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The Fiction of Sustainable Fast Fashion


BY: Emily Thom


In light of society’s ever-growing consciousness towards sustainability, fashion retail giants are getting on-trend with ambitious commitments to the environment. H&M implemented an in-store textile recycling program that encourages its customers to donate unwanted garments in exchange for a 15% store discount. Zara vows to manufacture its clothing using exclusively 100% sustainable fabrics by 2025. Moreover, the recent downfall of popular fast-fashion retailer Forever 21 in Canada seemingly points to a more sustainable future in the fashion industry. However, the reality of such self-proclaimed “sustainable” clothing retailers is far from this.

According to Australian non-profit Good On You, the term “fast fashion” refers to cheap, trendy clothing that is manufactured at a rapid pace in order to meet consumer demands for the latest looks from the catwalk and celebrity culture. Herein lies the contradiction with so-called “sustainable” fast fashion brands: an industry dependent upon unethical consumption habits cannot partake in more sustainable manufacturing practices. Within the fashion industry, sustainability encompasses ecosystems, resources, and human labour. Therefore, without reducing the vastly unsustainable number of garments produced annually, fast fashion retailers simply cannot be eco-friendly. For reference, the London Sustainability Exchange reports that approximately 80 billion pieces of clothing are produced annually, creating 15 million tonnes of textile waste in the United States alone. 

The fashion industry as a whole is extremely harmful to the environment. The University of Manchester found that the industry accounts for 10% of global pollution, making it the second-largest industrial polluter after aviation. Besides the shocking 92 million tonnes of waste produced annually, the fashion industry also consumes 1.5 trillion litres of water globally. In fact, a single pair of jeans requires approximately 2000 gallons of water, according to the U.N. Environment Programme

As for the garments that are inevitably discarded after season’s end, the CBC reports that 85% of unwanted textiles in North America ultimately collect in landfills. This fact debunks the marketing scheme by retailers, namely H&M, that promotes the recycling of old garments into new pieces. In reality, less than 1% of clothing is actually recycled, says author and environmentalist Elizabeth Cline. Instead, used clothing is exported to developing countries in bulk to be sold anew, but often end up being thrown out or even burned. For instance, Canada exported more than 160 million dollars’ worth of used textiles globally in 2016, according to the CBC. Much of these garments were either too damaged to be sold or of such poor quality that they weren’t worth purchasing. 

In addition, in terms of manufacturing, human labour within the fashion industry is scarcely sustainable. These self-proclaimed “sustainable” fast fashion brands outsource the production of their garments to developing countries where human rights abuses are largely overlooked due to lax local labour laws and poor enforcement of working standards, if any. Workers are subjected to unsafe working conditions while earning grossly inadequate wages for the long hours of repetitive tasks they complete. An article published by the Business of Fashion on the topic reveals that “the fashion industry has struggled for years to tackle child labour and modern slavery within its supply chain, which remains complex and opaque.” This is yet another area where fast fashion is inherently flawed in its pursuit of a more sustainable business model. 

On the whole, the inauthentic sustainability efforts by fast fashion retailers reflect the bigger issue at play in the growing movement to save the planet: consumerism. There is not a single multinational corporation that can realistically combat climate change without addressing the developed world’s culture of overconsumption. It is not a matter of just tweaking the fast fashion business model to embrace eco-friendly materials and recycling, but rather of actively reducing our consumption of goods. The Earth’s future depends on it, after all. 



*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.

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