do we.
In addition to the all chemicals used to color the clothes, dyeing also uses an extreme amount of water. Let's say we use about 100 liters of water a day to wash our dishes, shower, flush our toilets and drink water. For the production of just one pair of jeans, approximately 7500 liters of water are needed. That is twenty days of our water usage — to make one pair of new jeans. Now consider how many pairs of jeans are in your closet, how many pairs of jeans you see in stores, how many pairs of jeans your friends have at home. Fifteen million pairs of jeans are sold annually in the Netherlands alone. Now consider how much water is needed for the production of all those jeans. All that water is taken from rivers, lakes and underground water reserves, which ultimately leads to extreme water shortages for the local communities and nature in the area.
An abundance of textile waste
Clothing production has more than doubled in the last 15 years. In the same time, the number of times a piece of clothing is worn has decreased by 36%. That means more and more clothing is thrown away faster.
In the US alone, the equivalent of one garbage truck of clothing is taken to a landfill every second. Mountains of clothing are taking over hectares of land in countries like Bangladesh and India. When clothing ends up in a landfill, it can take years before it decays. Your favourite sports bra and yoga leggings? They are probably made from lycra, and that can take 20 to 200 years to completely decay. Those sheer black tights you wear under your skirt during the fall? They will still be laying around in a landfill somewhere in 30 years time. While cloths decay, they leave behind toxic chemicals and dyes that can affect the soil and groundwater.
"Why do we continue to choose the cheapest options, if the consequences end up being expensive?"
To spark some inspiration about what is possible and what some alternatives are to minimise the environmental impact, we'll be looking at the four most common materials and their environmentally friendly alternatives.
Organic cotton is grown in a natural way and therefore without the use of chemicals such as fertilisers or pesticides. It is a softer alternative and also lasts longer than conventional cotton. The most important advantage is that it is better for our ecosystem. Less water is wasted, there is less pollution of land by chemicals and a safer working environment is created for the cotton farmers.
The next step in the production process is dyeing the clothing fabrics. As mentioned earlier, this is usually done with chemical dyes. The sustainable alternative is to dye clothing using natural ingredients such as fruit, plants, vegetables and even pieces of wood that are added to boiling water (I follow @rebeccadesnos on Instagram to see her dyeing proces with plants!). Clothing fabrics are then soaked in hot tea baths and the color automatically seeps into the garment. This process is much better for the environment and above all for the people who work with these natural dyes (can you imagine working in a magical giant tea bath full of flowers and plants?!).
REAL LEATHER VS. Faux leather VS. SUSTAINABLE ALTERNATIVES
If animal welfare is high on your priority list, you'll most likely stay away from real leather. But the reality is that leather is usually a by-product of the meat industry. In addition to the fact that the leather industry affects animal welfare, it also has a major impact on the environment; leather needs to be processed (this is the process of preparing the skin, so cutting off the face and the 'ugly parts', soaking the skin in chemicals, scrubbing the hairs off - shall I continue?).
But then you're probably wondering if artificial leather is the solution? Most faux leather - better known as polyurethane leather - is the fabric most commonly used by fast fashion brands in their faux "leather" jackets and pants. Faux leather is based on petroleum, and yes you guessed it, it is absolutely bad for our environment. So in the end, artificial leather based on petroleum is no better for the environment than genuine leather, it's just as polluting. Now fortunately, these are no longer the only two options.
The two most popular alternatives are Piñatex and Mylo. Piñatex is made from the fibers of pineapple leaves. The pineapple harvest waste is therefore reused, because the leaves are usually not needed anyway - which therefore has a minimal effect on the environment. Mylo is made from the root structure of mushrooms. It can be made in a laboratory and the material is completely biodegradable.
Synthetic fabrics (a.k.a. man-made fabrics a.k.a. not natural) such as nylon and polyester are made of plastic and lead to another well-known environmental problem - microplastics. Not only plastic bags, bottles and straws are responsible for microplastics, garments that are made with synthetic fibres also end up in our oceans. These microplastics end up in the sea through our washing machines, while we wash our clothes.
When you wash clothing with synthetic fibers, small strands of your sweater (containing polyester or acrylic) end up in the water. Because these strands are so thin and small, the filters in our systems cannot catch them before they reach our oceans. Once landed in the sea, it is consumed by plankton, which is then eaten by crabs, which are then eaten by fish and finally by us. That's right, the synthetic fibers in your sweater could eventually end up in your sushi.
To avoid this, you could choose to switch completely to natural materials such as cotton, hemp, wool or silk or at least to buy less synthetic clothing. If you already own clothing that contains synthetic fabrics, you can wash it in a special laundry bag that catches the fibers (also interesting to see how many of them are!) or try to wash those items less often.
Do you want to know more about the effect of synthetic fabrics? Vox explains it clearly in this video:
“Who made my clothes?”
During the production process many different people come into contact with our clothing before it finally reaches our hands in the stores. Unfortunately, it is to be expected that fast fashion also has a human downside.
Human rights and security
Many professions in the fast fashion industry are conducted in developing countries where wages are very low. From the beginning of the process, such as the cotton pickers and tanners to the clothing workers who sew the end product together. The majority of these people work in circumstances that can be considered inhumane. In some cases you can even speak of modern day slavery.
Forced labor, child labor, sexual harassment and dangerous working conditions are very common in the daily life of a garment worker. Female workers mainly suffer from this in sweatshops. They work long days, often ten to fifteen hours a day, in spaces that are not well ventilated and where they have to work much too closely together. They can only go to the toilet once or twice a day because of the high pace in the production line.
The shocking Netflix documentary "The True Cost" gives a glimpse into the effects of fast fashion, but especially into the lives of garment workers. They show how much the workers and the environment suffer from the effects of fast fashion.
Because of the long working days and the heavy circumstances in which they work, their health is also affected. As mentioned earlier, the cotton and leather industry is one of the most dangerous environments for the health of a worker, due to the chemicals and the lack of protection. Many industry workers suffer from respiratory problems and exposure to certain chemicals can even lead to cancer in the worst cases.
A fair wage
In addition to all the circumstances described above, employees are also paid the minimum wage, or in most cases even less. It is not enough to cover their daily, weekly or monthly costs. Some people may wonder, "If the working conditions are so bad and the wages are so low, why do they still choose to work in this industry?". This is because there are not many other job opportunities for women in developing countries. A job in the textile industry is a better option than for example a tough job where you have to work with natural stone all day, or in a household as a maid, because you run the risk of being harassed as a girl.
The major problem of the fast fashion industry is that the consumers are helping to maintain these standards. In a study conducted by Fashion Revolution, it turned out that if we, as consumers, would only pay €1.57 more per shirt, a clothing worker could earn a living wage. Unfortunately, many brands compete with each other to keep their prices as low as possible, putting pressure on the factories and employees.
Do you want to know more about working conditions in the fashion industry? Check out the Fashion Revolution e-book here.
I, as a woman, cannot believe that we are still keeping these standards in place, doing this to other women in our modern times. We are strong modern women. We want to celebrate being a woman and also embrace feminism. But at the end of the day, our interests lie within our own image. What we buy for ourselves to nourish our own image has become more important than the well-being of other women, those who make our clothes.
By asking yourself who makes your clothing, we can strive for more transparency in the fashion industry. The organisation Fashion Revolution has started a movement on social media, where you can place a photo with the label of an item of clothing. You can then ask brands who made your garment and use the hashtag #whomademyclothes. Some brands have already come forward and have shared stories and photos of the workers behind the garments. Now we can actually see the faces behind our clothes, something we usually don't even think about.
"But I really can't live without Zara!"
While I was doing research on this topic, I talked to many of my friends about their shopping habits (mainly in relation to fast fashion). I noticed that almost all of them had the same questions or doubts, so I decided to dedicate a chapter to the most common ones!
"I THINK IT IS AN IMPORTANT SUBJECT AND I'm shocked by THE INFORMATION, BUT I'm
A STUDENT AND Don't have ENOUGH MONEY TO SPEND on better ALTERNATIVES. It's TOO EXPENSIVE FOR ME. Fast fashion is my only option."
Our parents and grandparents grew up in a world without fast fashion. They didn't have the opportunity or necessity to buy cheap clothes in the past, and not as often either. Yet they managed to live well dressed during their youth. They probably went shopping less often and made better informed choices while shopping. They spent a little more money on items of clothing that could last longer and had their clothes repaired or adjusted if things didn't fit well anymore.
Today we live in a world where fast fashion is the norm. In the past people really didn't buy that much. Fast fashion has been presented to us as something that we need and that it is our right to be able to buy cheap clothing, because what if people don't have enough money for anything else?
If you calculated the price per use, you would actually end up even cheaper if you buy genuine quality clothing, not only because it lasts longer, but also because you want to actually keep it for longer. Moreover, people who shop at fast fashion stores are more likely to shop more often. When you walk through a shopping street on a Saturday afternoon, you see people with their hands full of Primark and Zara bags. Are these all people who do not have enough money left to spend on shopping every Saturday? The perception that alternatives are more expensive is therefore generally not true.
Moreover, alternatives to fast fashion do not always have to be expensive. Buying second-hand clothes at vintage stores are usually around the same price as in fast fashion stores. The clothes that you find in these types of stores have already passed the durability test and are therefore also of high quality! A great vintage denim jacket from Levi’s, which you will enjoy for years to come, that nobody else has, and for only € 25! A total win-win-win situation.
"I am ready to take the first steps. WHAT SHOULD I PAY ATTENTION to WHEN MAKING CHOICES DURING SHOPPING?"
The most important thing is to not feel overwhelmed when taking the first steps! I understand that you might feel flustered and have no idea where to begin. Just the fact that you have decided to step away from fast fashion is already the most important mind shift and one of the hardest steps.
You don't have to keep a list with you to remember which brands are good or bad, and you don't have to remember 20 different kinds of fabrics and materials by heart. The first step is simply to buy less. My personal experience is that I stopped buying fast fashion very abruptly. I first saw it as a kind of challenge. "How long can I keep going without buying anything at Zara?"
Afterwards, when I heard what was happening behind the scenes, I could no longer enter these stores with a good feeling. It just didn't feel right to me anymore. I could no longer support these brands as long as they maintained these practices. From that moment on I promised myself that I would never shop at a fast fashion store again. I also unsubscribed from their newsletters and actually just never walked in again. Once you no longer come into contact with it, you almost forget that it exists.
And believe it or not, this decision has saved me a lot of money! I often walked into Zara just to pass some time and usually left the store with some impulsive purchases. But now I only go to the stores when I'm specifically looking for something. Making this decision has really changed the way I now see my clothing.
A fairly easy tip is, if the price tag is too cheap, then it is too good to be true. Someone else pays the (human) price for this. If a new t-shirt only costs four euros, something is wrong. This is just common sense.
The Deliciously Ella podcast featuring Livia Firth; she is the producer behind the impressive documentary "The True Cost". A very interesting podcast if you want to know more about the subject and need the final push to really take your first steps.
Reconnecting to your clothing
With the arrival of fast fashion we have unconsciously lost our connection to our clothing. Some of you may even wonder, which connection? The way we see fast fashion as something quick, easy and disposable is the main reason why people keep buying it.
It has been made so easy for us that we do not even (or hardly) have to make an effort to buy something. Is this the best deal I can find? Is there a discount code that I can use online? Is shipping free? We are spoiled by how easy shopping has now been made for us. We don't want to spend too much time or effort finding the clothes we use every day. But when do we really attach value to something? When do you really feel a connection with an item of clothing? Maybe if you've saved up for a while, worked hard for it, or dreamed of it for a long time. Or maybe it's an item that has been passed down to you from a loved one.
Small neurotransmitters in our brains release a lot of dopamine when we find "a good deal" or buy a new item every week. Not the item itself, but purely the idea of something new or a good deal is what makes us so happy and triggers that feeling in our brains. It's like eating fast food; a huge craving, low price, consumed quickly and then - dissatisfaction.
Are you curious about what fast fashion does with our brains, check out this article from Well & Good.
Ways to give your favourite items some extra love
Great, now you know how to fill your wardrobe with valuable items of clothing! Now it's time to enjoy it for a very long time.
Is something broken? Or does it just not fit nice anymore?
Take it to a tailor to (re)make it or have it tailor-made to fit your body.
Give your items some extra love at home
Use a detergent with your favourite scent. Place bags with dried lavender stems in your wardrobe. Spray some of your favourite perfume all over your clothes. Invest in a nice set of hangers that will not damage your clothes and keep your closet organised.
After wearing your items...
Bring your fall or winter coat to the dry cleaner after you have worn it for an entire season (or bring it just before you plan to wear it again).
Ethical and sustainable brands
Are you ready to explore all the sustainable and ethical brands that produce according to your new values? Check out a few of my recommendations!
This is one of the first brands I came across when I first discovered sustainable fashion two years ago. Back then, topics such as sustainability, ethical processes and veganism were seen as something boring, uncool and, above all, far too expensive. Everlane has been the forerunner of sustainable fashion and is all about transparency when it comes to their production.
Reformation is supported by celebs such as Bella Hadid, Kaia Gerber, Emily Ratajkowski, Taylor Hill and Emma Watson. They started in LA and uses sustainable and recycled fabrics under fair wage conditions. Every item on the site provides insight into the ecological footprint and also where the item was made. Definitely a brand to keep an eye on!
THE CONFIDANTe SPIRITS
Looking for a flowy, relaxed look? The Confidante Spirits is a fairly young brand that focuses on the connection between you and your item of clothing. All of their clothing is ethically made in Bali with ethical working conditions and some items can also be worn in different ways. Many of their tops and bottoms can be worn backwards or tied in different ways to give your outfit a completely new look, which means more value for money!
As mentioned earlier, most fabrics used in fitness clothing, such as polyester and nylon, are not considered environmentally friendly. This makes it difficult to find fitness clothing, because sweating for an hour in cotton leggings does not seem very pleasant. Patagonia wanted to tackle this problem. They work with recycled materials and with Fair Trade certified factories around the world.
The process of making jeans is very polluting and requires a lot of water. Boyish Jeans has chosen to tackle this problem and now produces jeans in an environmentally friendly way. They use about ⅓ of the amount of water from regular denim and they recycle all of their water so that no further water is polluted. They also buy many of their fabrics from dead stock to reuse them as much as possible. Currently, 20% of their products are made from dead stock / vintage fabrics.
Veja is Brazilian for "look". They want you as a consumer to look beyond the sneakers. How are VEJAs made? How much are their employees paid? What chemicals are used in a pair of Veja sneakers? On their site you can explore their project and read everything about their processes. Each product page also contains a description of the types of materials used in the shoes and where they are made.
Start making a change
I believe we can make a positive change if we all take the time to think differently about fashion. Strive for a cleaner, safer, fairer, more transparent and more responsible fashion and textile industry. Fashion should be a force for good, an industry that values people, the environment, creativity and profit equally.
Now it's time for you to go out into the world and bring this new knowledge with you! The fast fashion system must change and that all starts with the choices we make as consumers. Be curious, discover and do something that you fully support!
Do you still have doubts about a brand? Then check the following website: GOOD ON YOU.
Good On You has an interesting series of articles where they analyse different brands for transparency, their impact on the environment, working conditions and animal welfare. Don't have much time to read it all? At the bottom of each article they give all brands a simple rating.
Thanks so much for reading! This is an article that I have been putting together for a while. Originally written in Dutch for my minor in copywriting (you can read it here).
I hope that it was inspiring for you to read! I would love to hear which steps you have already taken, or are planning to take, so feel free to leave those behind in the comments! :-)
Lots of love as always & until next time,